Industrial Past to Greener Future

A plainclothes man shows the force required to move the railroad switches in a photo taken sometime between 1939 and 1940. High Bridge can be seen in the far distance on the left. Photo courtesy of The War of Yesterday

The Mott Haven section of the Harlem River waterfront is at a turning point where long-cherished visions of green space and public access could become a reality at last.

Indignation over pollution, abysmal air quality and inattention to the needs of a poor neighborhood have brought the area to the brink of reinvention. A host of independent organizations, state associations, and activists are pushing for the area to be revitalized.

But even though heavy industry disappeared almost a century ago, yielding to light industry that could be compatible with the greening of the waterfront, the commercial development of recent years poses a new obstacle and raises the question why Mott Haven, a predominantly minority and very poor neighborhood, has fallen behind as the city moves to transform waterfronts in neighborhoods across New York.

“The South Bronx has always been one of the more poorly represented areas in the city,” said Chauncy Young, a member of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. “There is a lot less money, and a lot less influence.”

“There’s no reason why industry can’t be compatible with green space. There’s absolutely no reason.” — Neil Pariser

The neighborhood, long hemmed in by highways and railroad tracks, has been through several industrial incarnations. “Now we’re at the end of that cycle,” said Neil Pariser, until recently the vice president of the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation. “There’s no reason why industry can’t be compatible with green space. There’s absolutely no reason.”

The industrial cycle began two centuries ago, when Jordan Mott established an iron foundry on what became the Mott Haven Canal at 134th Street and ushered an era of industry into a region of farmland.

The industry Mott brought to Mott Haven yielded wealth for the neighborhood and the borough. Mott’s foundry made most of Manhattan’s manhole covers, as well as part of the dome for the U.S. Capitol. It brought other manufacturers in.

“In 1900, you had industry all over the place,” said Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx’s official historian. “You had a terminal for the Erie railroad. Where the original Yankee Stadium is was a lumber yard. Just south of Fordham Road, there was a facility that built boats.”

Because so many products at that time came to Manhattan by water, waterfront development was synonymous with industry: It just made sense to have centers of commerce stationed where ships and barges could reach them. Those factories and production facilities spat industrial byproducts like lead and asbestos into the river and into the nearby soil.

During the middle part of the 20th century, city planner Robert Moses built major highways, including the Major Deegan and Bruckner expressways, to accommodate growing automobile traffic. Recreational activities such as boat races and rowing existed until the last boathouse at Sherman Creek burned down in 1978.

Heavy industry moved out and made way for lighter facilities, part of a citywide trend away from manufacturing in the five boroughs. The Harlem River Rail Yard, at the southern tip of the Bronx,  had been around since the mid- to late 1800s, but the property fell into disrepair as trucks slowly supplanted freight trains as a common use of transport. The decline continued until plans for renewal emerged in the late 1970s. Fifteen years later, the state leased the property as a rail yard to a developer, the Galesi Group, for 99 years.

“Since the lease was signed in 1993, nobody has included any waterfront plan because of the 99-year lease,” said John DeSio, chief spokesman for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

At the same time, the state decided to build a rail shortcut into the yard – cutting off most of Mott Haven from the river itself. Called the Oak Point Link, the 1.9-mile project aimed to make way for trains too long to navigate the original zig-zag route south through the Bronx and into Manhattan, and proponents suggested that low emissions from trains would reduce air pollution. After 20 years of negotiation and construction, the Oak Point Link opened in 1998 at a cost of nearly $200 million.

But critics say that the underused rail now serves only as an eyesore and as a physical obstacle preventing change and access to the waterfront.

The state Department of Transportation says at least one train runs on the track each day; according to a 2005 report from the City University of New York, there are no more than three per day. The traffic includes one train that carries garbage from a mammoth waste-transfer station to an out-of-state landfill.

Activists like Young say the link failed to divert truck traffic and is instead using up valuable waterfront. According to a study last June, the vision of a thriving freight-rail link through the Bronx to Long Island has become a pipe dream.

Bronx Terminal, Central Railroad of New Jersey, 1938. Photo courtesy of Tim Warris

“The fact that the Harlem River Yard, which was designed and built to accommodate container traffic, and which opened in 1998, has never had a container lifted there supports this assertion,” said the study, by the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems, funded in part by the state and federal governments.

Beside the rail, the Mott Haven section of the Harlem River waterfront contains a mix of light and commercial industry. The rail yard is becoming more of a distribution center for companies that rely on the road. FedEx processes packages.

The New York Post has a full-color printing and distribution facility, and its parent company, News Corporation plans to begin printing The Wall Street Journal there as well. FreshDirect, the on-line food distributor, is slated to build its new headquarters here; it will include a grocery facility, a satellite truck facility, and a 10,000-square-foot parking lot to house the company’s vehicles. Though none of these sites processes iron, developments in the Harlem River Yards “place disproportionate impact of diesel truck traffic running in and through the South Bronx,” New York City council members Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Melissa Mark-Viverito recently wrote in a letter to the state Department of Transportation calling for a state audit of the 99-year lease with the city.

Despite the ongoing issue of truck emissions, in 2011, the operator of the Harlem River Yard won an Economic Development Award from the Big Apple Brownfield Awards that recognized its efforts to clean up some of the contaminants that polluted the area. Not only did removing the pollutants make the land more useful, the process helped companies like FedEx and the New York Post set up or expand facilities that would create more jobs and boost the economy. The FreshDirect proposal estimates that construction and operation of the new facility will create 620 jobs.

But the continuing presence of any kind of industry, even relatively pollutant-free industry, not only takes up a lot of the space that might be used to expand the waterfront but also pollutes the surrounding area with emissions from the trucks that transport the goods.

A proposal for a greenway that runs the length of the waterfront—championed by the Harlem River Working Group and the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality—envisions how a pleasant, usable Harlem River might coexist with the industrial waterfront. The project would enact the recommendations set forth in the 1993 Greenway Plan for New York City, an ambitious effort that identified a vast network of bicycle and pedestrian paths throughout the city and has already been implemented in some boroughs.

As a new vision for the waterfront forms, the specter of gentrification inevitably emerges. Local leaders worry that a beautified neighborhood will lead to current residents being priced out, said Young.

“Should we leave the South Bronx torn up because that will keep people from living there?” he said. “That’s not likely. People have been moving here for quite some time, because Manhattan has become unaffordable.”

with Colin Weatherby