October 09, 2008

Feeling a Little Unstable

After all the travelling I've been doing lately, I decided to be a tourist in my own town this weekend by diving head-first into Open House NY, an annual event that gives public, free access to areas of the city that are seldom visited or even open at all. With a focus on architecture and history, OHNY often features tours of NYC's hidden treasures that excite my inner urban explorer.

This year I decided to take a tour of the Old Croton Aqueduct, a manmade gravity-fed pipeline that's out of commission now but once was the only way that the city could get fresh water. I'd visited the High Bridge Water Tower in the pouring rain with James and Dan a couple years ago, and looking out over the Harlem River which I guess I didn't even really realized existed, I made a mental note to check out the rest of the system.

You wouldn't even really know it's there. I'd taken the 4 train to the Bedford Park Blvd station in the Bronx and wandered past the Grand Concourse rail yards to the Jerome Reservoir to meet my group, and we quickly headed down to the Aqueduct Walk (technically a city park), through Kingsbridge and its armory which anachronistically looks like a big French castle. But after crossing some big intersections and getting some weird looks from the locals, you reach a tree-lined ridge marked by a sign, and suddenly you're walking six feet above a brick underground tunnel, created by a cut-and-cover method. It's maintained by the City Parks department but only in terms of cleaning up trash, collected by young Latina girls in tight jeans and short jackets. The rest of it is falling down, the side walls that hold up the ridge crumbling from the overgrown tree roots bursting through them.

It was 19th Century New York and present day Bronx all at once.

They're trying to redo a bunch of the parks and playgrounds up there and draw attention to the historical water line, but there are still sections you can't get to, which were of course the most interesting to me. As we proceeded further to the Bronx / Manhattan border, we came upon the Holy Grail of the Aqueduct Walk: High Bridge, the city's oldest bridge, likely unstable, with rusted railings, both entrances padlocked and barbed wired.

High Bridge used to be the crossroads of a major resort area in New York, where kids would descend an oramental staircase down to a reservoir and a nearby racetrack, and spectators would stand on the bridge and watch all the activity below. But the Navy had to replace a couple of the bridge's arches so their boats could get through, and with the coming of the highway and the railyards below, the area began to take on its current character. The ornamental staircase is still there but barely holding up, with lots of graffiti and big holes in the sidewalk that your foot could go right through.

But you can look up at that big old bridge and imagine the Harlem River as a gateway to a very green Bronx.

We crossed the river on the Washington Bridge, whose ornamental stone railings are now covered with several feet high of chainlink fence to prevent the jumpers from meeting their fate off the side, all the while keeping High Bridge Water Tower's summit in view in the distance.

Reaching the end of our tour but not the end of the Aqueduct (which actually reaches its conclusion under what's now the New York Public Library), I apparently hadn't had enough walking because I took the tram to Roosevelt Island for one more walking tour. Once again I was treading familiar ground, having first visited the strange island in the pouring rain to see the old lunatic asylum The Octagon, which at the time was under construction to be converted into luxury housing. Now it's open and fully operational, occupied by rich kid after rich kid, all young professionals whose parents can apparently afford to pay $2000/month for a studio apartment that's very likely haunted.

I also got to see Lighthouse Park at the northern tip of the island, but I had to come back the next day to see my #1 must-see locale for the weekend: the old abandoned smallpox hospital.

You can see the smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island's Southpoint at night from the FDR, all lit up and spooky and inviting. But it's actually under pretty strict security, the grounds having been closed to the public altogether in 2002 and then recently reopened with limited access, often prohibited because of events directly across the East River like the UN General Assembly.

I was hoping for roofless ruins rising up against a blue sky, solitary and abandoned, but what I found was an active construction site, with trucks and scaffolding and plenty of recent work towards stabilizing the structure (though still apparently in imminent danger of collapse). I guess I would have relished it more without the construction, but the stabilization means that maybe one day I'll actually be able to walk among the overgrowth, through the gneiss-lined outer doorways into the crumbly brick interior (which people were able to do as recently as 2006, as seen in some of their YouTube videos).

As I peered through the fence that surrounds the entire ruins, trying to get shots from every angle, I heard lots of sounds from inside, imagining flocks of birds and various nests of other animals who will be driven out by the construction. Or was it a ghost or two I heard, still wandering the hallways, looking for a way out, denying their ultimate fate?

I've been wanting to visit the smallpox hospital for a long time now and it looks like I may have waited a little too long, but at least I got there. Now I've just got to figure out how to get to the typhoid hospital on North Brother Island.

For more OHNY '08 pics, click here.

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