When it comes to reborn and repurposed New York City infrastructure of considerable height, the High Line may have the crowds but the Harlem River-spanning High Bridge has the history — rich, empire-building history that predates the Big Apple’s erstwhile elevated railway by nearly 100 years and every single other standing bridge in the five boroughs, the Brooklyn Bridge (1883) included. And now that it’s back open to pedestrian and bike traffic for the first time in over 40 years, High Bridge is sure to garner sizable crowds of its own.

While many have come to know High Bridge as a closed-off, long-forgotten relic straddling the Harlem River at a dizzying 123 feet, when completed in 1848, the structure played a pivotal role in the development of a rapidly growing metropolis.

After all, High Bridge wasn’t constructed just as a pre-borough foot bridge but as a vital section of the Old Croton Aqueduct. This 19th century feat of engineering supplied fresh water to New York City’s reservoirs via a complex and largely underground gravity-fed tube system that originated 41 miles north of city at the Croton River in Westchester County. As water gushed high above the Harlem River along the southernmost mainland portion of the aqueduct, it first entered Manhattan via High Bridge's walkway-covered pipes.

After passing along the 1,450-foot-long stone arch bridge built to resemble and function like an ancient Roman aqueduct, the water system went back underground and continued along the west side of Manhattan until it reached the 20 million gallon capacity Croton Distributing Reservoir, a massive manmade lake-cum-fortress — and super-fashionable 19th century hang-out spot for New Yorkers — that towered high above the city where Bryant Park and the main branch of the New York City Public Library now stand.

New York's High Bridge reopens to pedestrians

The just-reopened High Bridge links Highbridge in the Bronx with Washington Heights in Manhattan. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A historical image of High Bridge, NYC

For decades, High Bridge was both a place to see and be seen and a crucial part of NYC's water supply system. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Thanks in part to High Bridge, the island of Manhattan was introduced to the wonderful world of indoor plumbing and modern sewer systems. It was a bridge that quite literally changed everything.

In 1928, the five massive arches that cross the Harlem River were replaced with a single arch steel span to better accommodate boat traffic on the increasingly congested river below. Ten of the original masonry arches still stand on the Bronx side of the bridge while a single stone arch remains on the Manhattan side.

More than 100 years after it was first completed and nearly 20 years later after undergoing a major structural overhaul, High Bridge was taken out of water-supplying service. That same year, 1949, the iconic High Bridge Water Tower (aka the Tower That First Enabled Manhattanites to Flush Their Toilets ) was also decommissioned and the adjacent 7-acre reservoir was converted into a public swimming pool.

In the following years, High Bridge remained open to foot traffic although the bridge’s view-heavy walkway — once a “parade route for fashionistas of the day" and a sort of proto High Line — fell into a state of serious neglect.

The passage — a vital pedestrian route between Manhattan and the Bronx, a promenade, really, and the only pedestrian bridge linking Manhattan to the continental mainland — was overrun by vandals and mischief-makers who threw projectiles at boats traversing the increasingly polluted river below. Meanwhile, Robert Moses-era (read: non-pedestrian-friendly) transportation projects such as the Harlem River Drive and I-95's Alexander Hamilton Bridge began to dominate the once-sleepy Harlem River Valley. Within a short time, High Bridge was considered both dangerous and obsolete. 

New York's High Bridge reopens to pedestrians

High Bridge looking toward the landmark High Bridge Water Tower at West 173rd Street. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York's High Bridge reopens to pedestrians

New Yorkers make their way across High Bridge from the Bronx to Highbridge Park in Manhattan. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The bridge was eventually closed to the public in the early 1970s.

Last week, following the completion of a $61.8 million restoration project that kicked off in 2012 under the Bloomberg administration, High Bridge once again opened for business. At long last, New Yorkers were able to do something they hadn’t been able to do in decades: easily walk or bike from Manhattan to the Bronx or vice versa.

Of course, there are other ways for New Yorkers to travel between Manhattan and the Bronx. But none — subways, buses, traffic-choked vehicular bridges like the University Heights Bridge and the Washington Bridge — provide the scenic and easy-breezy pedestrian shortcut between boroughs that High Bridge does.

The newly reopened bridge also offers an additional level of safety, as pointed out by Councilman Fernando Cabrera in a news release issued by the office of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr: “Following a series of tragedies in which pedestrians and cyclists have been killed or injured, resurrecting this historic bridge is a very practical measure, as it will facilitate safe passage between boroughs for non-drivers. The creation of additional green space and a tourist attraction in our borough are extra perks.”

New York's High Bridge reopens to pedestrians

Several of High Bridge's original stone arches remain on the Bronx side of the former aqueduct. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A historical image of High Bridge, NYC

An illustration of High Bridge prior to its renovation in the late 1920s. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Adds Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer: "In a city that offers us nearly everything, the restored High Bridge is a rare first: the only interborough bridge reserved just for pedestrians and bikes. It’s a beautiful structure that will offer visitors from both sides of the Harlem River green space, recreational facilities, and amazing views.”

While parks can be found on both the Manhattan and Bronx sides of High Bridge, park-bound foot traffic has historically flowed more heavily from the hilly, predominately Puerto Rican Highbridge section of the Bronx to Manhattan's largely Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood. After all, the latter is home to the spectacular, cliff-side Highbridge Park. At 119 acres, this perennially popular park is considerably larger (along with ballfields and extensive walking and biking trails, the aforementioned reservoir-turned swimming pool is a top attraction) than its Bronx counterpart — “a small park with benches and tables that runs alongside University Avenue” — and ensures that foot traffic will continue to flow in the same direction as it traditionally has: out of the Bronx. 

"The Manhattan side has a lot of resources,” explains Highbridge resident and father Jose Gonzalez to the Wall Street Journal. “What is amazing is we are going to have a green area over the river, which will give access to nature to children in the Bronx, which is missing in children’s lives.” Notes Elliott Ray, another Highbridge resident: "I think it’s going to be beautiful. I can picture this being a strange umbilical cord in a way.”

NYC's High Bridge, reopened to pedestrians for the first time in 40 years

High Bridge straddles the Harlem River at 123 feet. The safety fence is a new addition. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

An 1849 watercolor painting of High Bridge

Fanny Palmer's 1849 watercolor painting of the just-constructed High Bridge. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

There’s also a growing movement to build up much-needed green space along the isolated and largely industrial Bronx waterfront. Supporters of a redeveloped Bronx waterfront hope that foot and bike traffic will one day flow in equal directions across High Bridge between the two re-connected communities of Washington Heights and Highbridge as Manhattan residents flock en masse to check out Bronx's new waterfront parks.

For now, the new and improved High Bridge (the original brick walkway and antique railings have been repaired and restored while new architectural lighting and a mesh safety fence have been added) is a destination within itself, regardless of what amenities or neighborhoods are on either end of it. The fact that there’s a killer park on the Manhattan side is just an added bonus.

In a bridge-heavy city that’s notably short on dedicated bike and pedestrian bridges, the reopening on New York’s oldest and perhaps most historically significant span is reason to celebrate — and to put on those walking shoes.

High Bridge is open daily from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

Via [The New York Times], [WSJ]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.