Seventeen years ago, Richard Toussaint, black man of Harlem, educated in its schools and schooled in the effects of society’s indifference, sat down at a kitchen table and sketched a plan for a waterfront park.
Back then, Toussaint’s vision was to turn a strip of abandoned land along the Harlem River between 125th and 145th streets into a slender haven for the people of mostly black and Latino East Harlem. On plain paper, he traced spots for trees and benches, for a railing to keep the public from falling into the river, for security booths complete with electric fans and floor heaters. Most importantly, he drew a narrow route, some of it in blacktop and some in wood planking over a steel frame, and labeled it a “jogging path.”
One look at heavily industrial East Harlem today makes plain that neither the government nor outside do-gooders have much cared whether families here have nice parks to play in. But that jogging path happened to fit with an emerging movement in New York City, one that sought to reclaim the waterfront for people on foot, or skates, or bikes. What Toussaint called a jogging path, the movement called a greenway. They saw in it a link to greenways proposed for the more prosperous sections of Manhattan’s waterfront, part of the car-free route they hoped would one day ring the entire island. And thus did Toussaint’s park, first designated as the North-East Harlem/El Barrio River Esplanade, begin its tortured, halting journey to its present form: a parched scrap of land with a bike path stretching all of seven blocks, frequented by the homeless and apparently few others, clipped at one end by a lengthy federal permitting process, and at the other by the city sanitation department’s mountain of salt and by plans to refurbish the Harlem River bridges.
At the age of 63, Toussaint remains a tall man, broad through the shoulders and fit. White hair, clipped short, sneaks beneath the back edge of his baseball cap. In his youth, Toussaint spent time in the theater, and he still has the booming, formal voice to prove it. Striding across Madison, he carries a two-foot plastic pointer.
Toussaint likes some of what he sees on the site, now called the Harlem River Park Walk. He shows off the kids’ sprinkler area, tiled in an African motif. Here is where the bathroom, the comfort station, will go, if the permits and funding ever line up. Here are the bins for garbage. “You can see it’s really clean,” he says. “We got our cans and stuff like that.” Except for a few teenagers on a bench, there’s no one else here.
At the southern edge of the park, Toussaint reaches the end of the bike path to nowhere, its final few feet blocked off by a chain-link fence. Some 11 years after Toussaint submitted his hand-drawn plans to the community board, another plan was quietly taking shape, one that dwarfed his in scale and in government backing.
This plan came from the New York City Department of Transportation, which had grown concerned that the Harlem River bridges were starting to falling apart. By June 2000, a year before work started on Toussaint’s amateur blueprints, the Department of Transportation was well into the design phase of a scheme to fix up all nine bridges, five of which cross some portion of Toussaint’s park. When East Harlem dignitaries cut the ribbon on the park’s first section, on November 8, 2002, they celebrated in view of barren DOT land to the south that remained off-limits to them. A few months later, the parks department fenced off that area, and in 2004, a contractor put up a yet wider, stronger barrier.
The idea, the DOT had told them, was to reserve the land between 125th and 132nd streets as a staging area for heavy equipment. The community would eventually get access to that part of the park, and a connection to the existing greenway, but not until the bridge work was through—a long, long time.
“They’re telling us it’ll be 2016,” says Toussaint, rattling his pointer against the fence. “I’ll probably be dead and in my grave by then.”
Over and over, Toussaint and his allies have asked for an interim path. And over and over, the answer has been the same. “We have to wonder, is there a question of racism?” he says. “Why are we being told no?”
Supporters of the park had hoped the new DOT commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, would find some quarter for people on bikes or on foot. The former commissioner, the car-friendly Iris Weinshall, deferred to an engineering contractor’s opinion that you just couldn’t make a safe path through a work site. Sadik-Khan, by contrast, so loves alternative transportation that after being appointed in April, she almost immediately took a trip to Copenhagen to study that city’s revolutionary facilities for walkers and cyclists. She has called bicycles “the backbone of our city’s transportation system.”
Might Sadik-Khan find a few feet for an interim path, just as the state allowed for an interim path on the Hudson River in the 1990s, when it rebuilt the West Side Highway?
The answer from the new boss is the same as from the old boss: no. Sadik-Khan declined an interview on the subject, leaving her staff to talk about the influence of the “bridge guys” on the commissioner’s thinking. Apparently, they’re tough to convince when it comes to providing for alternative transportation—especially, the staff says, for bikes. That goes double for bikes in a construction zone.
DOT staffer Molly Gordy said how sorry the commissioner was. Gordy forwarded a letter from Hardesty & Hanover, dated March 28, 2007, in which the engineering firm spent three and a quarter pages explaining to the DOT why the community’s latest request for an interim bike path just couldn’t work: heavy equipment, double shifts on Sundays, parking for contractors, and so on. “Even a modest reduction in the width of the staging area would cause a dramatic reduction in the useable space in the staging area,” wrote engineer Charles J. Gozdziewski.
Interviewed on July 17, Gordy said Con Ed would start operations on the site in a few days, followed in August by the DOT. The letter she provided mentions a five-year period of construction, raising the possibility of public access by 2012. That might lessen the blow for East Harlem—except that people there have waited five years already for any sign of meaningful work on the other side of the fence.
Thomas Lunke, a state planner who has worked on the park project since 1999, says the lack of potential for upscale development near Toussaint’s greenway may be the greatest impediment to its completion. Harlem River Park Walk wouldn’t serve people coming to buy sparkling new condos, but rather a bunch of poor and aging people who already live there. “I don’t know whether that’s a priority for this administration or any administration,” Lunke says.
But it’s a priority for Toussaint, and it should be a priority for anyone who cares about a greenway around Manhattan. Except for the detour around the United Nations and the DOT staging area, this East Side route is nearly complete. Directly south of the big salt pile, a handful of homeless people sleep in the sand under tarps anchored to a cement wall. A few yards south of them, the older greenway starts up, with grass, trees, and fishermen. It’s so close, this southward link to the rest of Manhattan, and so completely out of reach.