Earlier this week, the New York Public Library released to the public nearly 187,000 free images. Searching in the database for materials on New York City’s hidden waterways, there is plenty to see and it will take time for me to select images that are worth sharing on my topic.
It’s in the Boogie Down Borough, but where?
The photographer was none other than the legendary Camilo Jose Vergara, who documented the demise of the Bronx in The New American Ghetto, a book published in 1995, just as the borough was beginning its revival, a gradual awakening from a 25-year decline that brought a wholesale abandonment to the southern half of the borough. In this copyrighted image, a young boy looks at the Bronx River, in a pose reminiscent of a Caspar David Friedrich painting.
Where could this be?
The landscape is barren and the river appears devoid of life. Identifying the location of this Vergara masterpiece was not easy. The points of reference provided are the elevated train trestle and antenna in the background, the theater and apartment building on the far right; and two bridges over the river that closely parallel each other.
The Location solved:
In 1970, three subway trestles crossed the river: at Gun Hill Road (Third Avenue El, demolished in 1973); above Boston Road (2, 5 trains); and above Westchester Avenue (6 train). As the last of these runs on a very high elevation above the water, that leaves us with Boston Road.
The antenna in the photo indicates either a radio station, fire relay tower, or train yard. The only antenna near the Bronx River is the historic FDNY Communications Dispatch Office at 1120 E. 180th Street. The tree-covered hilltop to the left of the antenna is Bronx Park.
The narrow channel of the river puts it at a location between 180th Street and 174th Street in the West Farms neighborhood. The bridge is East 177th Street entering the Sheridan Expressway (aka Interstate 895), one of the city’s shortest highways.
The Location today:
If that young boy were to return to the site of the 1970 photograph, he would be standing amid thick vegetation planted over the years through the restoration efforts of numerous civic groups, such as Rocking the Boat, Sustainable South Bronx, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Partnerships for Parks, and the Bronx River Alliance. On the stretch of the river south of 180th Street, a series of new parks lines its shores. They include Starlight Park, Concrete Plant Park, Hunts Point Riverside Park, and a reconstructed Soundview Park.
What can be said about the same view of the Bronx River today from a location that’s a few feet south of where Vergara took his shot? Just one thing. The Bronx is beautiful.