Starlight Park, Bronx

Among the recent parks completed on the tidal section of the Bronx River is one reminiscent of a Madonna song, new and at the same time with a history that includes a stint as an amusement park and a failed World’s Fair. Starlight Park occupies a narrow space between the Bronx River and Sheridan Expressway, with the 174th Street Bridge crossing over the park.

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It is at once a calm space by the river that abuts two expressways in the densely populated center of the borough.

Where it Is

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Starlight Park is a link on the Bronx River Greenway, a series of connected (and almost-connected) parks lining the river from source to mouth. The section of Bronx River north of 180th Street includes the sizable Bronx Park, with its zoo and botanical garden. In contrast, the section to the south of 180th Street has been historically underserved by parks and has been the most polluted reach of the waterway. The creation of new parks in this section seeks to improve the condition of the river and enhance the quality of life for residents of surrounding communities.

I’ve passed by this park numerous times when sitting in traffic on the notorious Cross Bronx Expressway, curious about its name and whether it is an effective park, with the constraints of its location.

174th Street Bridge

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Utilitarian but also fanciful in the forms of its painted steel structure, the East 174th Street Bridge does not need to rise from either of its landings as it crosses a valley through which Bronx River flows. Most of his bridge runs above land, crossing a highway, a railway, and Starlight Park. Its design and paint bears some similarity to Manhattan Bridge and the elevated subway lines of the Bronx. The bridge opened in 1928 during the Jimmy Walker mayoralty.

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Beneath the bridge, the river flows slowly and quietly. The water is fresh but nearly at sea level. Less than a mile downstream, it becomes brackish and then salty. It certainly isn’t ideal to swim in it, but in the years between 1921 and 1940, it had a pool and a sunbathing beach by the river, when Starlight was the Bronx’s answer to Coney Island. At the time, the borough also had another smaller amusement park in Soundview. During the Second World War, the northern section of the park served as a truck parking facility that later became a bus depot. The rest of the park lay abandoned.

Transformed landscape

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In partnership with the state Department of Transportation, the vacant park and its lightly used soccer fields were transformed into a new park that includes a playground, soccer field, bike path, and a new pedestrian bridge across the Bronx River.

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The bridge carries the Bronx River Greenway into the park. Looking north, one can see a highway pillar in the middle of the river, built for a highway ramp that was never completed.  It can also be seen from the eastbound Cross Bronx Expressway looking south.

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Sheridan Expressway

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Returning to the earlier photo of East 174th Street Bridge, we see it crossing above Sheridan Expressway. That lone pillar in the river was intended to connect with this highway. Like many of New York’s great public works, the Sheridan Expressway is unfinished.  Designed to connect the Bruckner Expressway in Hunts Point to the New England Thruway in Baychester, it would have sliced its way through northwestern Bronx. Seeing how the Cross-Bronx Expressway destroyed the character of neighborhoods along its route, residents fought the highway. By 1962, only the section between Bruckner Expressway and 177th Street was completed. It carries the federal route designation Interstate 895, but only one ramp connects it to Interstate 95, its parent highway.

In the first decade of this century, there was a movement to downgrade the highway into a boulevard, creating affordable housing and adding parkland on its route. Truckers traveling to the nearby Hunts Point Market argued that the Sheridan was a useful shortcut that kept trucks off local streets. For now, their opinion prevails.

Bronx River House

With the expansion of parks along the river and improved water quality, canoes and kayaks are returning to the Bronx River. But the last boathouse of this stream closed decades ago. Responding to the need is the Bronx River House, a $10 million facility completed this year. Located on a bend in the river at its final cataract, its site enables boaters to access either the sea level section downstream, or the West Farms reach of the river flowing through Starlight Park.

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I will try to visit the Bronx River Rouse the next time I pass by Starlight Park. This environmentally sustainable facility deserves a blog post of its own.

In the News:

KQED reports on the movement to remove dams on the Klamath River in northern California.

CBC reports on the return of wildlife to Brewer Pond in Ottawa following its connection to the Rideau River.

The Spectator in London reports on that city’s hidden urban rivers.

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