A tale of two loops: City Hall and South Ferry, A ‘City I love project’

In this post about this great metropolis, I’m heading deep underground to two of New York City’s interesting subway stations; City Hall and South Ferry. The reason why they are interesting is because they are not exactly in a straight line.

In fact, they are loops.

The first is one of the most beautiful underground spaces in New York. The second station, while a bit simpler, has managed to last the test of time and even get a second life.

But first a throwback.

City Hall before opening day. image from viewing.nyc

It’s 1900 and the first shovel spade is dug into the earth in front of City Hall on March 24th of that year. The planned 9 mile subway line would stretch from City Hall up to the booming neighborhood of Harlem.

The City Hall stop was to be used for local trains running to Harlem and later on The Bronx. While express trains would continue to Brooklyn. If you are wondering why that was the case, consider the fact that Broadway is a very narrow street and it would have been expensive to dig a four-track subway under Broadway. They would have to widened the street which would have lead to the loss of valuable real estate and cost more money.

To convince people to go underground, the newly formed Interborough Rapid Transit company, hired the architectural firm Heins and LaFarge to design the tilework for City Hall and the other stations on the inaugural line. The firm, in turn, hired Rafael Guastavino and his tile company for the sole purpose of tiling City Hall.


View of the ceiling

Guastavino is often referred to as a genius in his designs. Using tiles that were layered like a cake, Guastavino’s tiles were considered structurally superior to traditional Roman Barrel style Arches that required the use of large stones to support the arch.


Guastavino’s tiles at work

It was a cheaper and by all accounts more attractive method of construction. While Guastavino tiles usually come in white or eggshell, the station has a beautiful green and orange poly-chrome tiles that are pleasing to the eye.

The station also has a Guastavino hallmark. Since the tiles are layered the ones that are not used for display would have have had groove like striations on the tile to place the grout. When Guastavino was in his workshop one day, a client for another job remarked that the pattern was perfect and it has been placed on almost every tile ever since.

The station is also a massive feat of engineering. The station alone sits on a 147 degree angle. This was done to accommodate the City Hall building itself and the former Post Office that sat on the southern edge of the park. The tracks also had to go under the express trains that were heading to Brooklyn.


Inside the City Hall station

City Hall and the other stations on the line opened to the public on October 27, 1904. A ceremony was held at the station and as the legend goes Mayor George B. McClellan Jr., so intoxicated by controlling the train, he refused to give up the controls until the train reached 103rd Street, 7 miles away.

Passenger and guests of the ceremony were treated to not only the tiles but chandelier fixtures and skylights.


Favorite piece of the station the Skylight

However despite the station putting on a good show for the 15,000 ticketed guests, the next day the station was nearly empty.

It would be the station’s fate for the next four decades until it closed to traffic on December 31, 1945, at 9 p.m. with little fanfare save for an obituary like report in the New York Times.

The average daily ridership was around 600 and the station closed early when local service was sent to our next location. The South Ferry Station.

They were other factors that lead to the closure of City Hall as well. The limited amount of space between City Hall and the Post Office building, the inability to expand the station and the aforementioned close proximity of the Brooklyn Bridge station lead to the stations rather small ridership.

The South Ferry stop is located near the Battery, a local city park. The Battery is where you pick up ferries either leading to the Statue of Liberty, Staten Island and now Governors Island. The area has long been a transit hub in one way or another when back in the day all of Manhattan’s elevated trains, the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 9th Avenue elevated trains all terminated here.

Elevated Station at South Ferry

The South Ferry stop first opened on July 10, 1905. Over the years a variety of services, from the original subway line to a mix of both the present day Lexington and 7th Avenue IRT lines. In 1918, after the 7th Avenue line was completed a second inner loop platform was constructed for extra Lexington Avenue trains at rush hour. After 1977, the station became exclusively a 7th Avenue station when a rush hour shuttle service and late night 6 train service ended due to lack of ridership and budget cuts.


Tiles demarcating South Ferry in the Serif font

The inner loop station was known for only using the central door for passenger access due to the extremely sharp curve. To lessen the noise, the station was walled with only door slots.

The outer loop was also designed by the firm of Heins and LaFarge. Stations like City Hall and South Ferry used different color patterns or styles and different symbols to help riders on their journey’s. This was to help immigrants, who had limited command of the English language. A boat was to symbolize that one could get off and take the ferry.


While, City Hall station remained closed and forgotten, South Ferry dutifully did it’s role in the commuting patterns of New Yorkers for generations. Unlike City Hall, which was too close to the neighboring Brooklyn Bridge station, which was connected to the elevated trains to Brooklyn, South Ferry had the Staten Island Ferry, which remains the most direct way to reach the borough of Staten Island without a car.

Over the years the IRT and subsequent transit agency’s that inherited the station didn’t really pursue any major changes to the station. Other than perhaps the occasional renovation or two, trains continued to screech around the curve.

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1 train returning uptown. Notice the gap fillers and the fences around the platform to prevent passengers from falling. 

Compared to City Hall, the South Ferry Loop stop had an altogether different fate. The American’s with Disabilities Act came in the 1990’s. Dictating that public facilities had to accommodate people’s with disabilities, it became clear that the station had to be upgraded due to it’s proximity to the ferry. Unfortunately, for the old loop an extension was not in the cards. Instead, a new station was built underneath the old one. This allowed for the connection of the ‘R’ line. A connection that was previously never attempted.

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Diagram of the South Ferry area with new station.

The new station, which opened in 2009, was equipped with the much needed elevators, a better ventilation system and a platform for the entire train. Compared to the original station however, the replacement left little to the imagination and looked very dull. One bright spot was a piece of the original fort wall was excavated and preserved for passengers to look at.

The old station was closed down and was used for storage of trains during non peak periods and for a time, tours from the Transit Museum. That all changed when an unexpected event gave the old loop station a second life.

Due to the already existing infrastructure at South Ferry, the MTA decided to dig deeper for the new station, however this leaves the new station vulnerable to major storms. Case in point Hurricane Sandy. It flooded the new station up to the ceiling and destroyed equipment needed to send trains into and out of the station.

The older station, while flooded, was surprisingly undamaged. The April of the following year the old loop reopened as a replacement until the new station is rebuilt from scratch, with the necessary hurricane proofing to prevent future service disruptions.

In a strange bit of irony, if the new station wasn’t built, the old loop stop would have borne the brunt of the damage.

So while Staten Island commuters have to contend with the screech for another year, I like the idea of looking at the old tiles all for the price of a subway fare.


Platform View 

As for City Hall there are only two ways to get there either via a tour by the museum which requires full membership. Photography is allowed but it’s advised to be mindful about using flash photography and no tripods.

You can go to the Transit Museums website for more information.

The second option is to take the 6 train itself. Over the years the MTA has relaxed its ban on people staying on the train beyond Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall. They only request that you stay inside the train as a safety precaution due to the sharp curve. Its fast but if your in town on a day that is not the tour it will do the trick. Try to go in the afternoon to get the skylight effect.


6 train passing through. Here’s my failed attempt at long exposure shot.

As someone who has done both, the tour is worth the $50.00 due to simply because you’re in the station for at least 45 minutes and despite the noise you can appreciate the station’s full beauty.

While City Hall’s future is secured South Ferry’s third act is yet to be determined. It’s possible they might return to giving tours of the station but they will be one thing missing.

The screech.



New York’s New Green Space: Liberty Park

In the last 15 years, New York has seen a vigorous expansion of new or reinvented public spaces. From the High Line to Brooklyn Bridge Park, these re-purposed spaces from their industrial past have proven to be assets to the city’s hunger for space.

Liberty Park is a reinvented space but for a different reason; the events of September 11th.


Liberty Park looking to the west.

When the original World Trade Center was created, the former Austin J. Tobin Plaza was a wide albeit barren space that had more concrete than green. Looking at older photos prior to writing this I realized the missed opportunities of that space but for it’s time it was perhaps the gold standard in modernist design. Simple, rational and spartan.

As a result, Liberty Park has two jobs; one is to provide suitable open space to the people who work, live and visit the Lower Manhattan area and two restore a form of public space that was lost due to 9/11 and the creation of the memorial.

Liberty Park combines the site of two former structures from pre-9/11 Lower Manhattan. The first, the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, was the only structure to be destroyed in the 9/11 attacks that was not part of the World Trade Center complex. It also held a separate distinction as the only religious structure to also be destroyed for St. Paul’s Chapel is opposite the site to the est.

The second, the Deutsche Bank Building, had to demolished due to structural damage. I watched over the decade as they slowly demolished the 40-story structure. The three blocks that the two structures existed upon were merged to create a underground parking lot for the new World Trade Center complex.

On top of the parking lot’s entrance is Liberty Park. The park, which opened on June the 30th, was built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and designed by landscape architect Joseph E. Brown. The park, which is approximately one acre, is a much needed portion of green space in an area where there is very little.


Man Looking at the 9/11 Memorial from Liberty Park.

The park overlooks the 9/11 Memorial and the rest of the World Trade Center campus to the north, the former World Financial Center, now called Brookfield Place, to the west and one of my personal favorite skyscraper’s in Lower Manhattan, 1 Wall Street in the east.

The most unique aspect is the living wall. It’s a wall of plants that is 20 feet high and is mix of periwinkle, Japanese spurge, sedge, Baltic ivy, and Winter creeper. The benches are made of what appears to be wood are nice, wide and comfortable to sit on.

On the southwest corner of the park sits the America’s Response Monument, dedicated to the troops who were part of the Special Forces team that were the first to be deployed in Afghanistan. The image of a man on the horse stems from the unique aspect of Afghanistan’s geography. With no suitable way to get across terrain, 12 members were given horses by local tribesman friendly to the U.S.


America’s Response Monument

Despite that only two members knew how to ride a horse, the team accepted the idea and with the assistance of the tribes, they drove the Taliban from the area. The fact that a group of 21st century soldiers, using what was thought to be an outdated form of warfare to defeat an enemy showed the strength and agility of the U.S. military.

The memorial, it should be noted is the first memorial dedicated to members of our special forces that will be open to the public, was dedicated in 2011. It initially was placed at Brookfield Place and then shunted next to the One World Trade Center but behind a construction fence. So I’m thankful that it’s in a better spot.

The view will give visitors a new perspective of the memorial but also give residents a place to get away from the hubbub of the memorial below.

A worthy alternative indeed.


Who view’s it best: Brooklyn Vs. Manhattan Bridge

Ok so if you guys remember from last year I did something of a mini series on the best views of the Manhattan skyline. This is a continuation/re-boot of that series. Over the last few months, I’ve been visiting two iconic New York City bridges over the which bridge is better at skyline views. The Brooklyn or Manhattan B

It’s the battle of the bridges

To start, each bridge is unique in their design and their place in the city-scape. They also provide the visitor a different viewpoint of the city, specifically if it is geared towards Lower Manhattan.

Historically, Lower Manhattan was the center of New York until the 20th-century. So both the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges reflect that as well as connecting to Downtown Brooklyn which it’s central business district was, much larger in the past.

This post is not to pick a winner, you can decide that for yourself. I’ll be updating the post as time goes on as perspectives change. In the meantime, I will show you what I’ve observed about walking both bridges.

Brooklyn Bridge 

Let’s take a look at the Brooklyn Bridge. The most famous and recognizable of the two. Opened in 1883, the bridge has the unusual aspect of placing the pedestrian walkway both above the traffic and in the middle of the bridge. This maximizes the visual impact a visitor has on the view. To the west, is the new One and Four World Trade Center, with number Three rising. While classic skyscrapers like 20 Exchange Place and 70 Pine, symbols of Roaring Twenties hold court further south and deeper still are Ellis, Governors and Liberty Island.

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Lower Manhattan skyline behind Brooklyn Bridge wires.

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The Manhattan Tower of the Brooklyn Bridge.

To the north, the Empire State Building still dominates the skyline despite new construction that will eventually match or surpass it. The idea that a building would dare to over take the city’s true vertical representation so close is something I will have to grapple with as I get older.

Other landmarks include 30 Rockefeller Plaza, (no I will not call it the Comcast Building still prefer GE or RCA if your an OG), Metlife/Pan Am Building, The Chrysler Building, The New York Life Building, the original Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, the New York Times Building and lastly 432 Park Avenue.

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Despite holding court in solitude for nearly nine decades, the Empire State Building is getting some taller neighbors.

The Brooklyn Bridge is perfect except for one thing, it’s too damn crowded. When the walkway was built, it’s popularity was underestimated. In fact, a stampede was started less than a week after the bridge opened due to a rumor that the bridge was going to collapse! While a minority of people actually commute via walking on the bridge, tourists and photography lovers such as my self make up the majority of walkers.

To make matters worse, bicyclists have the north-facing side of the walkway and it’s an unpredictable. From bike tours to causal and hardcore bicyclists, accidents can happen. So if you want to get that shot, look both ways and judge the speed of the bike.

While their have been proposals to add more space on the bridge next to the existing pathway, for now they are just proposals so if you truly want a good shot walk it early in the morning or late in the evening once everyone has gone home.

Manhattan Bridge 

Just under a mile to the east lies the Manhattan Bridge. Compared to most bridges that stick to just one color, the Manhattan Bridge has two, blue and white and is an all steel affair compared to the elegant yet contrasting steel and stonework of the Brooklyn Bridge.

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When you have the walkway to yourself #goals

That being said, the Manhattan Bridge was never meant to pretty, it was meant to be crossed, by walking, biking, driving, or taking public transportation. This could be proven in the position of the bridge walkways, for which they are two, one on the north and the other on the south side.

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The south side has some of the most sweeping views of Lower Manhattan. You get everything the buildings, the Statue of Liberty and oh yes there’s that Brooklyn Bridge right in the thick of it.

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Lower Manhattan from the Manhattan Bridge.

The north side has New York’s Housing developments built during the mid-century as slum clearance in the foreground. The Empire State Building and the midtown skyline is in the background. Had the projects not been built, the gradual rise from short to tall buildings would have appeared natural. In order for you to get a sense of that, walk all the way to the Manhattan side of the bridge.

The immediate skyline is also going to change. One Manhattan Square, a new luxury development that replaced a supermarket, is currently going up. It is a deeply unpopular project and has been stopped twice on safety grounds. The fact that a 800+ tall building is being built so close to the waterfront, on reclaimed land, should have been under tighter scrutiny, but somehow this one made it through the needle.

While the Manhattan Bridge’s iconic vantage shot of the Empire State Building under it’s lower arch appears safe, questions about saving such views have come up before with the erection of the Pierhouse on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge. That is something I’ve covered in my previous post on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and it’s views. It seems that history will repeat itself but with a taller and garish building. So time is of the essence to document this soon to be lost view.

One downside to the bridge is the loss of the 360 degree view that the Brooklyn Bridge has over the Manhattan Bridge also with four subway tracks roaring across the bridge it can get very noisy. However, the noise and the lack of visible entry points of the walkway gives the visitor more space and leisure time to savor the view.

But if you want to get higher you can take a cab or a double decker tour bus on the upper level which can give you the 360 degree view you are missing on the lower level. It’s pricey and you can’t immediately get off the bus once you’ve done the round trip but as a former worker of those buses, under the right circumstances, it can be one helluva view.


The Upper Level view.

So who’s the winner well walk it and comment below.

Follow me on Instagram @ayindestevens for past and present shots of these landmarks and on twitter @AJStevens50 on some unrelated tweets of me getting stuck on the subway haha. 

Winter Storm Jonas: The storm to end all storms

As of 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, New York’s Central Park, measured 25.1 inches of snow. It’s already the third highest accumulated snowstorm on record. After a week of wondering whether or not we will get such a blockbuster storm, well…

With over 84 million people in its cross-hairs, Winter Storm Jonas, will at the very least will go down in memory as one of the biggest snowstorm to hit the Eastern Seaboard. I will remember it as the storm I took pictures. So here is my collection of great shots. In short I was Ray in the video.


Looking south on 5th Avenue


The General Grant National Monument, a.k.a. Grant’s Tomb under a pristine blanket of snowfall


Grant’s Tomb neighbor, Riverside Church, a bulwark against the maelstrom.


The former Low Library building under some serious snowfall.


When in doubt, take the local, which is what most subway lines were today. It was also a way to get around and stay warm.


Where were you when the blizzard of ’16 hit?



The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on 89th Street and Riverside Drive.


Children of all ages sledding down the hill behind the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.


Looking east at West 87th Street.



Crossing 43rd Street in Times Square


Times Square looks brighter when the weather isolates her from the city. More so than when under normal circumstances.


Yup that’s me in a misguided attempt to be Mary Tyler Moore. No article of clothing was harming in the making of this picture.


Citadel of Knowledge

So there you have it. My four hour adventure during Winter Storm Jonas. I hope you enjoyed the gallery. I will be posting a few other shots on Instagram which you can find at ayindestevens and at Twitter at AJStevens50. Till next time friends.


Walking Riverside Drive part 3: The Riverside Delta, Audubon Park, and Riverbank State Park.

Part 3 in a series Part 1 and Part 2 found here.

Okay week three and finally no more highways! Well it’s still below me but for a few blocks I had some peace and quiet. In fact, I was probably the noisiest person on the block. So picking up where I left off I returned to the site where Riverside Drive merges with Riverside Drive West. As I walked on the drive the road rose to go along the side of the hill that the apartment buildings sit on to the right. Most of the pre-war buildings had nice decorative works. A bit on the simple side but bear in mind these apartments were often more spacious than the tenements in Lower Manhattan or down the hill in Harlem for that matter.


Gothic styled entrance at 909 Riverside Drive

The lower section still has older row houses that survived the rapid development in the 1910’s-1920’s. This was helped by the opening of the subway’s first extension in 1906. The apartments appear spacious and thanks to the funky property lots, it allows better light and air into the apartments.


Row houses on the lower section Riverside Drive f.k.a Boulevard Lafayette


Tenement Rows on W. 160th Street.

The upper half of the delta is the long-lost Boulevard Lafayette. The road first appeared in maps dating back to the mid 1800’s. It appears to be an offshoot of Broadway, which at the time the upper section was simply called Boulevard. Around the time Riverside Drive was being proposed it was supposed to terminate at the intersection of 158th and Boulevard Lafayette. How the Grinnell family was able to smooth out the angles is anyone’s guess but I like to think that if they proposed Riverside Drive as a form of improved transportation to the area if any way then it would make the area more desirable. This was accomplished by building the viaducts across Harlem to Audubon Park.

Audubon Park as you can see there were already thinking about Riverside Drive map by the Grinnell family.

The intersection does have one cling to fame. It is referenced in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby, where Tom, Nick and Tom’s girlfriend Myrtle Wilson have a party inside Tom and Myrtle’s love nest. While Nick describes the apartment building as “one slice in a long white cake of apartment houses,” for some reason I like to think it’s the Grinnell since they did elevator operators. Also, Fitzgerald was in Paris when he wrote the book so he used his imagination.


The Grinnell from 158th and Riverside, possibly a location in The Great Gatsby.

Another major development in the neighborhood is Audubon Terrace, which was formerly home to institutions such as the National Museum of the American Indian, American Geographical Society, and the American Numismatic Society. The beautiful complex of Beaux-Arts and American Renaissance architecture was the brainchild of the Huntington family, in particular Archer M. Huntington.


Audubon Terrace at night

Huntington thought, like most traditionalists of his era that the city’s wealthiest residents would move uptown to today’s Washington Heights. With its commanding views of the area it’s hard not to imagine the upper crust sitting on top. However, with the advent of steel construction, which made building apartments cheaper and faster, developers looked up north to grab what land they could.  The subway also made commuting to lower Manhattan easier, thus attracting more middle class residents not the moneyed or cultured kind that the Huntington’s wanted.


El Cid the centerpiece of Audubon Terrace sculpture by Anna H. Huntington

Nevertheless, the Huntington’s pressed on, creating or backing institutions that would eventually move uptown to Audubon Terrace. It took nearly three decades to complete the terrace as we see it today. However, it was in the 1930’s, which saw multiple ethnic groups, each having very little to do with the ideals of the institutions that resided there, left them behind. At the same time Audubon Terrace, also turning in on itself, became as the New York Times wrote in 2009, “Upper Manhattan’s lovely but bedraggled cultural acropolis.”

That’s not to say that the Terrace is dead. Boricua College, a bi-lingual college that prides itself on being a non-traditional college, moved into the old Geographical Society building, and the two remaining institutions, the Hispanic Society of America and the American Academy of Arts and Letters have expanded into buildings formerly owned by their neighbors. With a little luck and some more exposure both within the community and the city at large, Audubon Terrace will regain its place in the city’s cultural offerings.

Heading further south I saw this beautiful sculpture called “The Shipwreck.” Which was created from a highway arts program. It faces towards the Hudson River with the bow of the ship facing skyward to show it sinking below the waves or rather into the concrete.



As I walked further down, you pass the ominous Trinity Cemetery which looks like your classical creepy neighborhood cemetery, this time of the year. Despite being in Manhattan, it still has space for burials and cremations but space is limited and expensive so do what the living does, move to Brooklyn. Famous people buried there include former mayor Edward I. Koch and writer Ralph Ellison


Trinity Cemetery I wonder who’s the man on the column?

By now the apartments are beginning to look a bit shabby, due to years of neglect but some are seeing the return to their glory days like 730 Riverside Drive. 730 Riverside Drive or the Beaumont, was the home of author Ralph Ellison, whose book Invisible Man still resonates today as it did when it was published decades ago. In recent years a small yet no less profound monument dedicated to Ellison and the book that defined him grace a garden just steps from his apartment.  The parks department website describes the purpose of sculpture which captures “the themes of Ellison’s novel whose central protagonist wrestles with issues of racial identity.”


730 Riverside Drive


The Invisible Man monument to Ellison and his novel sculpture by  Elizabeth Catlett


Diagonally across from Ellison’s memorial, is a playground that has two sets of steps leading down to the park and over a set of railway tracks that lead to Penn Station. According to maps, there was once a train station in the vicinity so the bridge was likely added to give passengers access to the station. However, passenger service on the line ended around 1916 only to resume in the 1990’s but without restored stations. A station here might make sense with nearby Riverbank State Park benefiting from better access and in the event of a subway shutdown, it provides an alternate route.


Bridge and stairway to the overlook


Tracks to upstate New York and the George Washington Bridge


The George Washington Bridge under a gloomy grey sky

Speaking of Riverbank State Park, it should be noted that the occasional whiffs of sewage being treated can still occur so I’d advise anyone following in my footsteps to have a full meal and bring water. You might run the risk of dizziness and nausea.

Riverbank State Park is also a classic example of local environmental justice. It took three decades to complete the park after years of protests and delays with the project. The waste-water treatment plant which is underneath the park cost $1.3 Billion dollars. It was according to the blog Place Matters, “it was the largest non-military public works project in the US in 50 years.” However, almost immediately the smell, which was not taken into account exacerbated existing air pollution issues since there is an MTA bus depot and the Henry Hudson Parkway nearby. While the park has been successful in drawing not just local residents but other Manhattanites, that smell and other environmental still lingers from time to time.


The ominous stacks on top of Riverbank State Park.

Getting back to Riverside Drive from the brief detour, one begins to notice the change in elevation as Broadway is higher up while Riverside Drive is lower, also traffic segregation occurs allowing drivers to speed uptown to George Washington Bridge. In the case of 138th Street, it actually dives down underneath the drive to become 12th Avenue. Case in point



138th Street as it dives under Riverside Drive to become 12th Avenue


The only street that meets Riverside Drive on the same level is 135th Street. Which is where I’m going to end part 3 on one of the rarest blocks in Manhattan. The reason being is that it reminds me of old city photos which showed rows and rows of apartment buildings but without trees it’s a throwback to when trees were not consider part of the streetscape in some neighborhoods particularly poorer and working class ones.  The neighborhood, once filled with Irish, German and Jewish residents are now filed with migrants from Latin America. Today, we acknowledge that trees help neighborhoods maintain some ecological footprint but for the current residents, the greenery gives them a reminder of home.


Looking West on 135th Street to New Jersey still evokes a New York of generations past.


So now I’m just about halfway finished with the project but things are going to change once we cross the Riverside Drive viaduct, for we are now entering Riverside Drive’s classical period.

Walking Riverside Drive Part 2: Under the bridge, around a hospital and over 158th street!

This is part two in a series on Riverside Drive. For part one click the link To catch up.  

Hey everyone! Thanks for the feedback and joining me on this project. This will be part two of the project Here we’ll pick up where I left off which was Plaza Lafayette, a small park with a gorgeous view of the George Washington Bridge. One of only three bridges that connects New York City with the state of New Jersey. In fact, the original bridge was actually placed further downtown but opposition by local residents and businesses forced the project uptown. However, their loss was uptown’s gain. Not only did the bridge spur development like Riverside Drive did just a few years prior, it also opened the city of Fort Lee New Jersey, to developers as well.


George Washington Bridge under cloud cover

The bridge was designed by architect Othmar Ammann, who also designed the Triborough Bridge and the Verazano-Narrows Bridge, won the project out from his own mentor and boss, Gustav Lindenthal. Sadly, this opened a feud between the two architects during the construction of the bridge and likely did not get resolved. Nonetheless, the project was completed in 1931, six months early and under budget. It is one of the most photographed bridges in the world.

As I walked down from Plaza Lafayette, I descended under the arched approach of the bridge and was struck at the view of the skyscrapers that I could still see from this vantage point. The sidewalk continues down the hill to the bottom where Riverside Drive once again joins the Henry Hudson Parkway. Rather than risk going through open traffic, pedestrians can return to Washington Heights via a series of ramps. The ramps however are under a highway interchange between the parkway, the bridge and local streets so while you’re driving you might see the bridge and New Jersey I was in an area that after dark I myself didn’t want to be caught dead in. Nevertheless, I made my way up for air and once again was greeted by the bridge.


Empire State Building from under the Arch approach to the George Washington Bridge

On another note that interchange claimed one victim.  Before the bridge was opened local residents had access to the park below by a series of stairwells that gave the park a European feel. Sadly the highway interchange blocked the original access point and its replacement, while possibly more ADA compliant is an uninspiring afterthought. Placed in second to the needs of the cars that whizz by. I could have explored the lost stairwell further but something told me some things are best left alone. Especially if you yourself are alone.


Stairway to nowhere

Haven Avenue is a short nine block street that is not in a straight line. An extension of Riverside Drive perhaps? Well I’ll never know but I can tell you that the street on a Friday afternoon is very quiet. So quiet and so New York in its way that I’m not surprised filming doesn’t take place here on a regular basis. The street is book-ended by both the George Washington Bridge and New York-Presbyterian Hospital complex, giving the street its calm and intimate setting.

The street has mostly Art-Deco and Beaux Arts inspired buildings along its brief run, only punctuated by two modernist apartment buildings and what could only described as a futuristic at best and painfully out of place at worst. 98 Haven Avenue, being built for Columbia University Medical Center’s new Medical and Graduate Education Building, strikes me as a something that belongs downtown say near the Hudson Yards and spoils the uniformity of the street. “The New York Observer” called it “the craziest building in Harlem,” as their title to their article about the structure in 2012.

Side Note: By stating it’s in Harlem and not Washington Heights, it just adds salt to the wound. Then again I’m not surprised, the Observer always struck me as the stereotypical downtowner publication. To them, Harlem and Washington Heights are places to be colonized and homogenized not to be respected in their place in New York’s history. Not to mention the mislabeling is really bloody lazy. I’ve lived in both ‘hoods and believe me when I say this, they are distinctive as they get.


The future has come to Washington Heights

Hopping off the soap-box, and shaking my head over that crazy building, I walked along the gargantuan complex of building that make up the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. The first buildings opened in 1925 and the hospital has been growing ever since. In fact within 30 years of the hospital’s existence over 100,000 babies were born there. While the complex has modernized over the years the Hospital still retains both a garden and a chapel, a welcome respite from the frenetic pace inside.


The back-end of the original hospital buildings

Turing onto 165th street, I once again returned to Riverside Drive and was greeted by yet another view of the George Washington Bridge. Nearby was a viewing platform so that joggers and dog walkers can take a break and marvel at one of the country’s greatest creation.

Now heading south again, I was face with another dilemma, I had now two paths to choose from when it comes to Riverside Drive. Due to the Grinnell family, who had been pushing development in the area during the late 1800’s they convinced the city to run Riverside Drive through the property once owned by the neighborhoods namesake John James Audubon. The route change creates the letter D or a Delta shape on the city’s grid. So now I had to choose which side of the D to walk on.

Should I hug the river and see what was next or turn left and admire some more apartment buildings? Realizing that time was getting short, I figured that the river was my best bet. So I walked the so-called Riverside Drive West. As the sun was setting the so-called golden hour illuminated the brick and mortar buildings with a radiance that could make an old and tired building look new, if only for a few minutes.


Apartment building under that golden hour glow

I was now walking along the second Riverside Drive viaduct, built in 1911 it’s less popular than its Harlem cousin but in my opinion it has a dramatic flair that the other viaduct, striking in its own right, can’t claim. For one, you can still see the Empire State Building from here. The steps that lead to the park below still exist but the highway demolished much of the original park. The park today still serves its residents well despite the Robert Moses gash of a highway nearby.

The sweeping views were so inspiring in the musical department, I threw on Whitney Huston’s “Saving All My Love For You,” because it reminded so much of the music video.  Whitney is walking down The Queen’s Walk, in London realizing that she’s not going to be with her boyfriend who is married by the way. Yet, that sax solo brings me back every time. Today the London Eye sits on that site of 80’s nostalgia.


Sunset over in New Jersey

So now I’ve made it to the bottom of the viaduct and decided to walk back onto the original Riverside Drive. Almost immediately, I was struck by how beautiful the buildings were. Tucked away from bustle of Broadway and the wide expanse of the viaduct, the buildings were built during the early 20th century when the subway arrived in the neighborhood. At the time these buildings were the cream of the crop housing some wealthy or newly wealthy residents.  Today the buildings are now part of the Audubon Park Historic, designated in 2009.

One building that sticks out is the Grinnell, sitting on a plot of land that was once owned by the family of the same name, the building, built in 1911, commands your attention. According to the website, Audubonparkny.com, which has an extensive history of the micro-neighborhood, the Grinnell was built at a cost of $600,000. Today that would be somewhere between 14 and 15 million dollars. For the first few decades this is what buying an apartment at the time would get you, amenities wise.


The Grinnell, refered to as “the Dakota of the North” this building is the grand dame of neighborhood.

“The Grinnell had uniformed staff, twenty-four hour elevator service, and mail delivery to apartment doors – twice a day.  Every apartment had a dumbwaiter so that deliveries could be made through the rear entrance and basement.  The dumbwaiters also served to transport rubbish and soiled clothes to the basement, which contained a building-operated laundry.  Until recently, large drying racks remained as a reminder of those days.  Stories passed on by early residents report that the Grinnell’s management gave dances for the residents every spring – on the roof, with a full orchestra.”  

Sounds like a great time, well the cost of an apartment there ranges according to the realtor Streeteasy.com about just over $600,000 to a cool $1,000,000. Cheaper than the Upper West Side but pretty expensive for uptowners like me.

So guys I’m gonna leave it here I will do the rest of the crazy D. Delve into its history and keep on walking!

Walking Riverside Drive, A “The City I love” project Part 1: Uptown Beginings

The Project

The goal is to walk the entire length of Riverside Drive where possible from Inwood down to the Upper West Side. I’ll try to average one mile per day and try to write or document via photos what I see along the way. Riverside Drive has a very diverse history and exploring it from stem to stern sounds like a fun project. After all, if The New York Times could do it why not me?

The reason why I decided to start from the north and not the south is to in order to get the trickiest part, which is the highway sections out of the way. Also as you head south the Drive gets progressively wealthy as you go along so you get a chance to notice the change in subtle ways. If you choose to head from North to South you may also notice that you are going back in time with much of the northern section predominately 1920-s 1930’s to the southern half which is more late 1800’s inspired. Also Riverside Drive is one of the least altered streets in Manhattan so it will be easier to notice the difference as you walk from one end to the other. If you choose to do this project you don’t have to do all but pick parts of the drive to explore on your own.

So let’s begin.



Riverside Drive during the 1910’s Photo by The American Art Publishing Co.

If Park, Madison, and Fifth Avenue are to the east side of Manhattan island in terms of New York City’s upper crust, then its west side counter parts should include Riverside Drive. A street with a colorful history, with railroad barons, gilded age mansions, trophy wives and of course the ‘Master Builder’ Robert Moses. A man which no neighborhood of this great metropolis was spared, for better or worse from his influence.

Riverside Drive, a byproduct of the creation of Riverside Park is one of the city’s most scenic areas that is often overlooked compared to its flashier neighbor to the east, Central Park. Riverside Park and Riverside Drive were started in the late 19th century as part of the development of the West Side of Manhattan. For much of the 19th century, the area was a hodgepodge of estates, industry and small villages clustered along the Hudson River.

That all changed when Fredrick Law Olmstead, the creator of Central Park was given 191 acres to play with to create a new park in 1872. Essential to the design was the Drive which Olmstead merged with the park plan to create one singular project between the two. Olmstead’s former collaborator, Calvert Vaux did the landscaping for much of the first half of the project. While much of the land was acquired by condemnation, the Hudson River Railroad now acquired by the New York Central  Railroad would remain in place, while the park was developed around it. The first sections of Riverside Drive opened in 1880 and was completed five years later.

In 1911, Riverside Drive was extended further uptown to Audubon Park, now today known as Audubon Terrace with a series of viaducts, the most famous one being just north of Grant’s Tomb.  With the extension, Riverside Drive absorbed Boulevard Lafayette. A planned road from Audubon Park.  Longtime residents, the Grinnell family used their political connections to connect the two roads in order to boost their property values. Which creates a triangle-shaped aberration in the city’s grid.

In fact much of how the park that we see today was given to us was actually by Robert Moses under the West Side Improvement project.  The project, which were the cost of two Hoover Dams, included the grade separation of the railroad and the Henry Hudson Parkway. Perhaps most importantly it practically buried the railroad and created a man-made hill that covers the tracks that is with today. However it should be noted that the Parkway also in certain areas isolates both the park and drive from each other and I will try to document where that has happened.

Part 1: From Dyckman Street to Plaza Lafayette.  


Tiled mosaic of the Dyckman-200th Street Station

So on a mild Friday afternoon, I set off from my apartment in Washington Heights to the subway to Dyckman Street which is the northern terminus of Riverside Drive. The last address is 1825 Riverside Drive, which reminded me of the Flatiron Building downtown. Opposite the apartment buildings is Fort Tyron Park, which today is home to the Cloisters, an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


1825 Riverside Drive, the last building on the Drive

On the next block, Riverside Drive merges with the Henry Hudson Parkway, so to continue I returned to Dyckman Street and towards the Hudson River. Once your turn left you will see three bridges. The first, is a concrete arch bridge that instantly reminded me of the art-deco bridges in California. Originally when the Parkway was a four-lane highway, it carried bi-directional traffic. When it was expanded, a second but lower bridge was added. The last bridge is the old Hudson River Railroad which were acquired by the New York Central in the late 1800’s. Today the tracks are now under the use of Amtrak. Its bridges is the lowest of the three. It’s between the latter two bridges that access to the greenway can be found.



The Bridges over Dyckman Street

So for the next mile or so I walked the greenway, with the cars roaring to go upstate on my left and a low stone wall to my right. The path narrow due to the fact that leaves covered up most of the right side of the pathway. So much for staying on that side. Luckily, they weren’t many joggers or bicyclists on the path but I constantly looked behind me, the reason being the road bends a few times so it made sense just to be cautious. The Cloisters came into view and then disappeared under the trees as I headed further south. The park has a massive arch bridge that leads to the Cloisters, the bridge was probably created so that people driving from the parkway can access the museum.


Cloisters approach and bridge

Further down, there is a massive collection of arches made out of Maine granite situated near the southern end of the park. It is all that left of the grand Billings estate. It served as the driveway to the home, formerly owned by Charles Kingsley Garrison Billings. The driveway alone cost $250,000 and the rest of the house was so grand it would put even the Rockefellers to shame. Sadly, Billings, an avid horseman, grew tired of the house, and sold it to interestingly enough the Rockefellers. Almost immediately, the Rockefellers wanted to give the land to the city and tear down the house. However, lovers of the home and its architecture spared its demolition but not from the laws of nature. In 1925 the house burned to the ground, the Rockefellers again offered the land to the city and this time the city accepted. In 1939 the Cloisters Museum, which was given to the city by John D. Rockefeller Jr. opened to the public. Today only the driveway and lawn of the Estate remains however the driveway is largely cutoff from the park.


Billings private driveway cars probably drove up to 15 m.p.h. back in the day now cars zoom by at 60, missing the grandeur of years pat.

Not long after seeing the driveway, the lush and parklike aspect of the area gives way to apartments that overlook the river. Also nearby is Inspiration Point, a lookout stop that was designed for motorists to stop, take a break and admire the scenery. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article in 1989 discussing the characteristics of the structure.


Part of the Inspiration Point lookout.

“A two-way drive, it had a wide sidewalk on the river side; this was an environment where the automobile and the pedestrian were meant to mix agreeably. Drivers were encouraged to stop at the roadside in a large turnoff in front of the $150,000 shelter, the last stopping place before the end of the drive at Dyckman Street.”


View of the GWB from lookout

However, shortly after the completion of the shelter Robert Moses’s planned West Side Improvement project doomed the shelter and it now today, the shelter is now slowly crumbling to nature. 27 years later some things have changed, but it still has the feel of a “picturesque ruin,” as detailed further in the article.

“As the automobile changed from a pleasure vehicle to mere transportation, the pleasure drive lost its patron in road planners. The Miller Elevated Highway (or West Side Highway) below 72d Street of 1931 to 1933 was meant for moving, not inspiring, people. But it was Robert Moses’ Henry Hudson Parkway of 1937 – although an idyll compared to the modern interstate – that made the bed of the old isolated Riverside Drive a through highway, with a bridge crossing the Harlem River.

GRADUALLY, increased traffic turned what had been a walking/driving experience into a no man’s land for pedestrians. The walkway is now overgrown and concrete bumpers now barricade what was the original promenade.

The shelter at Inspiration Point itself now suggests despair. The doors to the toilets are walled up. Cast-stone copings, indeed whole sections of balustrade, have been pushed over, down the steep slope. The rotting wooden roof has miraculously escaped destruction by fire, but whole sections have fallen off or hang precariously at the edge. Water damage has buckled the elegant coffered ceiling and most of what remains looks like driftwood scavanged from a lost civilization.”



Plaque dedicating the ‘Improvement’ to Riverside Drive, little did they know…


Up above are art deco apartment buildings built in the 1920’s before the stock market crashed. Also overlooking everything there is a house actually perched over the retaining wall! I wonder how much the insurance is going to cost if the thing falls over.


No explanation here

The final landmarks that come into view are the George Washington Bridge on the right and the Castle Village apartment complex on the left. The complex, which features five cruciform towers were the basis of the ‘towers in the park’ concept of modernist architecture. The concept was widely reproduced in many of New York City’s housing developments both public and private during the postwar era. Its social effects are still being felt today.


Castle Village apartments. Completed in the mid 1930’s these apartments were meant to be shelters for Manhattan’s middle class residents back in the day. The more things change the more things stay the same I guess.


In 2005 the retaining wall, dividing the property and the ramp leading down to the Parkway collapsed. No one was hurt and the wall was repaired. Today you can see the distinctions between the replacement wall and the original. When I passed by, no vehicles were parked there. However, I think if you’re going to park a car along that wall, it might be the safest place to do so.


The Castle Village retaining wall the original section is to the right.

The footbridge leads me to Plaza Lafayette and the end of part 1 of the trip. I’ll save the Bridge photos for part 2 of the project. I will continue further south, pass through more Art-Deco structures, see parts of abandoned Riverside Drive access points and deal with that pesky triangle.  Also follow on Instagram with the #WalkRvierside to track my progress.