Highbridge and the Eagles of the Bums

September 29, 2012

Highbridge is a nearly 200-foot-tall water tower that lords over the Harlem River at about 174th Street. If “asking around” is scientific, then I’ve proven to my satisfaction that nobody who doesn’t live directly in its shadow knows anything about it. The tower used to house a 47,000-gallon water tank that was fed by the Croton Aqueduct. There’s a fair amount about the Croton in the book: it was a massive public works project completed in 1842 that had mythic overtones: the reservoir at 42nd Street was built in an ancient Egyptian style meant to foreshadow awesome permanence. It’s just the kind of architectural hubris that New York delights in converting to smithereens: after only fifty years they knocked the reservoir down to build the main branch of the New York Public Library.

The High Bridge, the last leg of the aqueduct’s forty-mile journey from upstate to Manhattan and the oldest surviving bridge in New York City, is still there. But you can’t walk on it. The old bridge has the interesting quirk of leading a double life in GoogleMaps: clearly visible in satellite mode, from the point of view of traffic it’s a gray ghost: although it still links paths on either side of the Harlem River, it was closed to the public decades ago, and today only vandals and adventurers ever set foot there.

The park that crawls along the outcrops of the Manhattan side is one of the wildest places I’ve ever visited in the city: it feels lost, furtive, overgrown. The hills creep with greenery, and springwater oozes right out of the rock, and the trees seem to be stranger than other city trees, even slightly sentient. At the same time, the trails are paved with broken bottles and Harlem River Drive never stops humming.

So Highbridge Park is a good place for both natural and urban history, and Ranger Jerry Siegler, one of the park rangers who give weekly tours there, knew a lot of both. Ranger Jerry pointed out an ancient plane tree with a hollow trunk that used to be home, for years, to a stranger-than-average homeless guy. Homelessness is a theme at Highbridge Park, perhaps because the place spreads over a zone where natural laws are suspended. And it’s dense. According to a Times article, during a mid-80’s cleanup
dozens of abandoned cars, hundreds of tires, refrigerators, several dead dogs and a human body were found amid the tangled brush.
But a house in the trunk of a tree surrounded by cadavers and appliances is not as weird as homelessness in Highbridge could get. There was weirder—and far, far, better. If you take a tour that includes walking up the insides of the water tower itself, you will end up in an octagonal granite room with bracing vistas. According to Ranger Jerry, this was an aerie for the eagles of the bums: here the homeless lived strange, rent-free lives at the top of their own forgotten tower. Below is the view south from one of the tower’s arched windows. Even the photo seems infected with the general oddness of Highbridge: it doesn’t look like New York City—or not the one I know. It looks like the New York City a thousand years from now, after the plague, and the missiles, and the zombies have come and gone.