We all know and use the Deegan Expressway, our workhorse of a highway cutting north to south through the Bronx. It was built in the 1950s — 70 years ago — and was built through Van Cortlandt Park, cutting it in two with the larger section on the western side, and the smaller area to the east.
When the division was made all those years ago, no accommodation was made by the transportation department to at least connect the two sides with one pedestrian bridge, if not two. A bridge or two would have made it possible for the people on each side to utilize the entire park, benefitting from all that is on offer.
In 2015, many groups working together had been able to secure $20 million to finally correct this abysmal lack of planning when the Deegan was built. The list of the Bronx and city politicians contributing to this great infrastructure project is impressive — Mayor Bill de Blasio, U.S. Rep. Elliot Engel, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz, state Sen. Jeff Klein — government pulling together, all recognizing the positive impact increasing the accessibility of Van Cortlandt Park would have on their constituents.
Today, approaching eight years later, we haven’t heard anything about this bridge, except that — like everything else — it was halted as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. When questions were asked of park staff members, we were told they didn’t know what the situation was.
We were in the dark until recently when the parks department — from downtown — announced at a Community Board 8 committee meeting the bridge was to be canceled.
Funds were not available due to the increase of costs incurred due to the wait time to begin construction. The estimated new cost is now $15 million higher than it was in 2015! A very big unaccounted for increase simply stated and not proved by parks.
All the wonderful money put together in 2015 is to be taken by parks and spent how it deems fit with absolutely no input from us in Woodlawn or Norwood. And, that is my skin in the game — I live in Woodlawn, and have been actively volunteering in the park for years. I love the park. Over the years when trying to hike to the western side from Woodlawn, I have found it to be almost impossible as you bump up against so many obstacles. And this bridge would have corrected a majority of them.
So, pedestrians and bikes will not be able to get to the many facilities only offered on the southwestern side of Vannie, such as the swimming pool, Putnam Greenway, Van Cortlandt Golf Course, the museum, the Parade Grounds, the stadium, the stables, the lake. The eastern side has one facility, the small Mosholu golf course.
There are other aspects to living on the eastern side, such as the health and welfare of the citizens who inhabit Community Board 7 and Community Board 12. We have a higher percentage of obesity by 10 percent in Norwood and Woodlawn/Wakefield than Riverdale.
Riverdale has the largest access to the park and the majority of all the facilities. CB8 of Riverdale controls the entire park, and the citizens of Norwood and Woodlawn — who are the residents of the eastern side — have no voice.
When the new water filtration plant was planned, the land from the park was taken from the Norwood side and the promise to have the land returned to the park for recreation was deemed too unsafe after 9/11. So, Norwood just had to suck it up.
The pedestrian bridge would have especially facilitated the Norwood community to enjoy hikes and walks to the western side, now a very difficult task. Amazingly enough, the physical activity levels of the different sides of the park — the numbers are again 10 percent higher on the eastern side. Ditto for the interesting bird walks.
Are we the second-class citizens of the north Bronx? When it comes to Van Cortlandt Park, it certainly looks that way. Of note, the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance board does not have one member from Woodlawn or Norwood — almost all live in Riverdale.
What incentive does that alliance have to consider the needs of the residents of Woodlawn or Norwood?
I don’t believe parks really wants to cancel the pedestrian bridge — a wonderful infrastructure project that will be enjoyed for generations. An enormous asset within the park finally giving access to both sides, a long-neglected and important project within the entire New York City parks system.
But, finding the extra millions is a very heavy load to lift, and they just don’t appear to have the will or the inspiration to try.
I’m sure if our elected officials and park staff along with community help really tried, this money could be found and all our lives connected to this vital green resource will be enhanced.
It took 70 years for it to even get this far, let us not squander this wonderful gift of $20 million to smaller projects, and keep it for the pedestrian bridge and find the rest of the money.
It is doable if we all try.