HIGHBRIDGE — Most mornings, Chauncy Young bikes along the Harlem River with his 9-year-old daughter, pedaling from Highbridge in the Bronx to her school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Young, who is an education organizer in the Bronx, and his daughter, Isabel, savor the shoreline views, the exercise and their tranquil time together.
Their only problem is when they have to cross over from their home borough to Manhattan to ride along the water, since the Bronx lacks a connected waterfront trail.
But Young is determined to change that by creating an uninterrupted, nine-mile trail that spans the Bronx bank of the Harlem River.
Young and the all-volunteer organization he helped found, the Harlem River Working Group, believe that a great greenway would draw Bronxites to the water, transforming both the river and the people who use it.
"It’s about creating a healthy community and healthy children," said Young. "Once people get access to the waterfront, then they get invested."
Recently, the group watched the first piece of its waterfront vision take shape when the Parks Department began construction on a roughly mile-and-a-quarter waterfront trail, called the Regatta Greenway, to extend from the High Bridge to Roberto Clemente State Park.
Later this month, the group will hold a series of public meetings to describe this progress and to gather ideas for the other eight miles of greenway it hopes to bring to life.
The Harlem River, which flows between the Bronx and Manhattan, once lured boaters, swimmers and anglers to its shores. But today, much of the water is polluted by sewage overflows and trash, and access by foot or recreational boats is blocked by rail lines and the Major Deegan Expressway.
"We know of it," Frances Tejada, a lifelong Bronx resident and Young’s colleague at the Highbridge Community Life Center, said of the river. "But how are we going to get there and what are we going to do when we’re there?"
In recent years, the city has started to transform a few derelict stretches of Bronx shoreline into parks and trails. As part of the $195 million redevelopment of the area around the new Yankee Stadium, in 2009 the city transformed an old industrial site south of the stadium into Mill Pond Park, the first major waterfront park since Roberto Clemente State Park opened in 1973.
Next year, after a $60 million renovation, the city will reopen the High Bridge, a historic aqueduct over the Harlem River that is topped by a walkway connecting Washington Heights and the Bronx.
Just north of the High Bridge, the Parks Department bought two acres of waterfront land last fall and is in the process of acquiring three more, a department spokesman said. The department plans to develop a park at the site based on an architect’s design that calls for a riverfront promenade, picnic areas, a greenhouse and a boat launch, according to the spokesman, who added that funding must still be secured.
But several barriers to the water remain.
The Parks Department must acquire pieces of land from private owners, as well as city and state agencies, before it can complete the full Regatta Greenway. The Oak Point Link, a two-mile elevated rail line that runs along the riverbank, blocks many potential boat landings. And FreshDirect’s planned 500,000 square-foot facilities on the southern tip of the Bronx could poke a giant hole in the proposed borough-long greenway.
During three public meetings later this month and in April, members of the public can discuss these challenges, along with ideas to overcome them.
The Harlem River Working Group, which organized the brainstorming sessions, hopes that drumming up dreams for the river — sandy beaches, kayaking excursions, fishing docks — will invest the public in its future.
To help fuel the community’s imagination, the group will bring a nine-foot model of the river designed by graduate students from the Pratt Institute using a $35,000 grant from the river group. After the sessions, the students will incorporate the public’s ideas into a pamphlet illustrating a single vision for the river and greenway.
"Then we’ll have a united plan for the Harlem River greenway," Young said. "Until you put it on paper, it doesn’t exist."
The first public Harlem River meeting will be on March 22 at 6:00 p.m. at Hostos Community College, Room B502. Later meetings are on March 29 and April 5. See the Harlem River Working Group's Facebook page for more details.