For decades, the gulf between Randall’s Island and East Harlem seemed larger than just the East River.
The newly reopened 103rd Street Pedestrian Bridge has been embraced in East Harlem as a symbol of unity.
An aging footbridge connecting them was dark, dank and closed part of the year, so the island was often reachable only by car. When the bridge was open, a police officer raised and lowered it every day at sunset. And while East Harlem children were starved for recreation space, new ball fields for private schools were built on Randall’s Island in 2010.
But on June 1, the 103rd Street Pedestrian Bridge opened after undergoing a two-year renovation, connecting the neighborhoods 24 hours a day for the first time in 30 years. And while the bridge isn’t as majestic as the George Washington Bridge or a tourist magnet like the Brooklyn Bridge, it has been embraced in East Harlem as a welcome symbol of unity.
“Sometimes I just come up on this bridge and stop and look around, right up here on the top,” said Katrina Maple, 64 years old. “It’s calming and relaxing. It feels like we finally got our backyard back.”
For longtime residents of East Harlem such as Ms. Maple, the 61-year-old pedestrian footbridge has had a dark past. In the early years when it was accessible at night, the 1,247-foot bridge was rundown and menacing, attracting homeless men pushing creaky carts, drug addicts looking for a fix and the occasional escapee from the island’s psychiatric hospital, neighborhood residents remember.
And there was high-profile crime. On Halloween in 1990, more than a dozen masked youths crossed the footbridge from East Harlem and attacked homeless people on the island with meat cleavers and bats.
By 1994, the city decided to close the bridge in mid-December as an experiment in crime prevention. Eventually, the bridge was closed entirely during the winter months.
East Harlem neighbors saw the closures as a clear sign that they were being shut out of the bucolic community of parks and open space and private bashes thrown by companies such as Bloomberg LP. “It was as if they didn’t want us there,” Ms. Maple said.
The footbridge connecting Randall’s Island to East Harlem has reopened.
And for some, isolating East Harlem from Randall’s Island gleaming new ball fields and hiking paths—even only part-time—seemed more sinister.
“A lot of people in the neighborhood have been concerned about them shutting it down. It seemed like the city didn’t want black folks in the park, you know?” said Saniqua Dimson, 17 years old, of East Harlem.
The private fields and parties—defended by park officials as necessary revenue-generators—still gall many in the neighborhood who see them as symbols of long-standing inequity. But unfettered access to the bridge has eased a bit of the tension.
On a recent evening, dusk surrounded the footbridge with an inviting, not a foreboding, silence. The Department of Transportation spent $16.8 million to restore the bridge with fresh coats of seafoam-green paint, a new electrical control system, and the installation of span-wide pedestrian fencing and handrails on both sides.
“It’s so calming to be here at night,” said 26-year-old Shaila Tompkins pushing a baby stroller. “I don’t feel scared to cross the bridge when its getting dark at all. It feels safe.”
That is by design. According to the city Parks Department, emergency call boxes and lighting have also been installed near the island.
More than 1,000 people crossed the bridge during its first fully open weekend, taking in a cool breeze from the river or breaking a sweat while jogging or cycling. It also attracts visitors from outside the neighborhood, such as schoolteacher Carolyn Turner, 31, of Morningside Heights, who carried two pink five-pound hand weights as she crossed the span.
“I crossed the bridge twice when I first got here because it’s like a low hill and the span is good for working out my legs,” said Ms. Turner, whose students in Harlem told her about the opening.
East Harlem residents describe the bridge and jaunts to Randall’s Island’s waterfront paths and gardens as a welcome time to stretch their legs and get fresh air.
“It’s been a long time coming for the bridge to be open, but I really like that I can come here by foot. We’re always stuck in subways, taxis, and cars,” said Jonqueil Stevens, 40, who has taken his son to Randall’s Island five times. “It feels good to be able to get to a natural space by walking. And it’s not like it’s a nasty dirty path, either. The bridge is so clean and just a straight shot.”