For decades, residents of the Bronx neighborhoods of Kingsbridge and Marble Hill have been plagued by sporadic flooding during rain storms, all because of a long-buried creek that few realize even exists.
Tibbetts Brook, which once flowed unobstructed for nearly four miles from its source in Yonkers to the Harlem River, was first interrupted in 1699 when the future New York City mayor Jacobus Van Cortlandt decided to dam the creek to power his sawmill. Much of the brook was diverted into what is now Van Cortlandt Lake.
Between the 1930s and 1960s, master builder Robert Moses buried much of what was left of the brook beneath culverts to make way for a series of highways he built through what was by then Van Cortlandt Park, and diverted the south end into the city's overtaxed sewer system. Since then, when it rains the mixture of freshwater and sewage overloads the city's waste treatment plant on Wards Island, forcing it to dump excess sewage into the Harlem River; at the same time, the loss of a natural watershed causes rainfall to back up storm drains, which results in flooding.
Determined to find a solution, an eclectic coalition of Bronx community groups are pushing for Tibbetts Brook to be the first New York City waterway to be brought back above ground. Termed "daylighting," the restoration of buried streams has taken off worldwide in such places as Seoul and Yonkers, and some elected officials and activists say that a similar project in the Bronx could not only eliminate the flooding that has caused so much grief for residents but also give the community additional access to parkland.
“The social and economic benefit for this community would be profound,” says Christina Taylor, executive director of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park. “Anyone who has dealt with the flooding would benefit economically. We would also be able to introduce a new and beautiful greenscape in the community.” The daylighting of Tibbetts Brook would also significantly reduce the amount of sewer overflow that pollutes the Harlem River during storms.
Yet the ambitious project to restore Tibbetts Brook may be in limbo, as the private freight rail company CSX has insisted on receiving more city money in exchange for a decommissioned rail line that would serve as the restored creek bed.
“CSX gave their word,” said city councilmember Councilman Andrew Cohen in a statement. “Their conduct is really, really shameful… The city is willing to pay.”
In 2016, Friends of Van Cortlandt Park launched the Coalition for the Daylighting of Tibbetts Brook, a group comprised of 24 like-minded elected officials and organizations in an effort to make the daylighting of Tibbetts Brook a reality. Since the coalition’s launch in 2017, the project has inched closer to becoming reality by gaining the support of elected officials such as Senator Chuck Schumer and the Parks Department.
As part of its Van Cortlandt Park Master Plan: 2034, the Parks Department plans to make the daylighting of Tibbetts Brook the centerpiece of its redesign of the park. In addition to restoring the park's natural wetlands they plan on rerouting the underground portion of the stream along the mile-long, abandoned Putnam Railroad right-of-way, which parallels the creek’s old course alongside the Major Deegan Expressway from Van Cortlandt Park almost to the Harlem River.
Ambitious in scope, the project is not cheap, with some estimating that the total cost could climb well over $50 million. The parks department has already partially committed to the project by including phase one of the project—which would restore the brook’s aboveground section within Van Cortlandt Park—in its $18 million wetlands restoration project for the park.
“The tracks have the ability to be something beautiful in this community instead of an eyesore,” says Taylor. “Ideally we would have bike paths along the brook that would connect the community to the river. It would give our community more access to green space as well.” In the Bronx, where childhood asthma rates are at 8.1 percent and obesity rates among children hover at about 32 percent, more access to parkland has the potential to boost neighborhood residents’ quality of life.
“This is one of the few [park] projects I have worked on that hasn’t been controversial,” continues Taylor. “You know it’s hard to please everyone but for most people who hear about this project it’s a no brainer. It’s like everyone is onboard.”
However, last year a dispute concerning the most critical component of the project put the daylighting dream in jeopardy. CSX Transportation, which owns the abandoned Putnam Railroad and is one of the largest freight rail operators in the country, backed out of an agreement it made with the city regarding the sale of the property. The rusted tracks haven’t been in use since the 1980s and have now reverted to a lush urban jungle of garbage and vegetation.
(Amir Khafagy / Gothamist)
In 2017 the city council passed a resolution urging CSX to either sell or donate the rail line. During the Bloomberg administration, CSX donated the final portion of the Highline to the city in 2012. Finding CSX unwilling to repeat its generosity in the Bronx, the city initially offered $2 million to acquire the property; CSX balked and countered with $13 million. After a series of negotiations brokered by Schumer, CSX and the city reached an agreement to split the cost of a private appraisal. It was also agreed that both parties would be bound by the price determined by the appraiser. When the appraiser returned their findings CSX refused to agree to it.
“The city has continued to negotiate in good faith with CSX,” added Nick Benson, spokesperson for the city Department of Citywide Administrative Services. “To date, CSX has rejected an offer based on an independent appraisal developed by a neutral third party.”
CSX did not respond to numerous requests for comment. In a previous statement last year, CSX stated that they have “a long history of working with the City of New York on property transactions that support their long-term goals and allow CSX to focus on its core business. We remain committed to working towards a mutually beneficial outcome.”
It’s not the first time that CSX has has backed out of similar deals. This past February, the Alachua County Commission in Florida terminated plans to purchase another CSX-owned abandoned rail line after CSX backtracked on the agreed-upon price of $3.25 million and demanded more than $4 million. In Ohio, the Trumbull County parks department was not able to secure CSX’s $2.8 million asking price for a railroad they planed on abandoning.
“We’re telling CSX, stop blocking the tracks and take ‘yes’ for an answer,” said Senator Chuck Schumer at a rally last fall in support of the project. “We cannot allow this project to be delayed just because CSX wants to squeeze a few more pennies out of the community.”
In the meantime, Friends of Van Cortlandt Park is determined to keep the project alive. The group has teamed up with urban arts organization City as Living Laboratory to create a series of interactive community art projects and walking tours that are aimed at building local awareness of the project as well as stress the importance of the Tibbetts Brook ecosystem. One of the projects was an interactive installation called Finding Tibbetts, which traveled through Bronx and Manhattan neighborhoods during the summer and fall of 2018. The installation was a mobile artificial wetland, partly made of a series of looped, water-filled clear vinyl tubes that were intended to simulate the waters of the brook.
“Everyone presumes there is no nature in the city,” says Marry Miss, founder and director of City as Living Laboratory. "But we want to reveal it by pairing artists with scientists and urban planners to make this creek an important amenity for this community.”
Unless the city is able to make headway in negotiations with CSX, it looks as if daylighting Tibbetts Brook will remain an activist dream. Nevertheless, supporters of the project are staying positive.
“We want to be optimistic about this,” exclaims Marry Miss. “Someone told me it will take another 20 years. I don’t want it to take that long. Part of the role we can play is to get the community to care about the project so it’s something they want to fight for themselves.”
Amir Khafagy is a New York City-based journalist. He has contributed to such publications as Curbed, CityLab, Dissent, Shelterforce, Jacobin, City Limits, and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter at @AmirKhafagy91.