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Today’s New York Times Story

Harlem River, Cut Off From Public, Is Getting a Push Out of Isolation

One by one, the rivers around Manhattan have emerged from decades of industrial abuse. The Hudson River has its five-mile ribbon of parkland and active kayaking community; the Bronx River, the occasional beaver sighting; and the East River, a popular ferry service — all contributing to the sense that New York is, in fact, a river city.

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Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Swindler Cove is on the river in Sherman Creek Park, once an illegal dumping ground.

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Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Mill Pond Park, a 10-acre oasis with tennis courts in the Bronx.

One waterway has lagged, however. The Harlem River, a 9.3-mile channel that flows from the Hudson River to the East River, remains gritty and industrial. Major highways and train tracks cut the public off from the water on the Bronx side, and pipes that discharge raw sewage during heavy rains dot both shores.

But there are signs of progress, with public and private investment pouring into new and existing parks. And there is now a robust circle of advocates pressing the river’s case.

“It’s one of the most alluring, but unmet water frontiers in New York,” said Roland Lewis, president of theMetropolitan Waterfront Alliance, an umbrella organization of nonprofit boating groups and maritime businesses. “When you’re on the Circle Line, you’re amazed at the beauty. But there is virtually no access on either side.”

Perhaps the clearest indication that the city is committed to the Harlem River is the $62 million reconstruction of the High Bridge, whose lofty Roman-style arches span the river and connect Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. The pedestrian bridge, opened in 1848, was a popular gathering spot in the early 1900s, a place where people took in the scenery in the latest fashions.

The bridge fell into disrepair and closed for good in the early 1970s. Reviving the bridge, which extends from Highbridge Park on the Manhattan bank, was one of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s most ambitious park initiatives. When it opens next year, the bridge — still off limits to cars — will give the park-deprived residents of the South Bronx access to the greener landscape across the river, in particular the 130-acre Highbridge Park, with its enormous outdoor pool.

“It’s really the centerpiece of the Harlem River corridor,” said Jennifer M. Hoppa, the parks department’s administrator of parks in northern Manhattan, referring to the High Bridge project. “It’s the midpoint.”

Highbridge Park, which is separated from the river by the Harlem River Drive, overlooks an important link in the Bloomberg administration’s plan to create an uninterrupted greenway around Manhattan, with bicycle and walking paths. The city has invested $1 million into upgrades for an esplanade that runs from 162nd to 200th Street.

But to the south, from 162nd Street to 120th, gaps remain.

One can see and feel the river more easily in Manhattan than in the Bronx, where train tracks hug the eastern shore. In 2007, parks officials created five street-end parks in the Inwood section of Manhattan: miniplazas with benches overlooking the river. One park, at 202nd Street, has steps descending to the water for kayaks and other light craft. “It’s something we could do quickly, since the city had control of the street ends,” Ms. Hoppa said.

Perhaps the most dramatic addition of parkland on the Harlem River has come from a nonprofit group, the New York Restoration Project, founded by Bette Midler. After cleaning up Fort Tryon and Fort Washington Parks on the Hudson, the group turned its focus to the Harlem River. Working with the parks department, it reclaimed a forlorn piece of garbage-strewed wetland on the river just south of Dyckman Street, and invested $17 million in what is now Sherman Creek Park: a 15-acre oasis with walking paths, wildflowers and a boathouse.

Designed by the architect Robert A. M. Stern, the boathouse, opened in 2004, is the headquarters of Row New York, a nonprofit group that has introduced low-income children to rowing, in sleek racing shells more often associated with Ivy League crew. “It was a brownfield site filled with old cars,” said Deborah Marton, senior vice president for programs at the New York Restoration Project.

The group is now holding a design competition for a new education center to be built in Sherman Creek Park. The building will serve as an example of storm-resilient architecture, while allowing the group to hold education programs in urban ecology no matter the weather. “We’re in a flood zone so this building will flood and it will be fine,” Ms. Marton said.

On the other side of the river, a coalition of 50 community groups and government agencies, called the Harlem River Working Group, is determined to return the waterfront to the Bronx. With the nonprofit organization Trust for Public Land, the group last year issued a report, the Harlem River Greenway Vision, with ideas for better access and potential locations for new parkland. “The Bronx side has been left behind,” said Marc A. Matsil, the trust’s New York State director.

There are bright spots, however. In 2009, the parks department built Mill Pond Park, 10 acres on the river with 16 tennis courts, picnic areas and a jogging path. The $64 million project was one of several parks the city created to replace parkland lost in building the new Yankee Stadium.

Farther north, near the Alexander Hamilton Bridge, is Bridge Park, a new half-mile finger of parkland that extends to Roberto Clemente State Park. Construction on the $4.1 million park is finished, but the city, citing safety concerns, is waiting for the New York State Transportation Department to finish renovation work on the Hamilton Bridge before opening it.

In the meantime, the Trust for Public Land has seized on every chance to expand the parks. Last year, together with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a foundation, it bought an 0.58-acre parcel near the High Bridge. The land had belonged to a local church, which had leased it to a dog pound. “There were dozens of dogs in chains on the site,” Mr. Matsil said. “They were not doing well.”

His vision for the future park includes a green lawn and kayak launch, although the city will ask the community for its opinions.

“Despite all the challenges,” Mr. Matsil said, “the river still provides fish habitat for red hake, winter flounder, Atlantic sea herring and blue fish. It also connects to multiple watersheds, and there aren’t many water bodies that do that in the city.”