The Shantytown of the Manhattan Bridge Approach

Posted on: March 25th, 2011 at 6:39 am by

Grandiose visions are currently in play for the offset northern section of the Manhattan Bridge approach.  The small wedge of property currently serves the sole purpose of providing a bike lane for inter-borough commuters.  Below the raised promenade on Forsyth, meanwhile, Chinese fruit and vegetable vendors regularly tend to swelling crowds of shoppers.  Yet as DNAinfo reported last month, this tiny piece of land could become a pedestrian-friendly “modern plaza” with plantlife, seating and public art installations.  If approved, the plan would return the sliver space to the glory of its maiden years, beginning in 1909.

manhattan bridge overlook

“The Hill.”  That was the pet name assigned to this triangular dump of wasteland back in the early nineties.  At the time, it was a squat shantytown of homeless folk.  Even though the makeshift settlement survived for years, snaps of the area during this period are rather scant.  But luckily, Boogie reader l.e.s.ter contributed this gem to our Flickr photo pool.  He writes, “I recently found some old negatives and that shot was among them taken when I passed through NYC in March of 1992…and I must have been drawn by the incongruity of the teepee against the urban backdrop.”

And the following shot was the next negative in his collection, taken of Eldridge and Division from the bridge:

On July 1, 1991, James Lardner of the New Yorker [Subscription] published an in-depth article about “The Hill,” which attracted the gaze of tourists and locals alike.

[Photo Credit: The Rat Conference]

Here are some choice excerpts:

The Hill-as the settlement alongside the Manhattan Bridge is known to its residents and neighbors-is small: only about twenty people living in fifteen structures. Of all the city’s current shantytowns, however, this one may be the most permanent-looking. A majority of the huts are made of wood, and most have locks. Some have been there for as long as four or five years.

Since the tepee’s arrival, the Hill has become a minor tourist attraction. People who come upon it for the first time-many of them pedestrians making the downtown circuit of Little Italy, Chinatown, and Wall Street-are astonished to find such a community in such surroundings, and those with cameras tend to whip them out and click away, usually from a position of concealment behind a parked car or a phone booth.

The inhabitants of the Hill are people who insist on a degree of autonomy and anonymity not to be found in a city shelter, but they have also rejected the isolation and uncertainty of life on the street. Like other such settlements, the Hill “contrasts starkly with the received and still prevalent image of homeless individuals as ‘disaffiliated…'”

Most of the Hill’s inhabitants are enterprising scavengers of abandoned furniture and appliances. They keep what they need, and sell, barter, or give away the rest.

The residents speak of an informal understanding with police officers from the local precinct-the Fifth-that any criminal activity is to take place outside its bounds…From time to time, the police have come by and searched the Hill for stolen goods.

AIDS is far from the only health problem that looms large on the Hill. On cold nights, many of the residents stay warm-or as warm as they can-by first burning wood in a trash can outside and then carrying containers loaded with glowing embers into their huts.

People move away from the Hill occasionally, but not as often as they talk about doing so.

Last July, the New York Post ran a story describing the Hill as “the city’s next battleground between squatters and rent-payers.” The story quoted a local real-estate agent, who pointed with disgust to the trash cascading onto Canal and Forsyth Streets and com-plained that Chinatown had been made a dumping ground for problems that other neighborhoods would never put up with.

The Hill’s inhabitants are living on a site that was all but aban-doned before they got there. They have as much right as most non-homeless people, perhaps, to feel that they have improved on what came before, and more right than most to think of themselves as having built a community from the ground up.

This is the poster which appears to the right of the refrigerator in the shantytown photo:

[Photo Credit: NYPL]

If you have pictures of The Hill, please drop us a line!

Recent Stories

85 Bowery Landlord Responds to Vacate Order, Alleges Illegal Conversion of Apartments to SRO

The controversial landlord of two Chinatown tenements is now responding to the ongoing drama with the embattled tenants of 83-85 Bowery. You’ll recall that last Thursday evening, as part of the ongoing legal case between the two parties, the State Supreme Court ordered an inspection of 85 Bowery. An alphabet soup of city agencies and […]

‘Spitzer’s Corner’ Closes for Renovations

For the first time in a long time, the southeast corner of Rivington and Ludlow Streets is relatively quiet. Ten-year-old Spitzer’s Corner closed this week for a slight makeover. Signs announcing the onsite renovations appear in the doorway of the establishment. This is an expected development. As previously reported, hated Hell Square operator Rob Shamlian is […]

Saying Goodbye to the Sunshine Cinema Before its Imminent Demolition

Ain’t no sunshine when it’s gone. Nor light from that fabulous marquee. Landmark Theaters’ Sunshine Cinema ended its Lower East Side tenure Sunday night after nearly two decades on East Houston Street. We paid a visit on the penultimate night, and it was mobbed with moviegoers getting their last licks before another neighborhood favorite meets the wrecking […]

‘La Caverna’ Nightclub Heads to SLA for its Multilevel Expansion on Rivington Street

When La Caverna first proposed its concept for Rivington Street in 2002, it was presented as an Italian restaurant. In fact, it was a bait-and-switch club that still has some Lower East Side residents are still coping. Now ownership hopes to expand La Caverna with a multilevel experience. Fooled once, yes. Not again. Fifteen years […]

Chad Marlow Resigns from CB3 After Removal from Committee Chair Position Over Liquor Density Fight

Newly appointed Community Board 3 chair Alysha Lewis Coleman stepped into controversy last week when she reportedly sacked member Chad Marlow from his post as Transportation committee chair, a seat he’s held for little more than a year and a half. And today he is completely resigning from the advisory board. The major bone of […]