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

43essex
Residents of 43 Essex Street Still Without Cooking Gas; DOB Issues Separate Stop-work Orders

More drama over at 43 Essex Street, where the stripped store remains barren. Activity revived last week with more shuffling about the premises; it appeared that build-out was back on track. Not so fast, though. The city quickly stepped in and shut it all down. The Department of Buildings sent an inspector last week, which […]

The Essex Market in 1969, Photo: Susan Fensten, Robert M. Cunningham Collection
Shopping the Essex Street Market in 1969 [PHOTOS]

This month marks the 76th anniversary of the Essex Street Market. With three years left until the collection of warehouse buildings is cleared for the opulence of Essex Crossing, it’s important to remember the history being left behind. These one-story brick structures were built by order of Mayor LaGuardia in 1940, with the purpose of […]

102allen-facade
USA Shaolin Temple Moving to 102 Allen Street

Photographer Alex Cao departed the second-floor loft at 102 Allen Street not too long ago. The studio had been a mainstay for over a decade, with images of pop-art framed in each of the windows. It’s all gone now, replaced with brown paper. The replacement is from left field. Here comes the twenty-two-year-old USA Shaolin […]

chrystie-street-demolition-3
2 Chrystie Street Buildings Amdist Demolition for Separate 10-Story Luxury Condos

Two Chrystie Street warehouse buildings are on the way out. Demolition is underway at both in order to usher in a new era of ODA-designed luxury. First up is 165 Chrystie Street, a stout brick box that hasn’t functioned in years. A restaurant supply company previously operated in the base, but not since moving across […]

rivington-house
Pols Line up Behind Legislation Aimed at Preventing Another Rivington House

As the Rivington House scandal continues to snowball and affect Mayor de Blasio’s footing, local politicians are now lining up to prevent the next such boondoggle from happening. Councilwoman Margaret Chin, alongside Borough President Gale Brewer, introduced new legislation yesterday that would reform the city’s practices concerning deed restrictions. The process – namely, a deed […]