Revisiting the Shantytown ‘Hill’ of the Manhattan Bridge Approach

Posted on: January 20th, 2016 at 9:28 am by

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Once “The Hill,” the city is transforming this area into a pedestrian plaza

Grandiose visions are currently in play for the offset northern section of the Manhattan Bridge approach.  The small wedge of property that serves the sole purpose of providing a bike lane for inter-borough commuters is being converted into the Forsyth Street Plaza, a capital works project bringing amenities like table seating, “site furnishings,” bicycle racks, new trees, and a water fountain.

As such, we felt it prudent to re-publish a post we wrote five years ago about the sordid recent history of this spot (with a few updates). The wasteland once dubbed, “The Hill.”


“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.”

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

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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.

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Photo: The New Yorker

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:

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Photo: NYPL

The Hill was eventually dismantled on August 17, 1993. Authorities considered the shantytown a fire hazard known for spreading diseases like HIV, and rampant drug use

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

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