Urban Alchemy: Starlight Park and the Nature of the Central Bronx

Starlight Park

"Bucolic" usually isn't the first word that comes to mind when thinking of the Bronx. Sure, those of us who know the borough well can easily summon to mind verdant images, but those are usually limited to specific locations, such as the tony neighborhood of Riverdale, or the massive Van Cortlandt or Pelham Bay Parks. The central Bronx, in contrast, would seem to most to be the exact opposite. Like most people's image of the borough as a whole, the central Bronx is incredibly and indelibly urban. And yet it is here, amongst a seemingly endless sea of highways, elevated trains, and densely-packed, slightly-worse-for-wear apartment buildings, that one can find one of the most serenely beautiful new spots in the entire city: Starlight Park.

Of course, Starlight Park isn't actually all that new: the first section of the rehabbed rounds opened a full ten years ago, in 2013. The park, however, is still just as astonishing now as it was the day it opened, a stunning oasis smack dab in the middle of somewhere that rarely sees such dramatic investments in the public realm. And yet, for all its grandeur, the existing Starlight Park was only ever supposed to be the first phase of a larger project, one which would wind up ultimately taking the better part of a decade to come to fruition. Just recently, however, in May of 2023, Starlight Park was finally completed, opening a new extension to the far shore of the Bronx River. This not only added new acreage and amenities, but worked to connect the park to more neighborhoods in more ways, most dramatically by helping to fashion a new, multipurpose green corridor through the heart of the urban Bronx. As anyone who works with cities will tell you, urban transformation can be a tricky thing to do right. Starlight Park and its new extension, however, demonstrate just what can be accomplished when cities invest in their public realm, especially in the neighborhoods—and for the people—that need it the most.

The neighborhood surrounding Starlight Park The neighborhood surrounding Starlight Park

As a place, the central Bronx very often tends to be overlooked or forgotten, even amongst the other neighborhoods of what is arguably the city's most overlooked borough1. The Bronx is traditionally split into East or West—or, on occasion, North and South. As a result, to outside observers, the neighborhoods that lie at its center can often feel indistinct and placeless, not even famous for the years of decline that have haunted the rest of the borough. Put another way, if the rest of the city thinks of the central Bronx at all, it is often as a kind of featureless jumble, an unending landscape of elevated trains, highways, and wall-to-wall New Law Tenements—that is, the urban constructions of a very specific past era. Of course, although that has a kernel of physical truth to it, it is ultimately misleading, and that puts it mildly. These neighborhoods are home to numerous thriving (if poor) urban communities, largely made up of working-class immigrants. As is so often the case however, the trials, travails, and triumphs of such communities rarely penetrate the consciousness of the wider city at large.

This backdrop is a large part of what makes Starlight Park such an unexpected joy. Here, in the middle of an ostensibly endless landscape of hard-worn urbanism, lies a lush riverside park, dense with trees and alive with animals. Here, at the crossroads of the Cross Bronx and (former) Sheridan Expressways—a place that Robert Moses once all but sacrificed on the altar of automobility—Bronx residents can finally gain access to the sparkling, tranquil shores of the Bronx River.

Here, at the crossroads of the Cross Bronx and (former) Sheridan Expressways—a place that Robert Moses once all but sacrificed on the altar of automobility—Bronx residents can finally gain access to the sparkling, tranquil shores of the Bronx River.

Of course, up until very recently, the idea that anyone would want to be able to access the Bronx River was nigh-unfathomable. New York may well be a city defined by its waterways, but for much of its history, its only significant freshwater river has been an afterthought—at best. In part, this is understandable: the Bronx River has never been as impressive—or posed as much of an obstacle to travel—as most of the city's other major waterways. Nor were its waters particularly navigable, meaning their economic value has mostly been tied to the power they could produce. As a result, from very early on, the Bronx River has largely been relegated to industrial uses, fast becoming a dumping ground for pollution, stormwater, and raw sewage. Indeed, by the early 20th Century, much of the river was essentially little more than an open sewer. Thus, when transportation finally opened the Bronx to urban development in earnest, builders largely turned their backs on the waterway, hiding it behind buildings and crossing it with bridges that do everything in their power to minimize the water's visibility and presence. A century later and this effort to make the river disappear has proven surprisingly effective. In fact, while taking pictures of its course from a bridge (one which stands next to the Bronx River Art Center, of all things), a local man fixing his car stopped to ask what the water down there actually was. Even though he lived nearby, he simply had no idea that the waterway that helped give his borough its name flowed right past by his home.

The Bronx River today The Bronx River today

All of that may soon be a thing of the past, however. Thanks to decades of hard work by the nonprofit Bronx River Alliance and its partners in the city's Parks Department, the riparian landscape has been significantly reborn. This has been more than a simple series of trash pickups: in reality, it has been closer to an entire ecosystem reconstruction. And as a result, the water and its environs are cleaner than they have been in generations. The river's banks are now lush with trees, shrubs, and animals, and while the water quality isn't yet ideal, it is now home to plentiful amounts of fish, up to and including the size of alewife. This reconstruction hit an unexpected crescendo in early 2023 when, almost unbelievably, dolphins made their way upriver as far as Starlight Park for the first time in living memory2. Thanks to this work, the Bronx River is suddenly no longer a place to be avoided at all cost, but a thriving natural oasis serenely threaded through the heart of some of the densest communities in the country. Now, it is a place that people might actually want to be able to experience, and now, thanks to places like Starlight Park, it is somewhere that they can readily access.

That is no accident. Unlike many other natural conservation groups, the Bronx River Alliance has never focused just on restoring the waterway for nature's sake alone. Instead, the organization has always sought to ensure that the restored river would be as much a home for the urbanites that live and work around it as it would be for the plants and animals that live there now. This philosophy has led the organization to not only focus on infrastructure like water treatment, shore reconstruction, and parks, but also on community outreach, offering those along the river opportunities ranging from education to gardening to employment to recreation. On the physical side, however, this urban approach has also been the impetus behind the ongoing construction of the Bronx River Greenway, a combination walking path, bike trail, and linear park that will eventually form a continuous network linking all the communities that line the river together3.

The Bronx River Greenway The Bronx River Greenway

Starlight Park's new eastern section helps complete a major link in the Bronx River Greenway. Today, it is now possible to travel on foot or by bike all the way along the river from Hunts Point at the southeastern tip of the Bronx up through Concrete Plant Park (a place worthy of its own piece—one which is hopefully in the pipeline), across Starlight Park, and eventually reach E. 177th Street, near the middle of the borough. What's more, another short link is already under construction that will soon bring the path even further: all the way up to E. 180th Street and Bronx Park—a spiritual center of the Bronx, home to both the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden.

In many ways, it's fitting that Starlight Park sits at the center of the Bronx River's tremendous turnaround, as the history of the site is something of a microcosm of the history of the borough itself. Originally, Starlight Park was an amusement park which opened in 1918 at what was then the leading edge of the city. At the time, New York was in the middle of a massive subway expansion, one explicitly designed to ease crowding while also accommodating the seemingly endless waves of population growth that the city was experiencing by opening up more land for housing4. As a new set of elevated tendrils snaked their way across the Bronx, they brought with them a veritable tsunami of dense urban development, resulting in the physical landscape of much of the borough today. The Bronx was approaching its zenith, and Starlight Park was riding its coattails, growing in stature and reputation. As attendance grew, the park diversified, opening a 15,000 seat area, the New York Coliseum, on part of its grounds in 1928. While the building itself was actually a structure relocated from Philadelphia, the Coliseum quickly became a major institution, playing hosts to numerous events, circuses, competitions, and shows, including overflow events from its more famous Manhattan sibling, Madison Square Garden. For a time, it even hosted its own radio station5.

The 174th St Subway Station in the Bronx
The 174th St Subway Station in the Bronx Subway extensions helped the Bronx to grow.

But although high demand and rapid growth made the prosperity of both the borough and the park seem assured, things would soon turn south, and fast. By the 1930s, the depression was already hitting the park hard, particularly as it was already beginning to show its age—something perhaps made worse by having constructed an area instead of new rides 6. Either way, the ongoing financial terminal and the brewing war made further investment a difficult proposition. This already delicate situation soon turned catastrophic as a devastating fire swept through the grounds in 1932. Although it would soldier on for a few more years, by 1940, Starlight Park was bankrupt, its land sold to the city. The war, however, would forestall any immediate plans, and by the time hostilities had ended and the economy had begun to return to normal in the early 1950s, things had started to look much worse for both the park and for the borough that surrounded it. Redlining and suburban flight were quickly beginning to transform what had been prosperous, middle-class communities into racially-defined neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and marginalization. Making matters worse, many of the city, state, and federal efforts designed to help only exacerbated the situation. First, the entire northeast corner of the park—surrounding the Coliseum—was flattened and paved over, with the building itself being gutted and shorn of its adornments. It would be refashioned into the main garage for the the deeply unpleasant West Farms Bus Depot, a vital piece of infrastructure that nonetheless does nothing positive for the surrounding urban community. It was an ignominious end for a once illustrious structure—a punishment which continues to this day, as the unrecognizable Coliseum still soldiers on as the facility's main garage. Next, the new Sheridan Expressway was constructed along the western side of the park, gouging out a concrete moat that would forever separate the grounds from the neighborhoods that surround it. And if that were not bad enough, not long after, the Cross Bronx Expressway would bring one final insult, not only cutting its way right across the belly of the park, but choking it with tendril-like connecting ramps—many of which were never even used, as they were reserved for an expansion to the Sheridan that never came. During this evisceration by expressway, the New York State Department of Transportation would build a small park bearing the original amusement ground's name in the middle of its traffic tangle. This patch of green, though, was little more than an afterthought, simply existing to fill the voids between the expressways. Starlight Park's fate, it seemed, was sealed.

The West Farms Bus Depot and former New York Coliseum The West Farms Bus Depot and its garage, once the New York Coliseum7

For the next few decades, as the Bronx continued to decline and as New York City itself reached its nadir, flirting with bankruptcy, the picture remained much the same. By the early 1990s, however, things had finally begun to change. The city was starting to recover, and neighborhoods of all income levels were again starting to grow and come back to life. Meanwhile, the second half of the decade would see the founding of the Bronx River Alliance, whose clean-up operations would slowly but steadily begin to have their desired effect. Soon, for the first time in over a century and a half, the Bronx River's banks would again come to life, with not just riparian greenery, but also new opportunity. All of the sudden, the organization's goals of not just improving the river's natural environment, but using it to improve the lives of those who lived nearby, began to seem possible. And soon, plans for a series of parks and paths began to firmly take root.

Interestingly enough, this idea wasn't exactly a new one. In fact, it shared more than a passing resemblance to plans made more than a century earlier. When nearby Bronx Park was completed in the late 1880s, it represented something more than simply an achievement of recreational planning. It also stood as the culmination of a wide-ranging plan that was specifically designed to prevent the exact kind of industrial encroachment that had devastated the river's southern reaches. Over the prior decade, it had become clear the Bronx would be New York's next development frontier. To try to avoid repeating what had happened in Manhattan and maintain some of the borough's natural amenities, leaders at the time came together to set aside park land ahead of development—one of the first instances in US history where public urban infrastructure preceded settlement. The goal was more than just parkland, however: leaders also hoped to protect the river from contamination by either industrial or dense residential development (like many of their time, the planners of the era drew little distinction between the two), preserving it as a green space for future generations of New Yorkers. It was a plan in many ways far ahead of its time. Unfortunately, however, it was only partially successful, at best. While the Bronx's parks are indeed beautiful and beloved, even a set of parks in one city alone could not control the health of an entire riverine ecosystem. Even the humble Bronx River's watershed was bigger than any single municipal jurisdiction, and the pollutants and sewage that began to be introduced upstream would continue to foul the water. In the long run, it would take consolidated action on a larger scale—first by Westchester County, then later through the coalition-building work of the Bronx River Alliance—to make the dream of a healthy, preserved river a reality8.

The Bronx River, feeling a world apart from the city around it The Bronx River, feeling a world apart from the city around it

The new Starlight Park was as much a component of the river's restoration as it was a response to it. It would serve to clean and restore the river's banks, helping to repair the ecosystem, while also providing a place for people to enjoy it, all in one fell swoop. The park's first phase opened in 2013 after a ten year, $18 million renovation, and from the moment the gates opened, it was clear that this was a special place—not to mention an environmental revelation. Inside, snaking paths bring people close to the river's healing banks, letting them pierce the deep riparian foliage and experience the cool, quiet solitude of a forest riverbank—one that just so happens to somehow exist in the middle of a massive, urban city. Nearby, open, grassy meadows provide an airy counterpoint to the dark tree canopy, creating bright spaces for picnicking, sunbathing, and play. In these naturalistic sections, Starlight Park feels on the same level as any of Frederick Law Olmstead's pastoralist parks, crafting a space that seems wild while being constructed, and which while deep in the city, nevertheless feels a world apart.

If the bucolic is not for you, however, don't despair. For all that Starlight Park works in certain places to create a pastoral paradise, it also never forgets that it is also an urban park, and so must equally be set up to serve urban life. Everywhere you turn, the space has been crafted to enable all sorts of different people to do all sorts of different things—both together and apart—all in close proximity. Fenced-off beds of delicate, native flowers, for instance, could have just been decoration for nature lovers. Here, however, they instead serve double duty, helping to insulate and demarcate bustling playgrounds full of children. The park's largest open space is not some airy meadow, but a giant, centrally-located field of hard-wearing artificial turf. This tract creates a home for multiple athletic fields, all of which can be used almost continuously for much of the year—an important consideration given just how well patronized they are. Perhaps most importantly of all, benches abound, some secluded and facing the water for pensive thoughts or quiet moments, others more congenial, facing paths, fields, or busy basketball courts. It is a near-perfect collection of urban park amenities.

Starlight Park's turf field
Starlight Park basketball court
The more cosmopolitan parts of Starlight Park
The more active, cosmopolitan parts of Starlight Park

What is truly breathtaking, however, is how Starlight Park manages to combine both these pastoral and cosmopolitan sections into an almost alchemic urban whole. It is a space in which people can seamlessly experience everything from quiet solitude to play, exercising, and people watching, all in the same small area. It is a kind of magic trick, one which has paid dividends as the park fills with a lively mix of people almost every day of the week, in almost all types of weather. These urbanites, in turn, fill this pastorally verdant landscape with an entirely different type of life all their own—one that is both incredibly welcome and right at home.

Probably the best feature of Starlight Park's original phase, however, was saved for last—assuming, of course, you entered from the north. The park originally ended at a lazy S-bend in the river, a wide turn of water that forms what looks like a large, gentle basin. Here, ramps dropped down to a small plaza at water level, which in turn served as a launching pad for two floating docks jutting out into the false pond. While these were primarily designed for kayakers, they actually got (and still get) far more use from people seeking a secluded way to commune with the river. Sitting on their original form, floating just above the surface, looking out at a landscape of unhurried water and dense foliage, the world seemed to slow down. All of the sudden, quiet details made themselves known: the gentle breezes, the birds flittering from tree to tree, the surprising amount of fish bobbing to the surface in search of food. On these docks, the city seemed to evaporate, and it became hard to believe that you were still sitting in the middle of the urban Bronx.

An overview of Starlight Park's Docks
Starlight Park's docks
Starlight Park's docks
Yes, this is the Central Bronx

In short, Starlight Park’s first phase was a sublime surprise, one that was always going to be a hard act to follow. But while the newly opened parts are indeed somewhat less transformatively magical than their elder siblings, they remain just as impressive—albeit in their own way. The expansion was almost certainly more difficult and time consuming than its planners would have liked. Although it only occupies around one-fifth the area of the original grounds, it took a further ten years and another $41 million to reach finally fruition9. Some part of that was unfortunately due to Amtrak: the eastern side of the park now runs directly alongside the tracks of the Northeast Corridor, and the railroad had numerous concerns over bridges, drainage, and the like10. The main factor, however, is immediately apparent walking through the expansion: it is built around far more expensive pieces of hard infrastructure than its predecessor had been.

The bulk of this new construction is centered on the same basin that had previously served as the park’s end. Instead of a quiet terminus, a massive but stately tied-arch bridge now flies over the river’s gentle turn, carrying people and bikes to the opposite shore. There, at the foot of the crossing, the ground has been built up into a massive piece of earthwork: a tall, terraced hillside of stairs and ramps. This new hill partly exists to support the new arch bridge and allow people to reach it, but it also rises further still to eventually support yet another new crossing, this one over the railroad tracks. While the arch bridge clearly exists to allow the southern part of the park to reach the far shore, the second new overpass actually serves two functions. First, it breaches the wall formed by the railroad to create a new, southeastern entrance to the park, making the grounds far more accessible for the residents of western Soundview. At the same time, it also carries the Bronx River Greenway up and over the rails, allowing it to continue its long journey downriver on the other side of the tracks. Stepping back, the manufactured hill built to support these two new bridges is unexpectedly massive, but also surprisingly handsome, with lush landscaping and high-quality stonework. Even the winding, trail-like ramp that provides step-free access feels more like a fun and whimsical detour than a punishment—a feat that far too many accessibility and bicycle features fail to achieve. Meanwhile, the top of the hill provides gorgeous new views extending far down the Bronx River valley, offering a clear line of sight all the way down to Hunt’s Point and the Triborough Bridge at the Bronx’s southern tip. All this new infrastructure is undoubtedly a wonderful addition, with the only drawback that the sleek arch bridge and massive new hill somewhat destroy the sense of splendid isolation that once accompanied the docks. Make no mistake, they still present a beautiful backdrop—one which will certainly only grow more attractive as the young trees and plants grow in—but it's now much more of an architectural, engineered beauty than a naturalistic or pastoral one.

Starlight Park's new hill
Starlight Park's new hill
Starlight Park's new hill
Starlight Park's new hill
How the bridge affects the docks
Never let a traffic engineer paint your pedestrian and bike bridge
Starlight Park's new hill, the new bridge's effect on the docks, and why you should never let a traffic engineer paint your pedestrian and bicycle bridge.

Heading north from the basin and bridges, the new Greenway path runs along the Bronx River's eastern shore, directly paralleling the railroad tracks. While the dead-straight path is a bit visually uninteresting in and of itself, it does allow a good view of just how well used the Greenway already is. The number of people riding e-bikes and e-scooters is particularly remarkable: motorized micromobility is already changing how people experience and use trails like these, opening up new ways of traveling quickly through space, be it for travel, recreation, or both. As for this part of the park, along one side of the path the dense foliage of the Bronx River shore provides the occasional glimpse of the water's quiet course. Every so often, however, this tranquil peace will be briefly interrupted from the other side by a passing Amtrak train, a thundering yet alluring reminder of the outside world. All along this part of the Greenway, a clever little combination of furniture is repeated at regular intervals: a bike rack, a bench facing the path, a bench facing the river, another bench facing the path, and another bench facing the river. These create little seating pods that help to ensure that, however you got to Starlight Park, and whatever you want to do while you're there, the space is set up as best as possible to be usable for you.

A straight part of the Bronx River Greenway
A seating and bike pod
An Acela train pays Starlight Park a visit
A straight part of the Bronx River Greenway, a seating and bike pod, and an Acela train paying Starlight Park a visit.

Meanwhile, in the other direction from the basin, heading south along the eastern shore, the walking trail continues to a quiet dead end at a pair of new dog parks. To be honest, this little cul-de-sac is a bit odd: while it is a requirement of the site, better signage might help make this strange peninsula clearer for first timers. Otherwise, the good design continues, and as has become the standard, the dog parks are broken up into one for large dogs and one for small. And while there were no dogs present on my visit, that didn't mean that no one was taking advantage of the relative isolation, as a number of couples were making good (and yes, respectful) use of the quiet benches.

While that is the basic outline, as with any complex urban space, given time and space, there is so much more that could be said about Starlight Park. How it masterfully blends the bucolic and the urban, seamlessly transitioning from densely-forested riverside trails and open, pastoral meadows into a busy urban park and back again—all within the space of a few steps. How well-used it is: just empty enough in its wilder parts to give a feeling of comforting solitude (with little alarming loneliness), but also quite busy and bustling in its more traditional sections, full of people picnicking, exercising, playing, and just hanging out—all while never feeling crowded. How the headquarters of the Bronx River Alliance—Bronx River House—is a beautiful but dead architectural specimen, just crying out for an activation as public as the rest of the space around it (its parking lot is a drag, too). How the much ballyhooed conversion of the Sheridan Expressway into a surface boulevard has largely been an abject failure: it remains a massive, high-speed roadway that forms a deeply uncomfortable barrier for pedestrians—and worse, largely remains an expressway through the park itself as it comes to its interchange with the Cross Bronx. For all of the invigorating contrasts posed by Starlight Park, this is clearly the worst: the sight of large family picnics backed up against larger-than-life highway signs is a hard concerto to celebrate. Sure, on the one hand, it represents deeply-human urban life rising out of the cracks of destructive, auto-centric urban renewal. On the other, however, the park—now a busy recreational space for people with few other quality options—is filled with far more exhaust, noise, and particulate matter than can possibly be healthy. While a huge improvement, this is hardly a slam dunk for environmental justice.

The (former) Sheridan Expressway through Starlight Park
The (former) Sheridan Expressway through Starlight Park
The (former) Sheridan Expressway through Starlight Park
The (former) Sheridan Expressway is an uneasy fit—to say the least—with Starlight Park

And yet, it's still incredibly easy to see what brought these people here. Starlight Park is a miraculous piece of alchemy, a seamless combination of natural greenery and cosmopolitan city life that all comes together to form a singular, living urban space. At its best, it is an elysian arcadia, neatly shoehorned into the often deeply imperfect city that surrounds it—a perfect spot both for those who live nearby as well as for anyone seeking a beautiful place to spend time in the city. It is a masterclass in the nuances of park design, not to mention a superb location to study all of the many facets of outdoor urban life. It shows how public spaces can help enable all sorts of activities to come together into a single emergent whole.

Bronx River House Bronx River House

On this topic of urban function, however, there is one potential criticism that, given some of the pressing issues of the New York region, is particularly worthy of discussion: the spectre of so-called green gentrification. The charge has been leveled at many similar new parks and trails in large, expensive cities across the country. Essentially, so the argument goes, these types of projects make a neighborhood a more attractive place to live—and especially, in the more cynical tellings, attractive to a specific, affluent class of creative professionals—and as a result, whether intentionally or not, attract wealthier residents and higher-end investments that may not have considered the location previously. These new arrivals, in turn, cause rents to rise, attract new businesses that shift the neighborhood's cultural character, and ultimately, if the market is tight enough, lead to a displacement of the existing low-income population11.

But while the green gentrification argument presents a compelling straightforward narrative—one which contains a kernel of truth—it can also obscure as much as it enlightens, leading to misunderstandings or, worse, dangerous courses of action. For one thing, like much of the discourse that surrounds gentrification, the argument tends to ignore changing realities beyond the local level of the neighborhood. Put simply, if enough people have decided that they want or need to live in cities—in other words, if regional and national markets have shifted towards valuing urban real estate—then housing prices will almost certainly rise, especially if the supply of housing remains the same. This will be true regardless of the construction of any new amenities, and indeed, many neighborhoods in high-demand cities have exploded in value with little or no investment from the public sector at all. More worryingly, when the green gentrification argument is taken in its strongest form, it can almost come across as an impassioned plea for today's deeply inequitable status quo. After all, why should anyone invest in the public space infrastructure of a poor or disadvantaged community if it will only inevitably lead to displacement? Trying to maintain housing affordability in expensive cities by ensuring that certain neighborhoods stay crappy places to live is a fool's errand. Not only is it cruel and unfair to the people who live there now, but it's also highly unlikely to have much if any effect on displacement, either.

As a park, it threads the needle perfectly: it is at once pastoral and metropolitan, at once solitary and communal, at once separate from the city yet also fully a part of it. In a word, it is urban.

With all that said, however, the green gentrification argument does have a bitter kernel of truth to it—at least for certain cities and certain situations. In part, this is simply because wherever housing demand is sky-high, anything that focuses the market risks becoming an accelerant, funneling demand into a laser beam of concentrated change. Of course, since cities have no counterfactuals, this can be hard to disentangle from other effects, and it is hard to know what might have otherwise happened without public investment. In most cities, however, quality public spaces like Starlight Park are a rarity that are very much in demand, making each and every new example that much more of a potential catalyst. What's more, the actual decisions many cities have made about where to construct public space over the past few decades have only served to bolster the argument. As a general rule, cities have tended to locate these types of hip, lusciously-designed parks and trails in transitional areas—that is, places they already have a reasonable hope will grow economically, attracting more middle- and upper-class residents and businesses—and not necessarily in the most park-starved, underserved neighborhoods. As a catalyst for local economic growth, this can make sense: cities only have so many resources, and so using them where they can achieve the highest return can be rational from certain points of view. In that type of situation, however, without any other programs to subsidize and maintain long-term affordability—and without any initiative to build new housing throughout the region—existing residents can easily wind up placed at a high risk of displacement. Suffice it to say, such a situation is far from ideal.

And yet, whatever one thinks of any of these green gentrification arguments, Starlight Park is a very different project, and happily seems unlikely to spur that type of displacement any time soon. Unlike far too many other new urban public spaces—which are only built on the fringes of an expanding core of wealthy and/or high-status residents—Starlight Park is located deep in the heart of the immigrant, working-class Bronx. Right now, at least, this is somewhere far from the front lines of gentrification—however one defines that term. Of course, given the growth trajectory of New York City real estate, that could change, and quickly. For the moment, however, Starlight Park represents something quite different from other park and trail projects like New York's Highline, Atlanta's BeltLine, or The 606 in Chicago. It is a sparklingly beautiful new park built not in a favored quarter or an aspirational neighborhood, but right in the heart of an unsung working class community. On a physical level, it brings environmental remediation and high-quality green infrastructure to some of the places that need it the most. And on a symbolic level, it makes it clear that the space is meant for existing residents, and not just for those who might someday replace them. Indeed, Starlight Park—like the rehabilitation of the Bronx River in general—can be seen as a statement about what effective urban investment can look like. It demonstrates that every community, even (or perhaps especially) those often overlooked by the broader public, deserves high-quality public space and high-quality public infrastructure.

The Bronx River Art Center
Connection to Soundview
A preserved New York, Westchester, and Boston Railway signal gantry
Left to Right: The Bronx River Art Center, the new connection to Soundview, and a preserved railroad signal gantry in the park.

Ultimately, however, one thing that the green gentrification discourse makes crystal clear is that, while few things are more fundamental to dynamic human systems like urbanity than change, urban transformation very often leaves an air of discontent—at least for some. In large part, this is because urban change tends to be the result of many different forces, desires, and people, all pushing different things in different directions, and while some outcomes can be more equitable or fair than others, there is rarely a single result that could leave absolutely everyone happy. In this regard, however, the rebirth of the Bronx River is something very special, indeed. While I'm sure there is at least one professional contrarian who could wax poetic about the foul, abandoned romance of the Bronx River's past, in reality, what had once been little more than a polluted, forgotten wasteland is now a gorgeous, living ecosystem—not to mention a dollop of the type of nature that dense but poor neighborhoods like the central Bronx so rarely get. More than that, however, the turnaround of the Bronx River is not simply a naturalistic success, but an ecological achievement undertaken with a fundamentally urban care. The Bronx River Alliance and its allies were forced to confront many of the conflicts that exist between healing a natural ecosystem and building urban space. And by deftly navigating each one in turn, they have found a way to make the river thrive, not just for its plant and animal inhabitants, but for all those who live and work around it, as well.

Few places highlight this better than Starlight Park. Simply put, it is not only a breathtaking transformation, but a magical place. This narrow strip of land wedged in between an expressway and a busy set of railroad tracks should, by all rights, be dead, lifeless, and unusable. Instead, it has been transformed into a vibrant space pulsating with life of all kinds, both human and otherwise. As a park, it threads the needle perfectly: it is at once pastoral and metropolitan, at once solitary and communal, at once separate from the city yet also fully a part of it. In a word, it is urban. And if that already weren't enough, Starlight Park also manages to carefully navigate yet another clash of conflicting forces. This park is not another present to the neighborhoods and communities that already have the most, but instead was built for and near those who lack easy access to good park space or wild nature—all without excluding anyone who wishes to share in the experience. Hopefully, the construction of Starlight Park is a sign that neighborhoods like the central Bronx will no longer be overlooked, forgotten, or (as in the past) entirely sacrificed to auto traffic, but will instead finally take their place as equal and important parts of New York City. Either way, however, it is wonderful to see such a dramatic urban transformation accomplished so adeptly, especially with such an intoxicatingly alchemic result.

Did you enjoy this article? Want to help support independent, professional urbanism, urban writing, and urban critique? Considering helping The Fox and the City by either: