Glimpses of the Manhattan skyline flavor Harding Park’s ramshackle romance.
At the end of a peninsula in the Bronx there’s a place where the sidewalks end, the street grid releases its grip, and the world seems to have been improvised by residents happily left to their own devices. Harding Park sits on the west side of Clason (pronounced Clawson) Point, a tooth in the Bronx’s jagged waterfront where the East River broadens out into Long Island Sound.
“Harding Park Bungalows” are labeled at lower left (southwest) on this 1927 Bromley Street Atlas plate of Clason Point. Beneath this title, narrow lanes named for trees are tentatively overlaid on dashed extensions of full-bore streets. Neither system prevailed, but the unique result is better than what either had in mind. Immediately to the right of the bungalows, across White Plains Road, are two amusement parks, Clason Point Park and Kane’s Park. The trolley line that ran on Soundview Avenue is shown, with its turnaround at lower right, near the “Ferry to College Point.”
Norval White and Elliot Willensky’s AIA Guide to New York says Clason Point ”has, over the years, been labeled after its successive occupants: Snakipins (the native American Settlement), Cornell Point (after Thomas Cornell, 1642), and finally Clason Point (after Isaac Clason). Between 1883 and 1927 it was the home of Clason Military Academy, operated by a Roman Catholic order. Before the trolley came, in 1910, public access was via boat, launch or steamer from Long Island, Mott Haven and Manhattan. The waters were not polluted then. The attractions were dance halls and hotels, picnic grounds and a bathing pier, restaurants, a saltwater pool, and places with names like Dietrich’s, Gilligan’s Pavilion and Killian’s Grove, Higg’s Camp Grounds, and Kane’s Casino. (Kane’s Casino held out until it caught fire in 1942.) Between 1923 and 1938 the City operated a popular ferry service to College Point in Queens. Tragedy came in 1924 [in fact, 1922] when a freak wind squall blew down the Clason Point Amusement Park’s Ferris wheel (on the site of Shorehaven Beach Club, now endangered) killing 24 [in fact 8]. Prohibition, pollution and competition (from filtered pools like easily accessible Starlight Park in nearby West Farms) finally doomed the resort area.”
In his book, The Beautiful Bronx: 1920-1950, Lloyd Ultan writes that the Clason Point Amusement Park’s pool took its dirty and unfiltered water directly from the East River, earning it the nickname “The Inkwell.”
According to the Parks Department’s website: ”In the 1920s Thomas Higgs, who owned of about 100 acres of beachfront property, began leasing tents to visitors. Eventually Higgs’s Beach and the adjoining Killian’s Grove merged, incorporated, and then subdivided into small lots for a summer bungalow colony, which residents named for Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), the president at the time. After World War II a severe housing shortage inspired many Harding Park tenants to turn their bungalows into permanent homes. The community soon grew to about 250 families – mostly Irish, Scandinavian, German, and Italian – many making their living from the sea. For the next 70 years the tenants overcame a series of threats to their homes. In 1957 they survived Robert Moses’s (1888-1981) attempt to raze what he called the ‘Soundview Slums.’ In 1962 they countered eviction notices and rent increases and convinced the state legislature to pass a bill giving them the same rent-control protections as longtime tenants in pre-war apartment buildings. In 1979 the last private owner, Federated Homes, defaulted on outstanding tax bills and Harding Park became City property. Longtime residents and newer tenants banded together for their last challenge: convincing the City that they should own not only their homes, but also the property underneath.”
A close-up of the 1927 Bromley map shows the Clason Point and Kane’s amusement parks, just east of Harding Park. Attractions are individually labeled, including “Coaster,” “Gyroplane” and “Frolic.” A “Dance Hall & Pavilion” extend over the River. In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas sees Coney Island as a “permanent conspiracy against the realities of the the external world” and writes that “Coney’s new urbanism of fantastic technology generates spin-offs all across the United States, even on sites that do not nearly approach an urban density.” While its neighboring amusement parks are long gone, Harding Park feels like nothing so much as a conspiracy against the realities of the outside world.
The dark waters of the pool at the Clason Point Amusement Park, pictured in the early 1920s, earned it the name, “the Inkwell.” The park’s ill-fated ferris wheel is visible in the background at right. It was blown over in 1922 by a storm that “hit with the impact of a solid blow”, according to the New York Times’ account. Terrified riders watched approaching storm clouds driven by 75 mile per hour winds as they waited to be let off. 8 were killed and a dozen injured. (Photo: Arthur Siefert Collection)
Harding Park today in aerial view; bland apartment buildings occupy the former amusement park sites, but Harding Park, at left, persists in chaotic glory. The layout of parallel bungalow lanes is just legible, raking across persistent north-south streets with oddball alleys and piazza-like spaces thrown in for random good measure. Google Earth haphazardly labels its streets “P,” “Q” & “X,” as if they actually had an order to alphabetize.
A 1996 New York Times piece by Lizette Alvarez, ”Hispanic Settlers Transform Harding Park in Bronx, ” documents the neighborhood’s more recent history, largely through the eyes of Pepe Mena, its first of many Puerto Rican residents. Out for a drive with his wife in 1962, Mena saw something familiar in the ramshackle neighborhood: “It was Puerto Rico, the poor fishing villages of Puerto Rico.” He told his wife, “Here is a precious spot. There is possibility here.”
Harding Park’s narrow lanes and alleys feel nothing like New York. Some see Puerto Rico in it, but such associations aren’t needed to appreciate the neighborhood’s sense of psychic liberation. Its spontaneous homemade quality, common in third-world countries, is a notable rarity within the city’s rigid planning. Juxtaposed to everyday New York, much of Harding Park has the irrationality and unpredictability of a dream.
Many of the neighborhood’s houses have been rebuilt from the ground up by their owners’ hands. To help legalize their ownership and promote rebuilding, Mayor Ed Koch at one time exempted Harding Park’s houses and shacks from the New York City Building Code.
The primal appeal of a waterfront location is tinged with the glamour of Manhattan, seen in the distance. The visibility of a hard-edged Midtown makes the neighborhood’s relaxed quirkiness all the more special.
The neighborhood is home to an abundance of dogs, cats and homing pigeons. Its location directly under a major LaGuardia Airport flight path may protect it from gentrification.
Many of Harding Park’s bungalows remain in their original form. Nature, wild and cultivated, is a greater presence here than in other parts of the city.
A composed little house seems ready to be photographed by Gregory Crewdson. Walking through Harding Park, one is constantly drawn down unexpected byways and past sights that seem surreal in the context of New York.