A thirty-minute subway ride from downtown Manhattan, at the very northern end of the island in Washington Heights, is Highbridge Park. Like most New York City neighborhoods, Washington Heights has its fair share of bodegas, barbershops, and restaurants. But Highbridge Park’s crowning glory, Ft. George Hill, makes this neighborhood different. A rugged mass rising directly to the right of the subway exit, the hill is home to the only mountain bike trails in Manhattan—winding, two-foot wide paths through a forest, over knotted logs, up and down mossy boulders, and beyond what you thought you knew about New York City’s parks.
Before Highbridge Park was a mountain-biker favorite, it was a mess. The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), a non-profit that evaluated the condition of the park in 2005, noted that it had been “a refuge for drug dealing, prostitution, and illegal dumping.” The joint efforts of the Regional Trails Program, the New York City Mountain Bike Association (NYCMTB), and IMBA resulted in the park’s transformation, removing several truckloads of trash and over 1,200 hypodermic needles during the process.
None of this would have been possible without the advocacy efforts of IMBA, the co-founders of the NYCMTB, Dawson Smith and Jamie Bogner, and Concerned Long Island Mountain Bicyclists (CLIMB). The combined activism of these groups convinced the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to allow the trails to be built, marking the first time since 1991 that bikes were allowed off-road in the city’s parks. The design included some beginner trails, a number of intermediate and advanced trails, and a BMX dirt jump course.
The amount of advanced trails outweighs beginner trails, however, leaving less options for novice riders to practice the sport. The only other two mountain bike parks in New York, each of which offer more beginner trails, are located far away from Manhattan. Creating more trails and improving existing ones in Highbridge Park could make cycling—especially mountain biking—more accessible in New York City.
Dawson Smith, 44, co-founder of NYCMTB and one of the original advocates for trails in Highbridge Park in 2005, is currently heading a project to do just that. “There are a lot of mountain bikers in the city, actually,” said Smith. “The funny thing is that the majority of them leave the city to go ride. We want to give them the option to ride for long periods of time in the city that they would get from riding areas outside of the city.”
But Highbridge Park is a long way away from reaching its full potential. The area is littered with beer cans, plastic bags, coffee cups, graffiti, construction tarps from a nearby work site, and enough broken glass to make any cyclist cringe. This trash is often discarded when pedestrians forgo the sidewalk at the edge of the park for a more direct route between Dyckman St, Ft. George Hill, and Ft. George Ave. What’s more, the frequent of passage of people through the bike park has contributed to the erosion of the hill and a deterioration of the trails that the NYCMTB fought so hard to create just eight years ago.
Thankfully, the NYCMTB is only $1,610 away from being able to actively engage both the park and the community by building new trails. These trails will offer more beginner-level courses for young New Yorkers looking to start mountain biking, while the more advanced courses will continue to challenge more experienced riders and provide serious aerobic activity. NYCMTB will also offer instructional courses teaching the basics of mountain biking and the importance of exercise to local youth. “There’s a lot of interest from the kids, as well as parents,” added Smith. “We want it to be a local place that kids can go and enjoy programs where they can spend a small portion of their day just exercising.” This comes at a time when childhood obesity across the U.S. is at an all time high.
Encouraging kids to be more active is important, but this project is about more than just biking. It’s about instilling an interest in park stewardship in the local youth groups that will help build the trails. Working alongside professionals, these kids will learn erosion control techniques and will be proud of the park that they built with their own hands.
The story of Highbridge Park, albeit incomplete, is a point of pride for neighborhood residents who are used to seeing the park as a haven for crime, not for recreation. “People are happy to know that there’s a positive use going on in this section of the park,” notes Smith. “All it needs is some positive to drive out the negative.” The group is currently awaiting approval of the course design and for proper funding to break ground. You can help here.