Dock Street and Nepperhan Street between Warburton Avenue and Buena Vista Avenue, Yonkers
On December 6, 2011, over 300 people gathered at Larkin Plaza for a ceremony marking the opening of the newly uncovered Saw Mill River. For more than 90 years, the City of Yonkers had covered the river with asphalt. The “daylighting” of a two-block stretch of the river–part of a multi-phase project–marked an important stage in the downtown area’s revitalization. It has greatly enhanced the river’s health and helped to beautify downtown; it has also contributed to the gentrification of Larkin Plaza, raising important questions about the ties between social justice and environmental amenities.
To understand the importance of the river, and the environmental triumph of its resurfacing, one must examine its history. As long as there has been human settlement in what is today Yonkers, the river has been inextricably tied to the wellbeing of the people who call the area home. Prior to European colonization, the Lenape people referred to the waterway as the Nepeckamack, meaning “fish trapping place.”
In the 1600s, Dutch colonist Van der Donck built a sawmill along the river, leading to a change in its name, near its confluence with the Hudson River. Over time, as Yonkers became increasingly populated and industrialized, new mills and factories–in addition to housing– were constructed along and on top of the river, contributing to its degraded state.
A book from 1922, Old Yonkers, captures in many ways the complicated relationship between Yonkers and the waterway. The Saw Mill River, the author wrote, was an “important waterway, suitable for the location of many water power factories.” It was also, he said, “now…of no particular use…more of a nuisance than anything else.”
Due to the damming of the waters for mills, the building of a railroad over the mouth of the Saw Mill, and adjacent manufacturing, the river was so intensely polluted with raw sewage and industrial waste that the City of Yonkers, using the Army Corps of Engineers, covered the downtown stretch of the river completely in 1917. Soon thereafter, the City built a plaza, named after Mayor Thomas F. Larkin, above the river. The plaza served as a municipal parking lot until the waterway’s daylighting.
Conversations regarding the daylighting began several decades after the river’s burial. In 1992, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified the resurfacing of the river as a valid restoration project, and greatly energized those conversations in the process. In 1999, the newly-founded Groundwork Hudson Valley focused much of its work on the daylighting effort; and two years later, the organization took the lead in forming the Saw Mill River Coalition, which brought together a wide range of local entities and the City of Yonkers. With the help of Scenic Hudson, the Coalition convinced the State of New York to provide $34 million for the project. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water and the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Estuary Program also provided grants.
Phase I of the $48-million project concluded in 2012; this saw Larkin Plaza welcoming back the river’s flowing waters and the opening of Van der Donck Park along the daylighted river’s banks. Phases II and III of the daylighting project entailed the resurfacing of the river on Mill Street (2016) and at New Main Street (2018). Phase IV, at Chicken Island, is ongoing as of this writing.
Thus far, the daylighting has recreated 13,775 square feet of aquatic habitat.In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service named the resurrected river a National Fish and Wildlife Urban Refugee. Van der Donck Park now includes a tidal pool, a pedestrian bridge, an outdoor classroom, and an amphitheater.
The daylighting project and the creation of Van Der Donck Park have increased the interest of private developers in the Larkin Plaza area as manifest in new luxury apartment complexes targeting young professionals looking for an alternative to the five boroughs. What this means in terms of future access to the downtown area for working-class and low-income Yonkerites is an open question. It is one that many in Yonkers–not least Groundwork Hudson Valley–are aware of. It speaks to a fundamental challenge faced by Yonkers: how to revitalize downtown while also creating a city that is ecologically sustainable and environmentally just.
The Yonkers (Metro North) train station sits at the western edge of Larkin Plaza.