I first noticed the river because it did not seem to be noticed by anyone else.
It’s an orphan of sorts, the mercurial Bronx River, wandering through the ages of New York’s growth and perpetually neglected by history, despite being the only freshwater river in New York City. Left for the taking, the river was once a source of fish for native tribes; exploited by early traders for its beavers; used by European settlers as energy to fuel various types of mills, and is now a renewed waterway nestled between a rail system (Metro-North) and a roadway (the Bronx River Parkway).
Recently, oysters, alewife fish and beavers have either been reintroduced or have naturally reemerged in the twenty-four-mile-long river. The communities it runs through, from sleepy Westchester hamlets to the bustling neighborhood along Fordham Road in the West Bronx, may appreciate the post-industrial revitalization of this local ecosystem, yet the rebirth of this once-polluted waterway is happening slowly and quietly amid goose calls and car horns.
I have been following the Bronx River for many years, from its headwaters in Valhalla at Kensico Dam, where its gentle flow and its clear waters permit the sight of a leaf-covered bottom, about fifteen miles north of New York City, to where it meets the East River and flows into the Long Island Sound at Soundview Park, in the southeastern Bronx, its flow reduced to a constrained tidal strait. In between, the river flows through White Plains and continues through quiet suburban towns like Scarsdale and Bronxville, within a series of parks that are parallel to the parkway.
These parks slim down to more narrow green spaces as the river reaches the city of Yonkers and the northern section of the Bronx. It is then punctuated by areas like Shoelace Park, which extends from East 233rd Street to East 211th along a stretch of the river that was straightened by Robert Moses during the 1950s; and Bronx Park, which contains the New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx Zoo and the Bronx River Forest—one of the only remaining old-growth forests in New York City. Between these locations, and after flowing through the zoo, the river navigates heavily developed urban spaces before finally entering Soundview Park at the foot of the borough.
Like most of my photographic explorations, this project grew out of walking with my camera and talking to people. I became immersed in the flow of the river as a geographical formation and as a cultural epicenter. What began as casual strolls quickly became lengthy meditations on place. I have been walking with the river since 2007, and I believe the experience of walking—as a mode of perception—has unique, singular and sometimes magical results.
I walk alone. Solitude is a state of being for a photographer. There is a necessary softness and intimacy in the work, so my flow—the current of the work—must be one with the flow of the waters.
Each river or place brings with it a story to be told, and it is a matter of perspective—how my perceptions are mediated in the presence of the space—that determines the nature of the dialogue and how I relate the narrative. The Bronx River stirs me in a way that is difficult to articulate. I feel its quietude, its wisdom, and its generous spirit. The river is mysterious, and when it calls to me I cannot help but answer.
One winter day I followed a hawk into the cold, walking through snow that came up to my knees. After some time the hawk led me to an overpass connected to the parkway and I went underneath to find a ray of light shining on a red budded branch growing from a nearby bush. This place felt like a shrine, a monument of some kind—if only to memorialize my time there—and so I stood to watch the light, to breath the air, and to listen to the river. In that moment, I felt I had reached a place of inner peace, of knowing that my personal journey on this earth had been externalized. I know now that this journey is not finished. My mission, in photographing the ever-present Bronx River, is to explain, in part, its function in the environs of the Bronx, and its dialogue with the surrounding community. I come to the river to feel a balance and peace within my soul, to know the certainty of my being, the earth and the water.
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Nicholas Pollack is an artist living and working in New York. He received his Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College.