Bridge Club

Bridge Club

Many people are as drawn to parks by the manmade features as they are by the wild ones—even if it’s just a bench to sit on—so it makes sense that parks would be staffed by builders. Martin Torresquintero, a 22-year veteran of the New Haven Department of Parks & Trees, keeps framing nail guns and high-power drills in the back of his truck. He and a small crew recently built a permanent footbridge across Wintergreen Brook, connecting walking and mountain biking trails at the West Rock Nature Center to walkers and mountain bikers who live in neighboring areas. “That brook has separated the community from the Nature Center for the longest time,” Torresquintero explains, adding, “But now people can actually go back and forth.”

The bridge was, by Torresquintero’s estimate, a two-month project from design to completion. By the time the worksite’s generator was shut off, its meter had registered 60 hours of powering Torresquintero’s tools. With about 20 more hours spent at digging, rock prying, abutment setting and other tasks that could only be done manually, this amounted to two and a half weeks’ worth of days on site, in weather ranging from relatively clement to not too inclement. “Last week,” says Torresquintero, laboring on a cold, wet day I would have called too inclement, “we managed to work two days, that’s it.”

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He anticipates my bemusement. “You’ll ask me, ‘Why are you guys building this bridge in this crazy weather?’ Well, one, because it’s easier for us to bring the materials.” In winter, the unpaved park grounds are hard enough to support a freight-bearing pickup truck. And in this case, the sharp, uneven drop into the ravine where Wintergreen Brook travels—where even the park department’s commercial-grade 4×4 would come up short—was covered with snowpack, making it possible to slide rather than hoist 20-foot beams and three dump trucks’ worth of stone from top to bottom. “I look at it this way,” he says. “The Incans, the Mayans, the Egyptians—they built these wonderful structures without any of the power tools that we have. It’s just ingenuity.” For the bridge over the brook, wooden beams could be maneuvered into place by a crew of six on foot, and the beams could be made to support a bridge that was double their length with a combination of carriage bolts, nails and glue. A foundation of gabion baskets—steel mesh filled with stone—could also be hand-assembled on site to support the bridge, achieving the durability of poured concrete without the heavy machinery or expense.

The result is impressive, with a length-to-capacity ratio to justify naming it after a general. Torresquintero’s blueprints were based on US Forest Service specifications and vetted in turn by the city engineering department. “If there’s an earthquake here, maybe everything is going to fall around it, but the bridge will be okay,” Torresquintero says. “Because you have to take into consideration that the bridge has to support the weight of itself. Which is tons of wood. … And on top of that, the maximum carrying weight of whomever’s going to be crossing.” For everyday use, that will, by regulation, be no heavier than people and bicycles, but the bridge will also be able to support all-terrain emergency and maintenance vehicles.

Even before it was finished, it was already supporting people. Torresquintero’s crew consisted not just of colleagues in Parks & Trees but also participants in Youth @ Work, a New Haven-based workplace mentoring program. “I’ve been taking a lot of time to teach these guys how to do this. Because they’re learning some good practical skills.” On the day the crew has begun laying down the floor of the bridge, Torresquintero introduces me to R.J. Staggers and Darrell Adote, young men in masks, work gloves and cold weather gear. Called over above the din of the generator, they nod once in greeting while Torresquintero points out their handiwork. “Those last 2 gabion baskets? The stones have to be put in in a particular way so they support weight. These guys did it all on their own. From assembling them to leveling them.”

In the same spirit, a new trail system on the residential side of the bridge was the work of seven teens and young adults hired by Solar Youth, a youth empowerment organization focused on the three housing authority neighborhoods surrounding the park. By linking that newer trail system with the Center’s, the bridge has transformed the park’s mountain biking course from the Circuit de Monaco to something more like the Nürburgring.

In keeping with the Nature Center’s emergence as a mountain biking destination, a fleet of mountain bikes is stored onsite. They’re used by school-age participants in the West Rock Super Prestige, an annual racing series at the Center, for which Torresquintero also provides coaching and instruction. “We give it as a way for the local team that we sustain to come here and train on a regular basis and also to compete with kids from other neighborhoods, other towns,” he says.

Back in the Nature Center driveway, Torresquintero shows me other man-made manifestations of the facility’s evolution, pointing in the direction of Huff Puff Hill. “You still can see the old tow line from when this was a ski area. We have a ropes course to the left. We have a ropes course to the right.” He draws our line of sight closer. “And this is where we used to have animals.” What at one time were caged enclosures where the public could visit rehabilitating coyotes and woodchucks are now cottage-shaped cement slabs for which Torresquintero is currently imagining new purposes.

For now, his next big project at the Center will be a beehive. “We used to have one behind the planter boxes over there, and then a tree during a storm fell down and knocked it out. So then we realized, ‘We’ll rebuild it. We’ll make it bigger and better.’” Such projects wait for good weather but not necessarily spring weather. Torresquintero and the other rangers are otherwise engaged in the warm months as ambassadors and educators; his official title is Outdoor Adventures Coordinator. Even in winter, he teaches kayaking and paddleboarding skills to a class standing hip deep in one of the public school pools.

But the COVID-related cancellation of those programs—not to mention classroom visits by the park rangers—only accelerated the building and maintenance boom. Torresquintero’s winter probably began in September, when he removed seven downed trees from the West River. (Simultaneously, Ranger Elizabeth Kaplan and River Keeper Peter Davis—officially retired—removed floating garbage that had begun to form a dam around the trees.) “I do swiftwater rescue and river rescue,” Torresquintero says, “so I feel very comfortable going into fast-moving water. I cut what I could with the chainsaw and the rest I secured with chains. And then we had a gigantic loader from Public Works and they helped us move all of that… At the end, somebody hit me with a hose and, sort of like James Bond, I undid and I went and had a cup of coffee at Manjares.”

Torresquintero works 12-hour days when the weather cooperates. But counter to the expectation that he would stay as far away from the workplace as possible on his days off, he uses the parks’ trails all the time for exercise and recreation. “Imagine how cool it is to come here,” he tells me on a damp, overcast day of painstaking plank drilling at the bridge site. “Obviously, right now, it’s loud because of the generator. But this is a really peaceful place to come and enjoy nature, listen to the birds, the wonderful waterfall… I’d like to come here on my own, hike down with my yoga mat, to do some stretching. Beautiful.”

Written and photographed by David Zukowski. Image 1 features, from left, R.J. Staggers, Peter Davis, Harry Coyle, Martin Torresquintero and Aaron Daniel Robles.

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