The Revival of New York's Waterfront
For the past hundred years, many New Yorkers have viewed their city’s five hundred miles of coastline as a distant flash of blue glimpsed between buildings. But cleaner water and beautiful new parks (and restaurants!) on the waterfront have changed all that. Just ask the seals on Staten Island.
On a mild spring afternoon, I’m sitting on the open upper deck of a taxi-yellow boat, approaching the glass cliffs of Lower Manhattan. It’s taken twenty minutes to get here from Red Hook, Brooklyn, where shipyards once turned out battleships and IKEA now sells bunk bed kits. To my left, on a stretch of reclaimed waterfront, a cluster of teenagers are sitting on granite bleachers, letting the roiling East River splash over their feet. To my right, I can practically reach out and stroke Brooklyn Bridge Park, where semi-nude sunbathers are scattered across grassy banks. My mind flits to a clip I saw on YouTube that had been shot from this vantage point in 1903: the shoreline hazed in coal smoke, bristling with piers and tugs.
New York is a maritime city again. You can feel it now, in a way you couldn’t just a dozen years ago, when the poisoned rivers still reeked and the waterfront was largely a polluted DMZ lurking behind a chain-link fence. For centuries the city thrived as a port, but as it grew, the center kept drifting inland. By the late nineteenth century, the fanciest addresses were those at the safest remove from the grimy and dangerous docks. The affluent clustered inland around greenery like Central Park. Lately, though, the high-rise megalopolis has rediscovered its last preserve of open space. The harbor, ringed by burgeoning neighborhoods and freshly landscaped parks, is once again becoming the city’s heart. Ferries, sailboats, yachts, tankers, tugs, barges, kayaks, cruise ships, police boats, and high-speed catamarans leave a crisscrossing tracery of wakes. The company running the East River ferries has had to buy bigger boats to keep up with the crowds. The harbor waters are cleaner than they’ve been in a century, seals have taken up residence on the shores of Staten Island, kayakers periodically encounter a frolicsome porpoise, and striped bass spawn within view of the Statue of Liberty.
On October 29, 2012, the city’s romance with the water turned nasty. The freakishly powerful Hurricane Sandy muscled its way into New York Harbor, pushing a lethal fourteen-foot surge that swamped streets, flooded tunnels, tore up beach houses, and left millions in the cold and dark. For a while it appeared as though a demoralized city would turn inland again. Sandy was a meteorological fluke, but it was also read as a sign of the ferocity that climate change will bring. Suddenly, living close to the water seemed like an act of naive defiance.
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But it soon became obvious that New York is too intertwined with its waterways to choose retreat. City officials have taken to calling the water New York’s “sixth borough,” and if it were actually granted that status, it would be the largest of them all—more than a quarter of the city’s surface area is liquid. One reason the land here is so densely packed is that it’s an archipelago, webbed by rivers, estuaries, inlets, bays, and channels. Five hundred miles of coast meander through the metropolis, a shoreline more extensive and more varied than those of Seattle, Chicago, Portland, and San Francisco combined. New York has miles of public beaches, vast expanses of wetlands, gritty industrial stretches, and a lengthening necklace of waterfront greenery. The public portions have sprouted an assortment of leisure activities that seem incongruous at first and then quickly fit right in: beach volleyball, pétanque, kayaking, fishing—even aerial acrobatics. And it turns out that many of the accompanying facilities form a precious buffer zone, protecting their upland neighbors. During Sandy, the East River rose far enough to cover Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, Queens, but it stopped just short of the new apartment towers that are set back behind it.
There is water in New York’s blood. More than a century ago, in the opening of Moby Dick, Herman Melville instructed his reader:
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehawll, northward. What do you see? Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China. . . . They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in.
That’s still true−or rather, it is true again. “There’s something primal about it,” says Adrian Benepe, who was parks commissioner between 2002 and 2012. “Even if you just open up a little empty lot by the water’s edge, people will go there.” Along the shore, where once there were parking lots there now are parks. Vacant warehouses and crumbling bulwarks have been plowed into promenades and playgrounds. You can sit on a bench and get a ringside view of saltwater tides churning upstream. In winter you can hike out onto a refurbished Hudson pier and watch a regatta of ice floes glide majestically toward the bay, cracking into smaller and smaller disks. Even as Sandy approached and the rivers began slapping hard against the bulwarks, the police were trying in vain to herd spectators out of Riverside Park.
Some sections of the storm-ravaged shoreline—especially in Coney Island and Staten Island, along the Atlantic shore, and in the low-lying parts of Red Hook—will struggle for a long time. But in most places, normalcy is coming back. Today, Melville might circumambulate Manhattan by kayak. Paddle from Inwood to Battery Park. What do you see? A procession without destination, thousands of people on the move—biking, jogging, skating, striding, running, ambling, walking dogs, and wheeling strollers—with the spine of towers on one side and the gleaming expanse of water on the other.
The New York City Water Trail links all forty-seven kayak launches scattered around the five terra firma boroughs. You could do worse than start the trip with a beer at the spacious waterside restaurant La Marina, at the end of Dyckman Street in Upper Manhattan. Nearby, the George Washington Bridge rears across the Hudson River toward the unspoiled cliffs of the Palisades. When you do finally push off from the little beach next to the pier, you can glide downstream and after five miles make a stop at West Harlem Piers Park, once a dilapidated parking lot at the western extremity of 125th Street. You can buy food at the sprawling Fairway Market and picnic on the grassy berm. Columbia University is building a new campus a block away, beneath the viaducts, and it already has its front yard.
As you continue seaward, skirting Manhattan’s western edge, old lore and the new city weave together so that at times it’s difficult to tell which way time is flowing. New Yorkers of a certain age recall the days when transatlantic liners nosed into the Hudson River piers and crowds would come to see off family members in their travel finery. Big passenger vessels are back—not steamers like the Normandie or the Queen Elizabeth but equally mountainous cruise ships bound for the Caribbean or Labrador. Their passengers’ first view of Manhattan is of the conga line of amateur athletes shimmying along the water’s edge. In this Lycra landscape, some dark relics of the industrial waterfront have aged into evocative ruins. The rusting carcass of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge, which once received rail cars that were floated across the Hudson from Weehawken, New Jersey, glowers lyrically as it executes its slow-motion collapse.
You feel the slosh of nostalgia and innovation most powerfully in West Chelsea, the once desolate, now artsy neighborhood that extends from 14th to 30th streets. Gleaming present and gritty past meet on West 26th Street, at Pier 66 Maritime, an old railroad barge that houses a historical exhibit and a lively open-air bar. (Kayaking under the influence is not a good idea, but there’s no shortage of places to pull in for a drink.) The fantastically popular High Line park, which was constructed on an elevated railroad track from the 1930s, has gotten a lot of credit for attracting boutiques and art galleries, spawning a crop of high-rise condominiums, and luring the future Whitney Museum of American Art. But none of that would have happened without the resurgence of the waterfront, two blocks away. Chelsea’s showcase of early-twenty-first-century architecture culminates at the end of West 19th Street, with a pair of glassy buildings that make the most of their riverfront sites. Frank Gehry’s all-white headquarters for the Internet media company IAC billows like a schooner under full sail. Across the street, the faceted facade of Jean Nouvel’s condo tower at 100 Eleventh Avenue sweeps around the corner as if following the curve of the shoreline or the path of the sun.
For decades, these now fashionable precincts were no-go zones, the province of stevedores, seamen, fishmongers, and criminals. In the late 1940s, New York Sun reporter Malcolm Johnson, in a Pulitzer Prize–winning series of articles that formed the basis for the movie On the Waterfront, described the area as a violent, self-governing border zone. What choked off that world was the shipping container. This simple steel box, which could be lifted by crane and dropped on the flatbed of a train or an eighteen-wheeler, transformed coastal cities from Rotterdam to Hong Kong. Before containerization, ports needed to be close to muscle and customers, and therefore to city centers. Afterward, they needed vast lots for stacking containers, and access to rail lines and uncongested highways.
New York’s shipping industry moved to New Jersey, and for the next forty years, Manhattan and Brooklyn piers were left to rot. Highways sundered the rivers and bays from the rest of the city. New Yorkers who worked within a block of the city’s waterways—on Wall Street, for example—turned the other direction. For decades, the only people who would venture onto a West Side pier were those in search of a hookup or a fix, or prep school kids looking for a jolt of sordidness. New York forgot the waterfront was even there.
Resurrecting the edge has been the work of generations. Battery Park City, a residential neighborhood built on landfill hard by the World Trade Center, was laid out decades ago and has only recently reached peak vibrancy. (During Sandy, it was the only part of Lower Manhattan that never lost power.) The 550-acre Hudson River Park, which runs between Battery Place and West 59th Street, has been under construction since it was signed into state law in 1998 and is now more than seventy percent complete. But it wasn’t until Michael Bloomberg became mayor in 2001 that the city began to truly embrace its marine identity. When Bloomberg, then a media tycoon with no political experience, was considering a run for office, his friend Amanda Burden took him on a tour of the forlorn edges of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. A flock of young creative types, driven out of Manhattan by rising rents, were turning the neighborhoods into the epicenter of low-budget cool. Yet the energy petered out by the waterfront, which had spectacular views of Manhattan but was populated only by a few holdouts and an even smaller number of pioneers. This, she told him, should be one of the city’s great residential neighborhoods. When Bloomberg was elected, he appointed Burden chair of city planning, and she immediately set about rezoning the area to attract private development and create new public spaces.
Today, Greenpoint and Williamsburg have become symbols of how far the waterfront has come—and how far it has to go. The neighborhoods have sprouted a new high-rise skyline standing before a patchy but popular chain of parks. Critics complain that Burden has dulled the neighborhood’s edginess and exchanged some nice public benches for a stockade of unsightly luxury towers. The tension between old roughness and new respectability continues to simmer. One sign of the area’s comeback, the series of summer rock concerts held on the Williamsburg waterfront, was forced to change location after neighbors complained of loud music and rowdy crowds.
The waterfront is not monolithic, and virtually any square inch can become a battleground of visions. “The key is to identify the DNA of each different part of the waterfront, and then to analyze what the best use is for that particular piece,” says Burden. Some areas must be left gritty and industrial, while others should be reserved for herons and marsh grasses. Wherever possible, however, the city has made the waterfront more accessible, which sounds like a simple goal but presents significant technical challenges.
“It’s a very harsh environment,” says Cliff McMillan, a principal in the New York office of the engineering firm Arup, which is helping transform Hunter’s Point South, a long-neglected southwestern corner of Queens, into open space with gold-plated views of Midtown Manhattan. “And anything that requires too much maintenance simply won’t be maintained.” Consequently, every item of landscaping and equipment—piers, railings, benches, and lampposts—must be cheap, elegant, and virtually indestructible. It’s a testament to that policy’s success that most of those features survived Hurricane Sandy pretty much intact.
Along the perimeter of the city, there is usually little room to maneuver in the narrow strip between the water and the nearest road or structure. In the past, the solution might have been to create more landfill—Manhattan is substantially wider than it was when Henry Hudson first came upon it four hundred years ago. But this is where one environmental agenda—cleaning up the waterfront—collides with another: leaving marine habitats undisturbed. McMillan summarizes the resistance of state and federal regulators to new waterfront projects: “Do nothing. If you can’t do nothing, then do nothing anyway. And if you really can’t do nothing, then minimize the impact.”As a result, the city has ignored some strategies that other cities have modeled, such as building dikes and floating houses, or filling existing piers with apartments like the Silodam complex in Amsterdam.
What New York is doing, perhaps more ambitiously than any other city in the world, is to line its waterways with parkland. “We’re in the biggest period of park construction and design since the WPA,” says former parks commissioner Benepe. In the last decade, the city has spent nearly five billion dollars creating new green areas on long-neglected tracts. The flagship project is the eighty-five-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park, which wraps around Brooklyn’s edge and whose elaborate menu of amenities includes a carousel in a pavilion designed by superstar architect Jean Nouvel. But parks have also cropped up on more thoroughly forgotten land. Even the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn sports a waterfront nature trail.
It takes an offhand comment from Amanda Burden, the planning chair, to drive home just how completely the culture of New York’s waterways has changed: “You can’t really know New York unless you’ve taken a canoe trip down the Bronx River,” she says. What makes this statement astonishing is that she’s talking about a virtually invisible creek which threads its quiet way through a noisy borough. Drivers on the Bronx River Parkway and lifelong residents of Bronx River Houses are startled to discover that such a body of water actually exists. Those who do know it think of it as little more than an open sewage canal.
Nevertheless, there I was one afternoon, walking along East 219th Street, in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx, en route to my own canoe trip on that very river. I walked down a short flight of stairs to a playground and a strip of park. There, Josue Garcia, a twenty-three-year-old staff member at the Bronx River Alliance, was unloading a canoe from a flatbed truck. A few minutes later, Garcia and I were paddling along the shallow stream—New York’s only freshwater river—shaded by a canopy of willows, oaks, and tulip trees. It was hard to remember we were in New York City. Herons skimmed the water, snapping turtles splashed off rocks, and, where the river cuts through the zoo, bison shuffled toward the edge. Only the rumble of roads and train tracks betrayed the urban setting; at one point, I looked up and saw the shadows of cars flitting by through the mesh roadway of a highway bridge. The city reasserted itself as we moved downstream. We glided by the ABC Carpet warehouse, a scrap metal yard, a recycling facility, the Hunts Point wholesale food market, and the new Concrete Plant Park, where retired silos, hoppers, and conveyor structures stand picturesquely amid seven landscaped acres of public land. We headed for Soundview Park, which juts into the East River and opens up panoramic vistas of northern Manhattan—one fresh waterfront pearl along a lengthening greenway.
Bordering the city with parkland does more than just provide places for people to sunbathe; it represents the early stages of New York’s defense against climate change. With sea levels projected to rise and storms predicted to get more severe, the whole approach to designing the waterfront has changed. Decades ago, Battery Park City was built with hardened seawalls which bounce violent waves back into the wind so that they regroup and strike again with even greater force. The new conventional wisdom calls for softer edges—marshland buffers, for instance, that absorb storm surges and then drain at a more deliberate rate. Eventually, the waterfront could look less like a defensive wall and more like a ragged natural shoreline.
You couldn’t ask for a better place from which to observe the city’s mutability and resilience than the middle of New York Harbor—specifically, from the deck of the Shearwater. The 1929 classic schooner chugs out of the North Cove Marina in Battery Park City, then cuts the motor and raises the sails so that passengers can savor the harbor’s postindustrial quiet and ocean-water freshness. She belongs to Tom Berton, whose charter company, Manhattan by Sail, weathered the 9/11 attacks and the recession and is now doing well, buoyed by the mass return to the water. From this spot, where the Shearwater bobs in peace, you can look around and survey the entire history of New York City, from Governors Island, where the first Dutch settlers set up camp, to the old immigrant clearing house on Ellis Island, to the new World Trade Center hoisting itself toward the clouds.
Henry James traveled this way by ferry in 1907, after an absence of twenty years, and lamented how new temples of capitalism had obscured the mighty spire of Trinity Church—“so cruelly overtopped and so barely distinguishable,” he groused. Like many New Yorkers before and since, James understood that the city is powered by constant change, and at the same time he regretted that it couldn’t remain the same. The forty-eight-year-old Berton, on the other hand, finds nothing to mourn about the city’s evolving relationship with the sea.
“When I was a kid growing up in Lower Manhattan, the water was oily and smelled like sludge,” he says. “The poor fish that turned left at the harbor would be dead by the time they got to the Statue of Liberty. You’d have to go straight to the hospital if you fell in.”
No longer. When the need for a swim takes hold, Berton simply dives off the Shearwater’s prow. And when he resurfaces, there is Manhattan’s ever-shifting skyline, glinting on the near horizon.
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