The Waterfront

By Carter Craft

Most New Yorkers do not even know the waterfront exists; they do not see the city the way it really is - as three islands and a peninsula. But one Saturday at the end of Manhattan Avenue, I met a man who does. He was casting a line into the water of Newtown Creek, fishing without a fishing rod or reel, just a string. I watched as hand over hand, he drew in his line. Finally, a small white blob broke the surface of the Creek. As it came up I realized it was a raw chicken leg. Out came the leg, then a claw attached to it, and then the body of a crab, and finally the other claw of the crab, clap clapping in the air. The man looked at me, with a wide smile of accomplishment, then guided the string, the chicken leg, and the crab over into a bucket that was crowded with another dozen crabs.

"Nice technique," I said. "Do you fish here often?"

"Every weekend," he said, with a heavy Spanish accent. "My family loves crab."

This scenario plays out every day, along every waterway of New York City from the East River bikeway to Coney Island Creek. In some ways, it is a gratifying phenomenon. In other ways, it is troubling. Though New York is now treating all of its sewage, a recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that every species in the East River had some form of toxic contamination, whether arsenic, lead, or PCBs. First it is in the fish, and then it is in us.

The waterfront is the greatest opportunity facing New York City in the 21st century, but there are many obstacles in the way.

That is why the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, which I serve as program director, was created in 1999, as a network of organizations and individuals to help educate the public and public officials about waterfront issues, through tours and boat trips and however else we can. The Alliance is developing an entire slate of recommendations for each of the 35 City Council districts where there is a waterfront. Because of term limits, 21 of these districts will have new representatives. There is a chance now to make the water's edge of New York the focus of city life and vitality.

What is needed in each neighborhood turns out to be surprisingly similar -- cleaner water, an easier way to reach them from both the land and the sea, better planning.

CLEAN WATER

As my crab fisherman makes clear, in a city of immigrants, where newcomers are perfectly accustomed to sustenance fishing safely in their home waters of the Caribbean or South China Sea, the idea of catch-and-release fishing is like working one week and then refusing your pay check.

Obviously, a little signage would help. A sign that says "Prohibeo" in about four or five languages would remind people that just because something lives in these waters does not mean it is safe to eat. But just putting a sign up is like wearing a t-shirt that says "I have heart disease" but never going and having the condition remedied.

Part of the legacy of our industrial heritage is the polluted bottoms of our waterways. In this arena, Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal compete for New York's dirtiest waterway.

Like the rest of the Harbor, the Gowanus Canal is the cleanest it has been in 40 years. The generation of advocacy and activism that has created this improvement has instilled an even deeper understanding in the community of what it takes to truly clean up the waterfront. There's a canoe club on the Gowanus now in its second year, and the name of the club is the mantra of the community: They're the "Dredgers," and with every stroke of the paddle they hope to get closer to the day when the toxic bottom of the canal is scraped clean. This is the subsurface reality of our urban waterways. The water is much cleaner, but the water bottoms are still a mess, and between here and there dwell millions and millions of unhealthful fish and crabs. We've cleaned the water significantly, but we still have not gotten, literally, to the bottom of the problem.

ACCESS BY LAND

Too many kids grow up without ever knowing that nearly every street in their neighborhood once led to a waterway.

This may be most evident in the Bronx, which has the longest stretch of New York City waterfront with no public access. Between Tiffany Street (on the East River in Hunts Point) and Roberto Clemente State Park (on the Harlem River just north of the Washington Bridge), the waterfront is a captive of industry and the railroads. Port Morris, Mott Haven, Concourse Village and High Bridge are all waterfront neighborhoods where absolutely no waterfront access exists.

But there are now miles and miles of waterfront throughout the city that are physically cut off from the public, detached from the river by railroad tracks, or living in the shadow of outdated highways such as the East River Drive. The waterfront in other neighborhoods is separated by psychological impediments like the looming monstrosity of the Gowanus elevated. Even on the north shore of Staten Island, which is the heart of New York's maritime district, there is virtually no window onto this bustling waterway. By contrast, just across the Kill van Kull, the town of Bayonne has a park stretching along the shore that makes many Staten Islanders green with envy.

Planners and city officials have yet to figure out a way to make a safe connection to the giant playground in the East River called Randalls Island. A short walk underneath the Hell Gate Bridge viaduct reveals that, at low tide, the island is actually an extension of the Bronx peninsula, yet no access now exists.

ACCESS BY SEA

It is one of the irksome ironies of modern New York living. If you work in Downtown Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan there is an express bus with your name on it. But if you work in a commercial district like Industry City, Hunts Point, or Long Island City, you've got a long, complicated commute to your job -- even though it's probably within walking distance of the waterfront. Waterfront communities such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, or southern Staten Island are quite isolated from the rest of the city.

Ferries are coming back, both in New York and across the country. Every city is scrambling for ways to fight growing traffic congestion and give frustrated commuters new choices. This year alone new ferry services have sprung between Hoboken and Manhattan, and from Glen Cove, Long Island to Lower Manhattan. A new service is scheduled to start later in June between Rockaway and Manhattan (with a possible stop in Sheepshead Bay). But it does not take a sociologist to see that most of these ferries serve the affluent. Just look at the fares: Glen Cove, $14; Rockaway, $13.

For New York's waterfront to thrive we must find a way to integrate the waterways into the regional transportation system. This means coordinating the schedules of transit buses and subway and LIRR trains with that of arriving and departing boats. A swipe of a MetroCard will make it a near seamless experience traveling from one mode to the next - and fares will be kept at a level that makes them affordable to most people.

But ferries should not just be for commuters. While you can take a ferry to Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty for the day, there are dozens of other attractions located on the waterfront that are wholly inaccessible. Fort Wadsworth, for instance, guards the entrance to New York Harbor. Designed by the famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee, what should be one of New York's greatest attractions is hidden in the shadow of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The beaches of the New York region are some of the best in the North Atlantic. On summer weekends you can take a boat to Sandy Hook, if you've got the $25 for the round trip fare. It's cheaper to go to Great Adventure in another state.

WATERFRONT DEVELOPMENT

Community redevelopment in New York usually means tax credits or investments in housing or office space in core districts like Times Square or MetroTech in Brooklyn. These projects capitalized on the existing assets of the neighborhood, particularly mass transit. Waterfront neighborhoods have even more obvious assets, natural assets. In several areas, the waterfront could help transform the surrounding neighborhoods.

Halletts Cove is a semi-protected embayment along the East River in Queens just across from the northern tip of Roosevelt Island. Along the south side of the cove Socrates Sculpture Park graces the Queens waterfront, near a nascent beach that is an almost surreal site next to the industrial building, rotten pier and housing projects along this stretch of the river. Standing on the bulkhead, looking out over the collapsed pier, it is not hard to imagine an active cove uniting a neighborhood, where residents of the housing development can walk along the waterfront to the Big Box store down the street, perhaps stopping in the Sculpture Garden for a snack or some shade. Within the cove itself a small boat house might offer neighborhood residents some activity you can't get from MTV, and every so often a water taxi could pull in to pick up or drop off people going to work or returning from a day at Riis Beach.

There is a similar opportunity in Brooklyn, in a place called Bushwick Inlet. Here, Bushwick Creek once emptied into the East River, though now between oil tanks and an MTA bus-washing facility, it is impossible to reach. In the water, a field of piles poke out at low tide, recalling an era when the inlet was an intensively active aquatic zone.

And in Hunts Point in the Bronx, recent improvements like the Tiffany Street Pier and the Hunts Point Riverside Park on Lafayette Street could be tied together with waterfront walks or even water trails for canoes and kayaks.

Right now a produce market overrun by trucks, Hunts Point is scheduled to become as well the home of the new fishmarket, moved up from Fulton Street. But the future of Hunts Point is the future of New York City. The next generation of leaders must make sure that waterfront communities are revitalized, not just redeveloped. The waterfront can and should be our economic heart, as well as our playground.

Carter Craft is Program Director for the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance

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