The City's waterways are a maritime crossroads for a varied group of users and uses. These can generally be divided into six categories: organizational, economic and commercial, historic, environmental, communal, recreational.
Organizational -- Though the City's political process is sure-footed on land, offshore, it is chaotic. Overlapping jurisdictions and uncertain responsibilities make waterfront politics murky at best. More than twenty different federal, regional, state and city agencies share responsibility for the harbor. Labor unions, and civic, recreational, environmental organizations and business also enter the mix. No one entity is in charge, because everyone is.
Economic and commercial Commerce was the harbor's raison d'Ă†tre, and NYC's pre-eminence owes greatly to maritime activity. New Amsterdam was established for its fine harbor and abundant supply of export furs. Industrial innovation included Fulton's steamship, the Erie Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge, and containerization established New York among the world's great port cities.
Since containerization and a move toward integrated water and land shipping, cargo ports have moved to the New Jersey side of the harbor where space and geography facilitate road and rail links. Today, New York's remaining shipping terminals -- Howland Hook in Staten Island and Red Hook and South Brooklyn Marine in Brooklyn -- vie with ferry terminals and tourist attractions for harbor related income.
Congressman Nadler's rail tunnel proposal is rooted in the Empire State's tradition of large industrial innovations. His plan would connect terminals throughout the harbor, and would link East of Hudson rail lines to rail networks nationwide. His vision is a modern variation of a 1927 Port Authority plan.
Historic -- Historic sites are scattered throughout the harbor. They include popular sites like Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and less well known sites like Castle Clinton at the Battery, Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, Fort Schuyler at Throgs Neck, and New Jersey's Sandy Hook Lighthouse. At Fort Schuyler, hidden within the SUNY Maritime College campus, is a well-preserved example of early nineteenth century military architecture with an extraordinary view. And the 1764 Sandy Hook lighthouse was already old when its much better known cousin, the Little Red Lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge was built in 1920 on the Hudson River. Few buildings or landmarks in NYC or in the nation have seen as much history drift past.
Environmental -- These days, less bad stuff floats in the waters of New York harbor. The 1972 Clean Water Act eventually forced NYC to process and treat all of its solid waste. Other local area governments also complied. While wastewater treatment does not always happen satisfactorily, particularly after significant storm events, water quality improvements have been widely noted.
Law, in concert with the acts of individuals and advocacy groups, has pushed government agencies to improve area waters and shores. Successes include the restoration of salt marshes, increases in harbor heron and striped bass populations, and safer water at bathing beaches.
The struggle for environmental improvement in this heavily used metropolis continues. A recent decline in the western Long Island Sound lobster population is attributed to water quality. Combined sewer overflows still release untreated sewage during heavy rains. Piers are crumbling due to marine borer infestation, a condition caused by cleaner waters. Each wave of ecological progress unveils the need for further action.
Communal -- Throughout the harbor, communities, individuals and organizations fight for access to the water, seeking improvements to the quality of their shores and esplanades, opening boat clubs, and promoting environmental awareness. In the South Bronx, where half a million people currently have no access to their encircling shoreline; residents protest further municipal encroachment. These Hunts Point residents want a waterfront that includes greenways, and boating - not garbage transfer.
Community efforts lead to conflict as well as to access. A ban on spoils dumping restricts dredging options, which in turn threatens port-related jobs. Using the Bronx coast to move garbage facilitates the City's efforts to shut the sprawling dump at Fresh Kills. What Staten Island gains, Hunts Point loses. The political process uses the waters to transfer political pain along with garbage and sludge.
Recreational -- As recreational uses emerge, human-powered craft are returning to harbor waters. In 1999, Tribeca's Downtown Boathouse sponsored thousands of free Hudson River kayak trips. On the East River, local youth row specially designed Whitehall gigs built in NYC. Intercollegiate crew brings pomp and regalia to the waters of Pelham Bay.
Currently, Mayor Giuliani is seeking to bring minor league baseball to Staten Island's north shore and to Brooklyn's Coney Island, incorporating the waterfront as a key element of design and transport. The Mayor's mostly-dormant proposal to move the Yankees to Manhattan's west side assumed that ferries would be a major means of transport for fans. The proposed $200M sports center on Randalls' Island and the plans for 2012 Olympics in NYC both include water transport as an integral component.
Finally, NYC has dozens of waterside parks where people push strollers, jog, fish, and seek sunsets. Open space at the waterfront is a source of inspiration and freedom in a crowded city. The air is better and there is elbowroom. At water's edge, there are places to relax, explore and escape.
Peter Sounds Off:
Only in NYC could 578 miles of waterfront be both heavily underutilized and insufficient for all users. Despite this skewing of supply and demand, today's harbor has tremendous latent possibility. While the waterfront is not likely to regain its status as the main focus for jobs and economic activity, it could become the nexus for recreation, open space and improved quality of life.
A few points are essential:
1) The environmental improvement of recent years must be nurtured and extended. Investments in water quality must continue in all watersheds that drain to the harbor from the upper Hudson River to the open ocean.
2) Pioneering efforts that increase access should receive bureaucratic and financial support. Zoning should facilitate recreational access in manufacturing zones. Piers should be stabilized and opened to the public. Bulkheads should be made safe or repaired.
3) The City's youth should be educated about the waterfront and taught to swim. The swimming pool on a barge concept should be realized.
4) The waterways are now being shared by more and more users; each user must respect the rights of the others.
5) Ferry service should be expanded for tourism, recreational access and commutation. Ferries and other vessels should be subject to appropriate air pollution and wake guidelines.
Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.