Though they are little-known, hard to find, often harder to get to, there are at least a dozen “natural sand beaches” in New York City -- along the Hudson River, the East River and the Harlem River . That was the discovery of a group of walkers, boaters and especially kayakers who have started mapping them. These are not generally, and may never be, good swimming beaches; river currents and pollution would make swimming off most of them impractical. But the kayakers in particular see them as potentially wonderful landings.
There are ambitious plans for some of them. For others, their strongest advocates would prefer for them to remain obscure.
East River Beach
One stretch of sand -- the only one in Lower Manhattan -- lies under the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan. Debris covers much of the beach -- twisted metal from wrecked pier pilings, lumber, concrete. But at low tide, water laps a sandy shoreline some 200 feel long and 20 feet wide. A fence along the walkway/bike path under the FDR Drive blocks access, but there's quite a view with the shoreline below and the bridge rearing up overhead.
In May, at the Waterfront Committee meeting of Community Board 1, a proposal to make the beach more accessible met resistance. Rob Buchanan, an avid kayaker and magazine writer about the outdoors, was among a group proposing a boat landing and access to the walkway. There are so few places for boaters to launch and land, and the place under the bridge has the advantage of being on the lee side of the river in calm water, he said.
The plan includes access from the walkway. Board and audience members worried that easy access would lead to children wandering in and drowning. They tabled the proposal. Four years ago, they also reacted negatively to Lower Manhattan Development Corporation plans for access to the water as part of the development of the area.
After the meeting last month, the chair of the Waterfront Committee made her distaste for the project clear to Downtown Express, “I’m not a proponent of the beach, quite frankly. I do worry about children and drownings.”
Others say that there is little danger of this, pointing to a just a handful of incidents in the past. Gary Fagin, who has lived near the South Street Seaport for 20 years, remembers just one accidental drowning in the area.
Maggie Greenfield of the Bronx River Alliance, an organization that is working on developing greenways in the Bronx, says that more public access to the water will actually enhance safety. "We'll have more eyes down there," she says.
The other beach-like areas on the rivers are generally treated with benign neglect. But one proposal is likely to gain purchase. That is for a beach that may include swimming on the Hudson River west of the Meatpacking District. It's a long-term proposition, however. First sanitation trucks have to be relocated, and that won't happen until 2012, says Chris Martin of the Hudson River Park Trust.
David Snetman, bicycle campaign coordinator of Transportation Alternatives can think of only one area where water laps the Hudson shoreline in Manhattan. It is north of Riverbank State Park at 145th St. and continuing up past the George Washington Bridge. Along that stretch, cyclists and walkers stretch out on a grassy bank that slopes into rocky shoreline. That area provides the longest, most civilized and good-looking shoreline access in the city.
Harlem River, East River Access
At either end of Dyckman Street in Upper Manhattan New York Harbor Beaches show places to get to the water. On the east, on the Harlem River, a muddy beach by New York Restoration Project's restored wetlands. On the West end of Dyckman Street, there is a parks department sign for a kayak launch site. That doesn't make the place easily accessible. "It's official, even though you have to crawl through a hole in the fence," says the caption to the picture of the lovely-looking natural area.
On the East River, Stuyvesant Cove (around 23rd St.) provides a view of water lapping a rocky outcropping.
Brooklyn and Queens
In other spots along the river it takes some ingenuity to stick a toe in the water or park a boat. The New York Harbor Beaches Web site shows an aerial view of little beach areas in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Hallets Cove and Queens near Socrates Sculpture Park. In DUMBO, there are a few areas along the river with rocks, sand, and grass. One is right under the Manhattan Bridge. Another is in Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park.
Greenfield of the Bronx River Alliance says the greenway will open up water access in several places in the long-neglected and closed-off area of the South Bronx. An old concrete plant is being remade into a park that will have access to the shore. Now, residents can get to the water along Soundview Park, West Farms around East Tremont Avenue and the Bronx River Forest.
Leaving It Alone
Not everyone wants to remake bits of the shoreline into official parks. Gary Fagin, who leads the Seaport Community Coalition, which is involved in historic preservation and quality of life for the neighborhood around the South Street Seaport, says that cleaning up the debris to make the beach under the Brooklyn Bridge more conventionally attractive would be useless. The tides would just bring back more detritus. "I scratch my head when I think of other ways for it to be of use," he says. He'd like to see it just left alone with the remnants of the old pier that once went out to the base of the bridge. "You can see water lapping against the beach. It's an evocative vista." He worries that attention to the scruffy spot could lead to some kind of reconstruction that would obliterate the little shoreline. For him, no news is good news. "The further under the radar, the better for the area," he says.