NYC Issues 2001: Waterfront
Sea Change on the Waterfront
By Peter Fleischer
The nation's history unfolded on New York's waterfront,
but its glory is not just in the past. New York City remains
the nation's most important port, home to surfers, striped
bass, harbor herons, kayaks, garbage scows, yachts and
the Queen Elizabeth II. And in many neighborhoods in New
York, the waterfront is now home to the community's dreams.
And dreams for the future are something that no public
official should take lightly.
New York exists as a city because of its harbor. For
centuries, shipping, trade and finance have placed New
York among the world's great cities. Today, hundreds of
thousands of jobs in three states are directly linked
to the port. Urban diversity is enhanced by the variety
of goods readily imported to this cosmopolitan market.
Goods are less expensive because they come here rather
than being transshipped from another port. Preserving
the viability and relevance of the port must remain high
on the agenda of the next mayor as well as the City Council.
There are three key issues -- dredging, the rail harbor
tunnel and relations with the Port Authority.
The silting up of a waterway is a natural process that
requires human intervention if navigation is to continue.
In recent years, dredging has become problematic in this
harbor because of interstate rivalries, toxic substances
embedded in the muck, and the lack of adequate, safe facilities
in which to place the dredged materials. Competing harbors
from Canada to Virginia see opportunity in New York's
paralysis. Among the ideas under consideration, though
there are community concerns as well as scientific and
technical issues still to be addressed, is a "capped"
facility amidst the derelict piers of the Brooklyn Army
Though Mayor Rudy Giuliani's best-known construction projects
have to deal with real or imagined stadiums, his most
far-reaching proposal is the construction of a tunnel
to move rail freight under the harbor from New Jersey
or Staten Island to Brooklyn. This idea, whose two billion
dollar cost might largely be paid by private sources,
would save New Yorkers money and time in several ways.
Most importantly, it would result in a substantial decrease
in heavy trucks on critical roadways. This would be a
boon to travel times and help delay roadway deterioration.
With more goods being moved by rail, the cost of goods
region-wide might decrease since shipping by truck would
cease to be a virtual monopoly. A rail tunnel would also
serve to increase the port's capacity and flexibility.
Mayor Giuliani's war with the Port Authority of New York
and New Jersey continues. And it is good that it does.
The Port Authority has historically favored New Jersey.
Does the Port Authority matter to New York City? Absolutely.
It has a substantial capital budget that can be used to
advance needed projects throughout the region. It currently
controls the port, the three airports, key bridges and
tunnels, key ferry routes and real estate. Jobs, prestige,
and economic development are at stake.
Unfortunately, New York's mayor and City Council have
no direct say in the Port Authority's affairs. Its board
is controlled 50-50 by the governors of the two states.
The next mayor would be wise to seek a greater hand in
the Port Authority's activities, first by working with
New York's governor and second by reaching an accommodation
with New Jersey's new leadership.
In 1970, the Clean Water Act mandated that localities
treat their effluent before releasing it into nearby rivers,
bays and estuaries. Consequently, over a thirty-year period,
the water in New York harbor has gone from dirty and dangerous
to cleaner and, in some spots, swimmable. That improvement,
(measurable in scientific terms like transparency, dissolved
oxygen, and coliform levels) has allowed for a resurgent
environment. Fish of numerous species have made comebacks.
Striped bass, shad and blue crabs proliferate. Egrets,
heron, peregrine falcon, and osprey soar once again above
New York's waters because the fish, their prey, are back.
This ecosystem improvement, coupled with reduction in
industrial pollution, has opened much of the waterfront
to more natural uses. Nevertheless, in a heavily used
and dense city, the waterfront continues to be at risk.
In Jamaica Bay, residents and the bay itself face the
twin threats of severe and unprecedented salt marsh loss
and the prospect of mud dumping by the Army Corps of Engineers
into the Bay's deep channels. Jamaica Bay's highly productive
marshes now provide refuge for hundreds of species of
birds and numerous varieties of fish. Marsh, once lost,
is extremely hard and expensive to restore. The marshes
that exist today are a small portion of what once existed
in the New York area.
Preserving water quality, saving marshes, wetlands and
coastal open space are critical components of the city's
quality-of-life. Giuliani's quality-of-life drive made
the streets of the city safer. The next mayor must focus
on the waters that surround the city's streets.
ACCESS AND RECREATION
Thanks to the cleaner water, the waterways have seen
a resurgence in waterborne tourism and recreation. Surfers,
kayakers, fishermen, and jet-skiers can today be found
along the shores of all five-boroughs. There is a vast
army of citizens who recreate on and near the waters.
Neighborhood groups are retaking their waterfronts, revitalizing
them and using them to access the water. Community groups
in the South Bronx have joined forces to clean up the
legendarily destitute Bronx River. Today, local teenagers
learn to canoe on the meandering stream that is the Bronx
River -- a scenic route that can easily be confused for
an Adirondack or Berkshire watercourse.
On the Hudson River, several boathouses have been established.
Scores of volunteers at the Downtown Boathouse have provided
over 20,000 free kayak trips in the last three years.
Floating the Apple teaches students boat-building skills
and rowing techniques. Its growing fleet of historic recreation
vessels can be seen throughout the harbor. The EcoWatchers,
operating out of Broad Channel, Queens track and map the
loss of salt marsh and advocate for their protection.
These groups are but a few of the hundreds of organizations
around the five boroughs who have invested their time,
money and hopes in some piece of the waterfront. They
represent tens of thousands of New Yorkers who want their
politicians to care and do something about waterfront
Of all access issues associated with the waterfront,
the most fundamental is knowing how to swim. As evidenced
by New York City's perennial lifeguard shortage, it is
clear that too few New York City youth learn to swim.
This poses a three-edged problem. First, youths that do
not swim are limited in regard to other water-related
activities. Second, these youths will become adults that
are unable to teach their children to swim. Third, if
too few swimmers mean too few lifeguards than there will
be too many days on which city beaches are closed and
too many beaches closed on days that call for being in
Knowing how to swim should be viewed as a right not a
luxury. The city's elected officials, leaders of the world's
most important maritime metropolis, should dive in headfirst
on this one.
HISTORY AND CULTURE
New York's harbor and waterfront abound with historic
and culturally significant locales. New York is awash
in waterfront points of renown, from sites frequented
by Native Americans to forts built in all boroughs in
every century to the South Street Seaport, Fulton Landing,
Sailor's Snug Harbor, Conference House, Pelham Bay Park,
City Island and the Little Red Lighthouse.
Many of these coastal locations, particularly the fortifications,
have been neglected and because of their out of the way
sites, they lack the recognition of a Central Park or
the World Trade Center. Still, New York history was forged
at these places and in some cases national and international
history was created. The gems of the periphery deserve
some of the cultural support that goes to the well-known
stars in Manhattan.
Teaching about New York's waterways should also be a
priority. While the history of forts may, even in a given
borough, be off the agenda of many school districts, the
importance of water and waterways to the city's past,
present and future should find a home in the curriculum.
Understanding the waterfront goes a long way toward understanding
transportation, economic development, environment as well
Do you know if your district is "on the waterfront"?
For New York's first two hundred years, the waterways
were the primary means of travel from point to point around
the city. For the next hundred years, ferries played a
pivotal role by connecting Manhattan Island, Long Island
(including Brooklyn and Queens) and Staten Island to each
other as well as to the Bronx and New Jersey and the rest
of America. For the last few generations, the waterways
were largely forgotten as bridges, tunnels and interstate
In recent years, however, the city's waterways have been
noticed and utilized as congestion-free transportation
corridors. Starting in the mid-1980s, private ferry routes,
encouraged by new city policies, began to link New Jersey
to lower Manhattan. Today, these routes move thirty thousand
people per day in addition to the sixty thousand daily
riders of the city-run Staten Island Ferry.
Other new ferry services include routes to Yankee Stadium,
LaGuardia Airport, Brooklyn Army Terminal as well as a
tourist run up the Hudson River. The Giuliani Administration
has strongly supported ferry development efforts. The
next administration would also benefit by continuing this
New ferry routes throughout the harbor are regularly
being proposed. One such proposal is the Harbor Loop concept
from the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. This ferry
route would stop at key waterfront locales in lower-Manhattan,
Brooklyn, Governors Island, Staten Island and New Jersey.
It would link historic, cultural and economically significant
sites to transit stops as well as to the existing ferry
lines. This loop has the potential to be a catalyzing
force on the growth of the little used, formerly industrial,
parts of the harbor at the same time that it brings commuters
and tourists to some of the harbor's most famous and beautiful
New York City presently underwrites many private transportation
services. This innovative public/private partnership may
need some amount of subsidy to sail forward. Elected officials
would do well to consider this tri-borough, bi-state,
transportation service as an investment in the city's
future and therefore in their own.