Demographics
Internet resources for what you need to know on the NYC Waterfront
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
NYC's waterfront is roughly 600 miles long. Include metropolitan New Jersey and Westchester, and the total increases to over 1000 miles. This metropolitan waterfront is as diverse as it is long. Its uses range from oil depots, cruise ship terminals and modern container ports to marinas, recreational esplanades, and bathing beaches. Contrary to reputation and expectation, the harbor, its shores and its waterways are integral to the region's economy and quality of life.
The Context
The harbor is one of the few places in the metropolitan area where large spaces still exist and where usage patterns are dynamic. Unlike most urban land areas, the regions' waterways belong to everyone. Consequently, many uses compete for the same space. Diverse concurrent uses and a clash of competing interests shape the character of today's metropolitan maritime crossroads. In the shared world of the waterfront, issues are complex, and political values intermingle. Within each issue is a frothy mixture of economics and ecology, community and bureaucracy, freedom of action and the desire to be protected from the actions of others.

Improving water quality makes the competition among users more robust. Fish, waterfowl, birds of prey, and marshlands are returning. Recreational uses proliferate, competing with other uses.

In commerce, long-term harbor users are expanding operations. Growth in trade requires smarter port operations and more acreage for containers. Deeper dredging of ship channels and expanded municipal facilities are planned. Privately owned ferries crisscross the waters carrying commuters by the tens of thousands.

Despite all this, the waterfront is still part of larger natural processes. Twice a day, vast seas flood into and ebb from the harbor, which determine the pace of maritime commerce. Daily, the waters change the harbor's geography, creating and denying access to mudflats, shellfish, docks and harbors. Flux at the water's edge holds peril and promise.

The Reporter
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.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Waterfront.

by Peter B. Fleischer

Return of the Wooden Boats

There was a time when thousands of New Yorkers were engaged in the task of building the wharves, bulkheads, and ships that lined and populated the New York area waterfront. Skilled craftsmen and inexpensive manual labor combined their efforts in the cause of commerce and transportation. Robert Fulton tested his steam ship on the East River. The first American ironclad boat was built in Greenpoint Brooklyn. Nearby, is the Brooklyn Navy Yard in Williamsburg. Today, the city's maritime industries have mostly disappeared, and many of the steel, stone and woodworking skills have become scarce.

In Brooklyn, at the confluence of Newton Creek and the East River, in a century-old brick industrial building operated by the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a revival of sorts is taking place. Two non-profit organizations, East River Apprenticeship and East River Kayak Club, are attempting to bring boat building and boat handling skills back to that historic stretch of coast. They follow earlier boat building efforts such as Manhattan-based Float the Apple and Rocking the Boat in the Bronx.

As described by its director, Anthony Francis, the East River Apprenticeship program seeks to introduce local high schools students to boat building techniques within the context of their mission which includes boat building, conservation, seamanship, rowing and sailing. Students learn to row and sail on the East River.

Francis, a former Outward Bound instructor, describes his vision as "bringing kids to self-discovery through wilderness". In a New York City context this means exposing them to nature and natural forces such as the river where wind meets wave. He hopes to "inculcate civic-mindedness" by teaching the students about the relationship between city and sea and among rowers pulling oars separately in their common boat.

Francis has established a program with the alternative high school, City as School. Students spend eight hours a week learning the math, geometry and woodworking steps that lead to the building of wooden boats. The alternative school gives student academic credit for the program. Francis believes he can "use learning with one's hands to connect on a deeper level with young people."

Malik Banks, a high school senior and apprenticeship intern, cites the opportunity to participate in the Atlantic Challenge, a regional rowing and sailing event in coastal Maine, as a highlight of his apprenticeship experience. He has come a long way in a city that offers few waterfront opportunities to its youth. As a young man, Malik taught himself to swim in the city's public pools.

Francis hopes to create a fulltime accredited alternative or charter school built around experiential learning and the math and science skills that accompany boat building and journeying through the city's waters. The apprenticeship program stems from the combined influence of Pete Seeger, the folksinger and Hudson River advocate Lance Lee, a builder of wooden boats in Maine.

The East River Kayak Club, also located at the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, is a non-profit arm of Tom Hall Woodworking. The Kayak Club is currently seeking funding for a program to teach high school students the wood working techniques that go into wooden kayak building. Like Francis, Hall envisions a program for school credit where eight students per semester spend seven hours a week learning to build sixteen-foot long fiberglass and wood boats. Upon completion, the students will be taught to paddle their craft in the nearby East River.

Once launched, they will join a burgeoning flotilla of vessels berthed in New York, built in New York and crewed by young New Yorkers. These homebuilt dories, rowboats, kayaks and Whitehall gigs can increasingly be seen travelling the city's shores. Each voyage displays a growing local skill in woodworking and an increasingly able local seamanship.


Sites For Beginners:

  • Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance - Formerly, the Waterfront Project. MWA seeks to influence the future of the region's waterfront and waterways through education, grassroots organizing and media advocacy.
  • Working Waterfront Association - Maritime and environmental advocates, providing education, new initiatives and programs that foster waterfront planning, safety, and access for the New York and New Jersey Harbor Estuary. WWA acts as a catalyst for communication between diverse port interests. WWA facilitates cooperative 'smart growth'.
  • Gateway National Recreation Area - Gateway is a bi-state park with "units" in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Gateway is part of the National Park System.
  • Pier Park & Playground Association - P3 seeks to enhance opportunities for children to play sports and opportunities for parents and other volunteers tp participate. The primary focus of P3 activity is the drastic lack of space for youth sports in Manhattan.
  • Hudson River Park Trust - The "Trust" is a governmental entity reposible for building a park on the west side of Manhattan in the area bounded by West Street, Battery Park, Battery Park City and West 59th Street. It's Board is appointed and largely controlled by the Governor and the Mayor.
  • Downtown Boathouse - Describes the City's largest boathouse for human-powered craft and home of the free kayak trip. It has a very interesting table showing Hudson River tides and currents


Other Recommendations:

  • Hudson River Foundation - A scientific and environmental research organization that focuses on the New York/New Jersey Harbor Estuary. It supports scientific and public policy research, education, and projects to enhance public access to the Hudson River.
  • The New York City Community Sailing Association is a not-for-profit providing affordable public access to New York City's waterways. NYCCSA provides sail training and non-instructional sailing. They also provide instruction to public high school students at a nominal cost. The association operates from Pier 25 in Tribeca. NYCCSA can be reached at rer@compuserve.com.
  • NYC Swim - This site lists swimming events in the New York area.
  • Floating the Apple - A NYC non-profit that builds historic Whitehall gigs. Volunteer crews periodically row the vessels from boathouse sites in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
  • A number of organizations do not yet have web sites, though listservs are available. To connect to the Jamaica Bay List Serve, send an email to Jamaicabay@treebranch.com and then type Subscribe in the subject header. To subscribe to Urban Outdoors, the on-line publication of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition send an email to NOSC@treebranch.com, also with subscribe in the subject header. If interested in becoming a subscriber to a listserve focused on the Bronx River, send an e-mail to BronxRiver@treebranch.com. Place the word subscribe in the subject line.

Visit the Topic Archives!