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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 is writing a book on the New York City waterfront. The work focuses on individuals whose pioneering efforts opened the harbor for all. Formerly, he was a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Waterfront.

by Peter B. Fleischer

Wakes

In this densely populated metropolis, the task of getting people to work, home and play is a complex and important undertaking. It is therefore an unfortunate side effect, that transportation on or along New York's waterways is among the biggest deterrents to recreation in and around the water. The shared use ethic that allows for a workable equilibrium in the city's streets, intersections and parks is now missing at the shore.

Wakes, the powerful, fast moving waves generated by the engines of some but not all boats can cause damage and be dangerous to other boats, property and people. This watery scourge has been noted recently as an ongoing, unregulated harbor menace. Ferries, hustling to maintain ever-expanding schedules, have adversely impacted marinas, harbor and dinner-cruise companies, fishermen and small boaters. Wake-caused waves from Hudson River ferries can reach distant Manhattan seawalls with powerful impact long after the vessel has passed. Damage from wakes can be devastating to moored vessels, dangerous to small craft on the water and sufficiently threatening as to preclude waterfront activity in advance.

Damage and inconvenience aside, few wake-sufferers actively oppose ferry traffic, a commuter alternative that helps reduce air pollution and roadway congestion. Still, the question remains, must ferries cause damaging wakes?

Evidence in New York harbor suggests otherwise. For years, ferry companies have operated "fast ferries", boats capable of thirty miles per hour and more, which, by design, generated minimal wakes. Powerful harbor tugboats, cruise ships and other large and industrial vessels operating in the Hudson produce smaller wakes without negative impact. The vessels with the most dangerous wakes, today, are slower, older boats. Their re-design or replacement would largely eliminate the threat.

Recent decisions by the Hudson River Park Trust may reveal "precluded use". The Trust, the very slow builder of the narrow, mostly stone and concrete "park" being developed in "medicine drop" steps along Manhattan's West Side has decided to eliminate "get-downs". Get-downs are waterfront spots, protected by guardrail gates, where city park visitors may descend a few steps to actually reach the water. Safety concerns, wakes included, have led to a park that will likely be built to preclude water access, access that is historic and currently available elsewhere by design.

Ferry wakes are not the only transportation threat to waterfront access. Rail lines are a threat as well. Tracks and accompanying fence parallel the Bronx coast from the Westchester/Riverdale border to Hunts Point at the confluence of the Bronx and East Rivers. South of Riverdale, along a ten-mile stretch of shore, there are only two legal access points where peninsula-dwelling Bronx residents can reach the surrounding waters. Amtrak, Metro-North and freight lines form an iron curtain, denying water access, a basic right to a half million people.

A rising clamor for waterfront access has emerged. The Bronx River is being restored. Fishermen avoid fences and scramble over debris. Teenagers jump into the Harlem River from the rocky cliffs of the Spuyten Duyvil. Hunt's Point residents seek funding and support for a waterfront park. Their proposal needs cooperation from local rail and truck users.

Government holds the key to safe, shared use and access. The City Council has called for an inventory of waterfront uses. Mayor Bloomberg has called for shoreline economic development. Ferry companies rely on city, state and federal support, as do the railroads. Public funding should be linked to behavior that recognizes access and shared use as a New York virtue on land and at sea. For people living on an island, reaching the water should be a birthright not a life risk.


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 [email protected].
  • 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 [email protected] 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 [email protected], 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 [email protected]. Place the word subscribe in the subject line.

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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