Testing the Waters
Probing the Boundaries of the NYC Waterscape

1366 It’s a line, it’s a circle: The Circle Line tourboats go around Manhattan, and around and around... CLUI photo.

NEW YORK CITY’S WATERFRONT IS often perceived as an impermeable wall. The fact that it mostly is (an abrupt vertical wall of stone or concrete) is both an intention and a reflection of this condition. The water is what separates the city from itself, and it is also the only space where all the boroughs come together. It’s shared space, and it is free, unscripted, unpossessed. It is a space of freedom, still, at least in theory.

Every year the number of interesting explorations of this idea and this watery space increases. Last summer’s “Sea Worthy” series of projects, for example, arranged by Gowanus Studio Space, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, and Flux Factory, included boat building workshops, expeditions, presentations, exhibitions, and other projects about New York City’s aquatic realm. It included the sold-out “Boatel” set up by the artist Constance Hockaday, where people could stay overnight on rafts and boats parked at a marina in Far Rockaway. Back in 2005, the place-based arts organization Minetta Brook (named after a waterway that used to run through Manhattan) arranged to physicalize Robert Smithson’s “Floating Island” idea, with the Whitney Museum (which was showing a Smithson retrospective exhibit at the time). Based on just a sketch he made in 1970 showing a park installed on a barge being towed around the city by a tugboat, they created just such a thing, and it was so. In 2008, Creative Time showed the artist Matthew Buckingham’s film about the Hudson River aboard water taxis plying the waters. Then there was Olafur Eliasson’s “Waterfall” project, also in 2008, not on the water but made of water, which brought another level of attention and form to the water’s edge. And recently, in October 2011, a floating dome sculpture assembled by a group led by Slo Architecture was on its way to being installed in the Harlem River, when it got away from them, and was wrecked on the shores of Rikers Island.

Some of these projects, such as Swoon’s 2008 raft trip down the Hudson (starting in Troy), and Mary Mattingly’s “Waterpod” (2009), seem to be inspired in part by Poppa Neutrino. He was a legendary boat hobo visionary who lived aboard a self-built barge at Pier 25 in Manhattan in the 1980s, and crossed the Atlantic in 1998 in the first “junk raft” to make the trip.

Other forms of recent creative acquaticism in New York’s waters are of a more exploratory nature, using vessels to examine the place  and perceptions of it, as well as various methods of staying alive and afloat. Artists like Bob Braine, Marie Lorenz, and Duke Riley’s journey’s into the fringes and vestigial islands of the East River for example, in kayaks camouflaged with floating debris, homemade dinghies, or wooden submarines, even, and their encounters with authorities, help test the limits and sustain the reality of open water as free space. Countless other urban explorers probe the rich curiosities along the urban water’s edge on their own, from the potter’s fields at Hart Island to the sinking fleets off Staten Island.

Institutional diversity is increasing in the watery realm too. The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, started by the Municipal Art Society in 2000, has become a major force encouraging favorable public shoreline development with water access.  There are now more than a dozen official places to launch a kayak on Manhattan and on the East River, and local water-access organizations, such as the Long Island City Community Boat House and other canoe and kayak clubs are increasingly popular, and influential. Creative small cultural organizations, like the Hudson Waterfront Museum in Red Hook, and Proteus Gowanus, explore their respective places. Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal, both some of the most hyper-urbanized and polluted watercourses in the nation, are now popular places for post-industrial kayak safaris. The opening of Governor’s Island to the public over the last decade, and the scheduling of creative public events there has also helped draw people to the water, and given us a new perspective from which to view the waterfront of the city.


One thing for certain, New York's waterfront is changing quickly. One thing for certain, is it’s changing quickly. An interesting waterfront needs complexity, diversity, and utility. If it all becomes a park, we will fall asleep on the grass and die of boredom. It’s the haphazard mix of forms, with a range of activities, including unplanned ones, that makes an urban waterfront alive and part of our lives. The possibility of uncertainty and discovery are critical to keep a public engaged with a place, whether it is technically theirs or not. But in this case, the water around the city–this city and others–is still all of ours. In fact, open water may be the only true commons left in America. The fact that open water is here, in the densest population center in the country, makes it especially valuable.

A Circumnavigation of Manhattan with the CLUI
Members of the CLUI have done a bit of exploring along Gotham’s urban shores too, to get a sense of the size and shape of it, from the water, and to explore the possibility of developing public programs along its fringes. What follows here is a composite description of a circumnavigational journey around Manhattan, depicting and describing points of interest, logistics, hazards, and accessibility.

These journeys were made in an 18-foot outboard open bow boat. We would generally recommend something larger, and with a higher bow and freeboard, mostly due to the large, sharp wakes generated by tourboats, watertaxis, and Coast Guard vessels.

There are only a few options for launching a trailered boat around Manhattan. On the Hudson, there is the Dyckman Marina boat ramp at the end of Dyckman Street, on upper Manhattan; Hazzard’s Ramp, at Fort Lee, New Jersey, at the base of the George Washington Bridge; and the ramp at Liberty State Park in Jersey City.  There are no public boat ramps or marinas on the Harlem River, or on the East River next to Manhattan. While there are a cluster at Jamaica Bay, the World’s Fair Marina is the closest to Manhattan outside of New Jersey. And unlike most others, it is free.

It is located in Queens, where Flushing Creek flows through the old Worlds fair Site, and into Flushing Bay, near the Willets point neighborhood, the remarkable and scrappy regional auto repair center, and the former Shea Stadium now Citi Field. With the model of New York City in the Queens Museum, and the remnants of the Worlds Fair in the park, this is a great place to begin any journey in or about.

1280 If the gate at the ramp is locked, we were told by the Parks Department, it is usually just “fake-locked” by the parking company that has the contract for nearby stadiums.
 

1281 Most of Flushing Bay was filled in to make LaGuardia Airport, and to get around the airport’s low relief and uncertain jetties and shoals we hugged the shore along College Point, past the Home Depot sign, asphalt plants, and the sunken boats and beat-up floating houses near the Skyline Cove Marina.
 

1282 The Pepperidge Farm cookie warehouse on Flushing Bay.
 

1283 The Police Boat Dock and the Time Warner cable building on 14th Avenue, College Point.
 

1284 Swinging around the long approach light jetties, we were able to cut westwards, around the northern edge of Rikers Island, the famous prison, New York City’s largest jail, a 415-acre village of 15,000 incarcerated souls. A long low causeway connects the island to the mainland.
 

1285 Across from it, tied to the shore at Hunt's Point, is a floating 800-bed prison, the Vernon C. Bain detention center, built in New Orleans and floated up here in 1992 as an extension of Rikers. Behind it is the New Fulton fish market, relocated here from Fulton Street in Manhattan, and the second largest seafood distribution point in the world, they say (after Tokyo’s). Next to that the Hunt's Point Sewage Plant, serves the liquid waste needs of 684,569 residents of the eastern Bronx.
 

1286 In the middle of the Upper East River here are the North and South Brother Islands. Not too much on the smaller South Brother (which was privately owned until the city bought it for $2 million in 2007-its now a bird sanctuary), but North Brother Island is one of those special urban gothic places. The ruins of Riverside Hospital, a quarantine hospital, where Typhoid Mary was held for 20 years, lies abandoned and overgrown with vegetation. Technically off-limits to the public, but visited secretly by urban explorers, who are slowly stripping it of remaining artifacts.
 

1288 The dual, abandoned connections for North Brother Island and Rikers Island is located in an industrial part of the Bronx known as Port Morris. Next to the ferry terminal, beneath a crane, is a rigging yard where the artist Richard Serra had one of his large steel torqued ellipse sculptures stored outside for a few years. In 2010, its location was published in the New York Times, and someone sneaked into the yard and covered the rusty steel with magnets. (It may or may not still be there, though it is still visible there on Google Earth).
 

1289 South of the Brothers, the peninsula, Lawrence Point, is dominated by the Astoria Power plant, a major electrical production plant for the region, next to which is the Bowery Bay Sewage Treatment Plant, serving the drainage needs of 848,328 people in the northeast section of Queens.

 

1290 In a narrow channel between the power plant and the sewage plant is the Bowery Bay Boat club, a small private boat club, making the best of its available space, with a single long dock and a boat ramp, not open to the public.

 

1291 Rounding the point southward, passing the tiny Bronx Kill, a muddy creek that connects to the Harlem River, is the transition between Queens and New York County. To the west the shore is dominated by the Wards Island Wastewater Treatment plant, providing wastewater treatment to 1,061,558 people in the western Bronx and upper East Side of Manhattan.  Next to which are the prop buildings, wrecked cars, and haz-mat scenarios of the New York Fire Department Training Academy. To the south is Hell Gate. Aptly named. Under the Hell Gate bridge, the water became very rough, as when the tides shift, Long Island Sound drains through here. Standing waves and chaotic currents are compounded by rebounding waves from much larger boats, bouncing off the narrow walls of the watery corridor. Many small boats are sunk here, the most hazardous stretch of the waters of New York.
 

1292 Curving northward around the southern end of Ward’s Island, and into the Harlem River, is the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, a massive old mental hospital.
 

1293 Up the Harlem River, on the Bronx Side, one passes small shipping terminals, storage yards, outfalls, and billboards along the Major Deagan expressway.
 

1294 On the Harlem side brick housing towers, and Harlem River Drive.
 

1295 Swindler Cove, a rare bit of shoreline chaos remaining in Manhattan, is undergoing a restoration and park development program by the New York Restoration Project, an organization that partners with the Parks Department to manage four upper Manhattan parks. The organization is led by its founder, the local resident and entertainer Bette Midler.

 

1396 Under the University Heights Bridge, northward, past the NYC Transit’s 207th Street Train Yards, the river bends westward, past Columbia University’s Baker Field, which lies beneath a giant C painted on the cliff across the river. This stretch of the river is part of the Harlem River Shipping Canal, made by dredging and rerouting Spuyten Duyvil Creek in the 1890s, which cut the neighborhood of Marble Hill off from the northern tip of Manhattan. The small community is still technically part of the Manhattan Borough, even though it is now physically in the Bronx.
 

1296 Under the Henry Hudson Bridge and the Hudson Line bridge...
 

1297 ...then its into the big old Hudson River, at the top of Manhattan Island, two miles upstream from the George Washington Bridge.
 

1298 On the northern shore of Manhattan is the Dyckman Street Boat Basin, once a chaotic river rat kind of place, but recently cleaned up - the only public boat ramp on Manhattan Island.

 

1299 The classical colonnades at Inspiration Point on the Henry Hudson Parkway visible in the trees, with an abandoned motor yacht, washed ashore.
 

1300 Then under the massive George Washington Bridge, New York City’s only bridge over the Hudson.
 

1301 Riverbank State Park, built atop the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, a $1 billion addition to the Manhattan shoreline, between 137th Street and 145th Street, finally finished in 1991, and processing all the sewage of the upper west side of Manhattan.

 

1302 Pier D, a long-standing collapsing relic, one of the last undesigned spaces on the Hudson shore of Manhattan (seen here in a 2008 photo, with Trump’s towers rising up in the background) was removed in mid January, 2011. The old lighterage piers were monuments of decay, immortalized on the cover of the 1982 photo book Dead Tech: A Guide to the Archeology of Tomorrow. Here tomorrow is now yesterday. Then south through the remains of the numbered piers, starting with 99, and running through 66, at West 26th Street, with the Frying Pan lightship and Manhattan Kayak expeditions, and ending at the southernmost pier on the Hudson side, Pier 25, where Poppa Neutrino once docked his raft. Now fixed up as part of the Hudson River Park, covered with a volleyball court, a miniature golf course, and a playground.
 

1303 At the base of the Goldman Sachs tower in Jersey City, across the Hudson from Manhattan, lies the preserved Colgate Clock, where there used to be a toothpaste factory. Entering the channel there, actually a stub of the old Morris Canal that used to go all the way from here to the Delaware River, is a marina. Despite the arduous crossing of the lower Hudson, with its traffic, wind, wakes, and waves, this stop is often essential, as this its last chance to get gas before heading up the East River.
 

1304 Cross around the southern tip of Manhattan, at Battery Park, pass the Southstreet Seaport Museum, then head up the east river, under the Brooklyn Bridge, past Dumbo and the Brooklyn Navy Yard under the Williamsburg bridge. Most of these landmarks are familiar from the land.
 

1305 A relic of the pre-condo, industrial age of the Brooklyn shore, the Domino Sugar factory was closed in 2003, after 148 years of operation. At one time, it was the largest sugar refinery in the world. The property was bought by C.P.C. Resources and is slated for residential redevelopment.
 

1306 More industrial shore falling under the wrecking ball in Greenpoint...
 

1307 Rounding the Tower Crane Company staging area is Newtown Creek, an industrial waterway that heads three miles into Brooklyn. Along its shores are buildings made of shipping containers, cement trucks backed up to the water, beer distributors, truckyards, scrapyards, former copper plants, fuel oil terminals and gas terminals, including the Brooklyn Terminal, where an underground oil spill of somewhere between 17 and 30 million gallons leaked out over the past 50 years, far more than the Exxon Valdez spill. Also up the creek is the newly updated Newtown Creek Water Treatment Plant, serving 1,068,012 people in midtown Manhattan, Brooklyn, and parts of Queens.
 

1308 The renovated industrial shoreline, with new apartment towers looming above the old ferry terminal for Long Island City.
 

1309 The Pepsi Cola sign, a preserved “pop” landmark.
 

1310 The artist Matthew Barney’s yacht.
 

1311 The UN, across from the tiny Belmont Island in mid-channel (a pile of  rubble left from building the Queens Midtown Tunnel under the river), and the southern end of Roosevelt Island, with its multiple curiosities, such as the Four Freedoms Park, originally designed by the architect Louis Kahn, now being constructed at the southern tip. North of it the ruins of the Renwick Smallpox Hospital, preserved as a façade like a ghost, reminding us of the pathological past of the island.
 

1312 The Ravenswood Power Station, built in 1965, and home of the first single generating unit capable of producing a million kilowatts (a thousand megawatts). “Big Allis,” as it is known, still online, is unit 3 of the four at the site, which together produce 2,500 megawatts, about 20% of New York City’s electrical needs. TransCanada Corporation bought the plant in 2008 for $2.9 billion.

 

1313 Socrates Sculpture Park is a public art environment on the East River shore at Long Island City, a non-profit space for producing and displaying three dimensional objects and hosting creative events. It opened in 1986, led by the sculptor Mark di Suvero.
 

1314 Mark di Suvero’s studio is just up the shore from the Socrates Sculpture Park.
 

1315 Rounding the top of Roosevelt Island we are back at Hell Gate, the confluence of the Harlem River, and the East River, and have completed the loop around Manhattan. There used to be an island here known as Great Mill Island, in the middle of the confluence. It was considered a hazard to navigation in the turbulent waters of Hell Gate, so in 1885 it was blown up (using 300,000 pounds of explosives placed under it by tunneling under the river from Queens). A small island known as Little Mill Rock remains in the confluence, a little further west, out of the way.
 

1316 Back at the boat launch at the World’s Fair Marina in Queens. On the journey, we passed under 22 bridges, and five of the 14 sewage plants in New York City, and affirmed that, indeed, Manhattan is some sort of island.