The view from pier six on the Brooklyn side of the East River is breathtaking: The majestic skyline of downtown Manhattan boasts its latest addition, a new residential tower designed by Frank Gehry. In the distance to the right, the spires of the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings reflect the sunlight as if dipped in molten gold.
However, the pier itself is not such a happy sight. A wasteland of concrete, rusty steel frames, rotting blocks of wood and mounds of gravel, it is testament to the decline of this stretch of Brooklyn, as well as to the neglect that for many years has defined New York’s relationship with its waterfront.
There are few cities in the world that can compete with New York for the extent and diversity of its water. It has 830km of shoreline — more than Chicago, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle combined. The city is embraced by two powerful tidal rivers, the Hudson and the East River, and two major bays, Long Island Sound and the Atlantic, affording New Yorkers the pleasures of 25km of beaches.
Yet, until recently, you would hardly have noticed it. New York City looked inward to its famous buildings and Central Park, away from the gift of its waterways.
As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said: “At some point in our history, we literally and figuratively turned our back on the waterfront.”
Now Bloomberg and his team have declared that they are determined the waste will be brought to an end, that New York will be reconnected with its water. Bloomberg has announced a US$360 million three-year action plan that aims to bring the shoreline back into the heart of the community.
“The water is the connective tissue of this place — we see it as our sixth borough,” said Amanda Burden, the city’s chief planner. “The ambition is to make New York City once again one of the world’s great harbor cities and to reclaim the water as a part of New Yorkers’ everyday lives.”
That is not an insignificant goal. Julia Vitullo-Martin, an expert on cities at the Regional Plan Association, said that making the most of rivers, lakes and seas had become an economic imperative.
“When you think of any successful modern city — London, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Sydney — they are all making great use of their waterfronts,” she said.
Under the new plan, 130 projects have been funded — including 14 new greenways and esplanades and 20 hectares of new waterfront parks. New Yorkers will be encouraged not just to go to the water, but to go on to it. Within three years, there will be 60 launching pads around the city for those who want to go canoeing or sailing.
From this summer, a high-speed ferry service will run every 20 minutes between Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, which Burden says will help blur the boundaries of the five boroughs. Economic incentives will be used to revitalize the port, which remains the largest on the US east coast, providing US$6.8 billion in business revenues.
The paradox is that New York became the powerhouse that it is today largely because of the water, both in terms of its population, which swelled with the arrival of European immigrants, and economically, with the triangle trade in cotton and slaves between Africa and the US Deep South.
“It’s incredible given its origins that the waterfront has become such a dead loss to New York,” said Lisa Keller, a historian at the State University of New York and executive editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City.