Sunday, October 18, 2009

On the Waterfront

Earlier this year, I accepted the dubious challenge of writing a historic plaque for the park at Catherine Slip in the Two Bridges neighborhood of Lower Manhattan. While trying to explain how a space that was once a docking place for boats between piers was now terra firma parkland, I was surprised to learn that much of the shoreline was filled in not only with earth, but with refuse. This tidbit didn't make it into my plaque text, but it's fascinating to me to think about how we have physically blurred the edges of our city both purposefully and through neglect and how our relationship with the waterfront has changed over time.

The shores of Manhattan once consisted sandy beaches, intertidal mudflats and salt marshes. With industrialization, the waterfront was put to work, much to the detriment of the ecosystem. Industry flourished with easy access to water transport and few regulations about waste dumping. According to Mark Kurlansky's book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, by 1910, 600 million gallons on untreated sewage was being dumped into the waterways daily. Surprisingly, New Yorkers still used the waterways for recreation, though they would often emerge caked in filth.

Today, under the auspices of the Bloomberg Administration, the City is endeavoring to return the waterfront and waterways for safe public use. Vast swaths of the waterfront have been rezoned for public access and new parks and esplanades are under construction. Oyster and mussel beds have been reintroduced to the waterways to naturally filter the water.

Of course, there are still areas where the waterfront is completely closed to the public, notably in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn. Here, the giant Con-Edison plant bars access to the water. I'd love to post a photo to show you how Con-Ed plant completely blocks views of the water, but a small man stepped out of a guard booth to inform me that photography was not permitted, as though I had not seen the signs.

No comments:

Post a Comment