Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Challenges of Embracing a Waterfront

I picked up Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan by Phillip Lopate at the new Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene the other day. I am not too far into it and suspect it may be a bit outdated (published 2004), but Lopate has hit upon an interesting phenomenon: New Yorkers' mysterious hesitancy to "maximize [the city's] aqueous setting" and propensity to, instead, turn inland.

Lopate attributes this trend to several factors. He argues that the waterfront's past as an occupied industrial site deterred New Yorkers from conceptualizing it as a space open for residence and recreation, as they do Central Park and Central Park West. And, he posits, "nothing can replace the beautiful, urgent logic of felt need" that characterized the development surrounding industry (docks, warehouses, customs offices, bars, brothels and churches). While I agree that Manhattan doesn't yet adequately embrace its waterfront, I am not so sure about Lopate's argument. As noted in an earlier post, the waterfront was used as a recreational space even when that meant bathing in human and industrial waste, and, given many neighborhoods' current lack of inland park space, I would argue that there is certainly a "felt need" for public waterfront access.

Where Lopate and I do agree, is that the perimeter highways and railroad tracks in Manhattan constitute physical barriers to the waterfront. Unwelcoming and seemingly unsafe underpasses and overpasses create daunting obstacle courses that, let's face it, for many New Yorkers, is just too much of a schlep. Lopate dubs the West Side Highway and the FDR Drive "the Original Sin of Manhattan planning." To that I would add with heavy sarcasm, "thanks a lot, Robert Moses." As designs for new waterfront spaces are developed, designers continue to grapple with these obstacles to bring the public to the new amenities. My favorite proposal so far is to paint the underside of the FDR Drive a lavender color called "Mighty Aphrodite." I am not sure this will work, but I love the name!

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