The River Wild

Exploring Manhattan's Hudson Coast before a park plan paves it over

This is the record of a failure and I blame my part on shoes. Recently I got an idea to walk around Manhattan Island. Rather, I was curious to see what will comprise the new Hudson River Park. Fourteen years in the making, miraculously signed into being in the last hours of the legislative session, this "new" park is set for construction in September. All it awaits is George Pataki's signature.

As I saw it, my expedition would not qualify as a nature walk exactly—although I did spot a fair-sized raccoon and five Canada geese paddling through some rotted pilings—so much as an exploration of what counts as nature in an urban context. I'm aware that by declaring myself a city boy I run the risk of sounding like one of those ponderous newspaper hacks trapped in a fog of nostalgia for the great old days of ring-a-levio. But city person doesn't cut it. Maybe city rat would do. Born here, raised here, always lived here, I've made it my business to probe some of the city's weirder nooks and crannies. Yet for some reason, I'd never undertaken to hike the island all the way around.

Now, had I been reared among the fly-fishing novelists of Paradise Valley, Montana, I would instinctively know that, when you set out on a hike, you ought to be suitably shod. I was not. There is a reason, I discovered, that those unconstructed loafers--the ones with rubber bumps for soles--are called driving shoes. What was I thinking? It took three separate days and three changes of footwear to cover the 190 blocksfrom Battery Park City to the George Washington Bridge. The walks left me with a truck driver tan, an impressive set of Technicolor blisters, and a depressing conclusion about the new park: it's a sham.

What kind of churl finds fault with a scheme to thread a green ribbon up the entire West Side? Didn't it, after all, take decades of activism, lobbying, chicanery, and quibbling to get the city and state to set terms for who'd own and run a park arising from the ashes of the evil Westway? That benighted scheme to plunk a superhighway on 200 acres of riverside landfill was defeated in the mid 1980s by community advocates and environmentalists, chief among them the saintly Marcy Benstock. The original battle was followed by many others over the nature of a city-state land "partnership," the divergent visions of a newly created park, the always scary potential for rampant commercialization of the city's open shoreline, and the usual environmentalist concerns for crucial species few of us have ever seen.

Everyone wants parks. And in broadest outline the proposal seemed like good news. The recently passed legislation sets "limits" on commercial activity, bans riverfront gambling casinos (although not floating ones), andoffers "strict" protection for eels and other fishy things inhabiting the estuarial band extending from Battery Park City to 59th Street. Additionally, it promotes the general cause of careworn urbanites longing to leap about the shoreline with butterfly nets.

The reality, however, is far likelier to resemble an inline skateway with rest stop cafés at 20-block intervals. The reality, I'm afraid, offers a sharply decontextualized experience of what remains one of the world's great rivers. Construction probably begins this fall, and so will a new round of hearings and challenges by opponents claiming that the plan fails adequately to protect the river's ecology.

It can be argued that the Hudson is in better shape than it once was. You can now eat one river-caught fish per month, as an environmentalist with the Hudson River Conservancy cheerily reports, "without requiring PCB detox." (The heavy metals in the river-bottom mud might still give pause.) You can swim in its murky waters, as a handful of people do in a yearly race around Manhattan, although a jock friend who once competed in that race developed a weltlike rash that took weeks to subside. She switched to rock climbing after that.

But, as I discovered on my walks, there are other ecologies besides estuarine ones to consider. What about the homeless teens on the Christopher Street piers? The vagrants who pitch tents on the riverside boulders? The gay men who've made the waterfront a cruising ground since Herman Melville was a customs inspector at the Gansevoort piers? The indefatigable anglers who perch on the riprap and cast for striped bass and summer flounder and porgies and weakfish and tautogs and monkfish and shad? The encampments of homeless people in the shrubs at Riverside Park? And the Mole People who find even more obscure places to live underground?

"This is a plan for a commercial development with some esplanade-like amenities, as opposed to a true park plan," Deborah Glick, one of eight assembly members to vote against the plan, recently told the New York Blade. "Thereare fairly strict limitations on what you can and cannot do. It is designed in a fashion that does not allow for people to hang out without paying for something." It is designed in a way that puts a hex on the microecologies of community and that expunges the delicate, sometimes fugitive, but always important narrative of place.

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