The River Wild

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

I started my walk at the Bank Street sex piers--or what used to be the sex piers until the cityamputated them 10 feet from the shore, making it necessary for anyone wishing to have treacherous sex in treacherous public places to climb a railing and jump. I walked from there to the Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum, went home and changed shoes, and later completed the northern leg to 174th Street. A separate outing carried me south to Battery Park City. On my way, I took dirt paths and pavement, clambered over rocks, scrambled through chain-link fences, trotted down a grand granite stairway in Riverside Park that reeked of urine. Surprisingly I saw few people. The most notable of these was a solitary prostitute working from a riverside warehouse in Harlem. Over herdoorway wasa leftover store sign reading "Everything White 50% Off."

There probably isn't an inch of the Hudson without some tale attached to it. At the garbage dump near 14th Street, doomfully named the Gansevoort Destructor Plant, for instance, is a walkway that's the vestigial terminus of Thirteenth Avenue, once the city's westernmost road. The road itself was laid with granite setts or Belgian blocks, also once known as Irish confetti, or Irishman's tears, to honor the immigrants who laid them and also the boats theyarrived on, which were ballasted with the stones. It happens that this walkway leads to a shady spot beneath the ramp to a disused Department of Sanitation transfer station--a very fine place from which to enjoy the fresh breeze off the waterand the sight of, say, a lateen-rigged sloop moving downriver under full sail. But you won't be able to use it. It's not part of the proposed parkland and trespass is illegal there.

To the north of the Destructor plant is a suburban-looking structure housing Manhattan's last remaining active fireboat company, Company 1, whose fiberglass mailbox is adorned with cardinals and whose front door offers the homey welcome: "Radioactive! Explosive!" Farther on I saw the pier where the Titanic was scheduled to arrive on her maiden voyage; the lighthouse ship Frying Pan; the forest of sunk pilings that used to be Pier 58; the monster Chelsea Piers pleasure boats with flying bridges and expensive brightwork and Mario Puzo­esque names (personal favorite? the Mia Amore Dawn); the evocative skids of the Baltimore & Ohio's railroad float bridge; the wooden "dolphins" at the 79th Street boat basin, designed to protect the marina from rogue ice floes; the Riverside Park promenade built atop a roofed-over segment of railbed; the sprightly Riverside viaduct, designed by F. Stewart Willamson to delight the eyes of ferry passengers crossing the river to 125th Street; the Little Red Lighthouse beneath the George Washington Bridge that served as a setting for a kiddie-book classic and also for a scene in Susanna Moore's latest fiction in which a maniac slices off the narrator's nipples with a knife.

From many points along the way, a walker is aware of the Empire State Building, peripherally sighted, and of occupying an indistinct margin between the shallow hard-packed surfaces of the city and the river's currents and depths. On Pier 54, I encountered some students from the Hudson River Conservancy, who'd set up tables to educate New Yorkers on the river's rich ecology.A jar held a bottle-sized lion's man jellyfish, its streaked viscous form the colors of phlegm and blood. "Anything red that's on it is poisonous," explained Dave Fernicola, a biology major at William Patterson College. "We fished it from the river today. It's not even a particularly large one."

Fernicola went on to remark that the Hudsonwill "never be Caribbean blue here because the river mixes fresh and salt water and that permits a lot of organisms to grow," and that, because the bottom is muddy, "the water looks worse than it is." It smells quite ripein places, too, but somehow I find this less alarming than the spots where there is no smell at all. It's crucial to feel the river's presence. Yet, as conceived, the Hudson River Park does nothing obvious to help you along. Both on paper and as realized, it resembles nothing so much as a concrete track around the playing fields at a suburban high school: barriers, asphalt, plentiful signage to discourage beer drinking or unleashed dogs, and lots of vehicular access.

What it lacks, as far as can be determined, is anything that speaks to the continuity of place. Landscapes are fictions. The most bravura man-made examples come close to working the way nonfiction novels do, enfolding what's immutable, or "factual," in a structure of narrative invention. When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux imposed a "rustic," hilly, 843-acre simulacrum of the Catskills on the midisland scrubs, they also created a saga of 19th-century New York. Central Park's conception was grandiose enough to suit a metropolis; it was solid enough in execution to bestow on that city its most profound work of public art. Using nothing so important as a river, the architects managed to tell a story that continues to explain the preoccupations of a robber baron city operating under a government as scummy as anything New York has ever known.

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