The River Wild

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

Walking end to end along the West Side shoreline, I found myself trying to imagine how this concrete park/runway could ever engage the history of the river that the Algonquins plied as a trade route; that a Florentine navigator claimed for the king of France; that an Englishman misguidedly probed as he searched for the Orient; and that saw eras of pirate ships, steamships, cargo ships, and ocean liners come and go. Plans in the park proposal call for "bird sanctuaries" and environmental workshops, which I suppose is fine. But a jellyfish in a jar doesn't quite speak to a glacial basin whose closeness to the ocean and protection by land made it millennially an ideal place not only for shipping, but for whales to come and lumber, for shad to school, and for sturgeon to attain weights approximating three Hulk Hogans.

The closest I came to anything evoking the river's nature was at a pier near Canal Street, where two stands of cattails had unaccountably rooted themselves in a low-lying pier. By concentrating on the breeze moving through the rushes, it was almost possible to blot out traffic whipping down the West Side Highway. It struck me that there's a story to be read in the tension between an overgridded city and a blank reach of water. If the Hudson River Park doesn't tell it, what will?

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