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? Thatbenighted 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.

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.

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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