The Best Piers - 2005
Down at the waterline, quietude and camaraderie haunted by tragedy and mystery
One of the hardest things to do in New York is to not look at other people; they are omnipresent and endlessly fascinating. But should you manage to look away, you might notice that for five boroughs on three islands (and one peninsula), you almost never see water. There are fantastic socioeconomic reasons for this, mainly involving commerce's need for aquatic transport and the correlation between desirable real estate and distance from commercial activity.
This pattern's legacy is a still-fancy-pants island center and a largely inaccessible periphery, once dedicated to ship-docking but now either "repurposed" (confused tourists, refreshing breezes, pleasant music) or ignored (littered with debris, surface multicolored from erosion, strange stillness). Once upon a time each railway line owned its own pier in Jersey and a corresponding one on the southwestern rim of Manhattan, since in the absence of tunnels, the last leg of any NYC-bound rail journey took place via boat. And who'd want to live near the train station?
Today, those railway piers constitute valuable real estate and have been largely built over. But the piers that are still identifiable as such are the islands' concrete beaches, spurs into the ocean from what is already a spur into the ocean. And the seemingly anomalous presence of water can produce a quietude and camaraderie you miss elsewhere.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than on Coney Island Pier, helped along by the fact that it serves an actual beach. On a summer night you can catch a breeze and a fish, or at least partake of fish caught (and grilled, there on the pier) by a friendly stranger, then watch families dance around a boombox and teenagers canoodle dangerously against the railings over the sea.
From the narcotic pleasures of South Street Seaport (Pier 17) you can spy Fulton Ferry, which the state has declared a park without, apparently, doing anything. But it's so pretty, with its close-up view of the Brooklyn Bridge and the southeastern shore of Manhattan, that laissez-faire seems OK. Plus, aside from the looking-at-people possibilities it offers (Chinese bridal parties in full regalia! Random fashion shoots in courtyards!), you can slowly circle the shell of what was no doubt once a people-watching nexus itself: Fulton Ferry landing, hulking like a monastic chapel beside a cliffside of rabbit burrows.
Prior to bridge and tunnel construction, ferries were integral to life in New York, since there was no other way to island-hop. New piers were built for this purpose as late as 1922. Many of these are now as vacant as the legendarily abandoned subway stations, but they're too exposed to be truly creepy.
Sadly, if creepy is what you're looking for, some of New York's most heavily trafficked piers fit the bill. A haunted aura surrounds, for instance, St. George Ferry Terminal, site of the Staten Island Ferry crash; Pier 61 (at Chelsea Piers), where the Titanic would have docked had it reached New York safely; and Piers 11 and 78, where on September 11, thousands thronged to board ferries after the shutdown of underground transportation.
But the sense of tragedy is easy to dispel; Pier 61 might encourage post-workout introspection, but hardly sadness for a calamity almost a century past. And sitting on the unmistakably publicly-financed plastic seats of the Staten Island Ferry, surrounded by idle sightseers, the red-and-blue cranes of Red Hook looming above the colonial skyline of Governors Island, the scene is all too familiar, and when you see the Verrazano emerge and the snaggletoothed city recede, it's all too pretty to be really tragic. (Although the scraping metal and rubber at Pier 11 can be eerie in certain weather.)
Some abandoned piers merely echo the post-industrial wilderness of their surroundings. Those along Kent Street in Williamsburg and River Street in Greenpoint hide behind fences and a few hundred feet of vacant lots (though you'll still find ferry traffic at Schaefer Landing), but glimpsed on a blazing summer day, they seem like unfulfilled promises, not closed files marked "residential development."
The Brooklyn Navy Yard piers are hidden more officially and thus possess a more mysterious air, but the recent permission of limited public access and their commercial reawakening (including Steiner movie studios) have dissipated that somewhat.
Closer to the spooky ideal might be the recently closed Domino's sugar plant, visible from the Williamsburg bridge, but it's too neat to be truly spooky. Ideally, instead of being converted to lofts, it would be transformed into a mad scientist's workshop.
Best, though, is undoubtedly a pier off West 38th Street (at Twelfth Avenue) that houses Manhattan's towed cars. Once your towing fee is paid, you board the NYPD's version of a Universal Studios tour cart and an officer drives you in the barely-lit dark past rows of dust-encrusted Crown Victorias to your vehicle. Then she leaves and you are alone, nothing to distract your gaze but a chain-link gate at the very end of the very last line of cars, on the other side of which, you can't help but notice, is water, dark but sounding clear as day. This flimsy fence is, you similarly can't help but notice, all that's keeping you on land. At 3 a.m. it's a little scary, because it's like you're floating. But you turn, and you drive out onto the West Side Highway, no longer alone, and away from the water, a combination that is not coincidental.