Trillion Dollar Shoreline, Comes With Spare Tires

May 3, 2012 // Filed under Uncategorized



Why does Manhattan turn inward onto its glittering skyscrapers and avenues of commerce when a gold coastline, a potentially magnificent waterfront, beckons from all sides?  Would its residents rush to these shorelines, partaking of promenades, water sports, and river transportation systems if accessibility were vastly improved?  New York essayist / author Phillip Lopate muses on these and many other thoughtfilled topics in his excellent 2004 publication, Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan.  Waterfront will be discussed this Saturday, May 5th, by the Saturday Samplers book group meeting at Bernardsville Library.

In Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan, Phillip Lopate employs a personal and quite New York point of view while examining his very own turf and surf.  The result is a vastly enjoyable, enlightening, and  inspiring reading experience. You may even want to get up out of your chair and take a walk, perhaps not quite reaching all the forlorn, topographically dangerous spots the author trekked to in his attempt to walk around Manhattan. For as Lopate circumambulates his revered city, struggling many times to gain access to the shoreline, it becomes obvious that one of the city’s greatest features – its waterfront – is also one of its least realized treasures.

Lopate begins his walkabout at the southern tip of Manhattan, working his way up the Hudson River waterfront from Battery Park.  Advancing northward, his strolls along open walkways with clear vistas of the water eventually become treacherous hikes along footpaths in the Fort Washington Park vicinity near the George Washington Bridge. There he describes “one of the loveliest, most harmonious, and yet least-known spots on the Manhattan waterfront,” but to get to it on foot necessitated “my usual bullheaded method of proceeding down the vine-scrabbled hill until the Henry Hudson Highway cut me off, then made a mad dash for it.  Actually, the highway bifurcates with the park, so that you have to risk your life twice to get to the water’s edge.”  After doing so, he was told that there is actually a footbridge nearby, but as New York irony would have it, there are only two footbridges, separated by three miles, crossing high-speed roads. Clearly the car supplants the foot; still, Lopate soldiered on through brambles, chainlink fences, and across high-voltage train tracks to reach northernmost Inwood Park by way of the riverfront.

The author’s sojourns along the East River – not a river, but an estuary – provide him many opportunities for fascinating digressions about housing projects, maritime history, and immigrant life.  Thoroughly versed in the history and literature of New York City, Lopate cites Hart Crane, Joseph Mitchell, and Herman Melville among other writers who felt the pull of the waterfront.  Of course, murderers and despairing souls also felt that pull, and over the centuries the waterfront has given up many bodies.  Medical advancements in the last century or so are visually apparent, too, as Lopate passes Roosevelt Island, home to the old Smallpox Hospital and the ruins of a lunatic asylum.  Directly opposite Roosevelt Island, one of the city’s foremost hospitals,  New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, now stretches itself out along the waterfront of the Upper East Side.  Typhoid Mary, the Fulton Fish Market, Robert Moses, the city’s bridges and islands, so many interesting items are touched on here.

But let us not overlook the city’s utter lack of regard in places for its riverfront landscape, strewn as it is with automobile tires, clots of debris, and remnants of old industry.  Falling economies, busted budgets, and political squabbles all have taken their toll.  Lack of a cohesive and sustaining vision for the waterfront plays a part, too.  Manhattan continues to transform itself, but we are left to wonder whether the city and its inhabitants will collectively recognize the potential bounty surrounding them at their watery borders.

~Review by Evelyn Fischel~







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