October 1, 2008
The Good Life?
A survey of leisure activities on the New York waterfront leaves a lot to be desired—in particular, something to drink.
A few years ago, I passed one of the most leisurely summers ever in Belgrade, a city not known as a peaceful tourist destination. I was there on the way to do some reporting in Kosovo, which had been hit by anti-Serb, pro-independence riots earlier in the year, and was staying with friends in Zemun, across the Sava River from downtown. Most afternoons, after studying Serbo-Croatian and e-mailing various NATO officers to set up tours of World Heritage sites they were protecting, I would take a pleasant ten-minute bike ride from my friends’ graphics studio in central Belgrade, or a small motorboat from the Communist housing blocks in New Belgrade, to a little paradise in the Sava called Ada Ciganlija.
Ada is an island with a large artificial lake and a pebbly beach lined with vendors of Serbian hamburgers (pljeskavica), savory and sweet crêpes (palacˇinka), and waiters who bring beer (pivo) straight to rows of reclining chairs shaded by umbrellas. After racing against my friends Zole and Stanislav to the other side of the lake and back, I’d order a Jelen pivoand a palacˇinka with ham and cheese, practice some never fully articulate Serbian, and kick back in a lounge chair.
Then, the next summer, something unthinkable happened: I got a full-time job in New York, a city with endless miles of shoreline but almost nowhere to eat, drink, or lounge next to it. I spent the next three summers systematically searching for anything within easy reach of my Flatiron-district cube that could approximate the after-work pleasures of Belgrade. Sadly, in the entire city there is only a handful of parks near our enormous and plentiful waterways that offer anything other than vacantly bucolic views of the water. Even sadder, most of the new parks planned for areas along the rivers utterly fail to imagine any form of lounging, eating, or beer drinking. Compared to Belgrade’s waterfront—apart from Ada, there are riverfront cafés and beautifully crummy houseboats with restaurants, bars, and clubs along most stretches of the river—New York’s Hudson and East Rivers seem like the neglected afterthoughts of distracted and quarreling gods.
The process for getting more food and drink vendors along the waterfront should be simple: the city just has to issue a request for proposals, and the bids will come flying. But in New York, as is true elsewhere in the country, the prevailing view is still a 19th-century Puritan ideal: a park is supposed to be a refuge from the city rather than a part of it, which is why, I think, landscape architects, advocacy groups, and the Parks Department consistently fail to allow the slightest element of fun within them. Community-board members and heroic attendees of decades-long planning meetings tend to be so focused on getting any park whatsoever that they rarely think about what the park should be used for. If activities are programmed, they prefer “community” spaces rather than commercial establishments, which are regarded as “private” and therefore not in the public interest (even though many times more people would use them). I understand from Roland Lewis, at the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance—probably the only advocacy group that mentions food and drink in its list of waterfront goals—that New York’s rivers are safe to swim in today, if only we could get nongated access to them.
There are, however, a few almost great places in New York that combine food and drink on the waterfront. None of them are designed by anyone with professional training in landscape architecture. They are mostly ad-hoc projects that received no help from community groups or city agencies, and their owners have spent years jumping through hoops in a bureaucratic three-ring circus to keep them afloat. The best waterfront space in Manhattan finally reopened in July on Pier 66a—not really a pier at all but a barge hitched to an old railroad truss on the Hudson River across from 26th Street. Known to locals as the Frying Pan for the once sunken historic lightship moored on its hull, the barge has the audacity to offer a full bar and an ample selection of barbecued and fried food to paying customers on top of our wholesome waterways. For a decade or so, the barge was hidden behind Basketball City, a few blocks south, and its co-owner John Krevey fought off almost nonstop eviction efforts by various park agencies and other groups. Then, a few summers ago, the Pooh-Bahs of the Hudson River Park Trust decided to demolish the nearby courts to create more waterfront cow pastures by Michael Van Valkenburgh and a retro, temperance-era beach on the site. The renderings show a smattering of lost-looking people crouched on lawns, strolling wistfully, and—I imagine—weeping as they lean against the rail of the concessionless waterway. Are they getting ready to jump?
On the other side of town, Stuyvesant Cove Park was built a few years ago with landscaping by Donna Walcavage, and features native plants, decent views, and an excellent solar-powered demonstration project, Solar One, which harvests sunlight to supply power for education and outreach projects. But the East River–side park offers very little reward for the hike to the end of Manhattan underneath FDR Drive—absolutely nothing to eat or drink, and on most days no reason to meet anyone there. The views, plants, and benches are not that nice. During the summer, though, Solar One holds a couple of great public events, including Citysol, a weekend of music powered by photovoltaics, with inter-active installations and kegs of Brooklyn Lager operated by gravity and hand pumps. I attended last year, and the park was packed with people for many hours, which disturbed the squirrels that usually have it mostly to themselves. Solar One is to be replaced by Solar 2, a bigger and bolder project that will offer more extensive education and outreach programs and also the Eco-Café. (Expect bran muffins and other good-for-you treats but no place to go.)
In Long Island City, Queens, the almost fantastic Water Taxi Beach is tucked away from non-waterborne transport but gets huge crowds during the summer because of its views of Manhattan, its DJs, and a couple of other good things: food and drink. During the day, residents of the nearby Queens West condos use it as a playground for volleyball and recreation, and at night it turns into an outdoor club packed with people who sometimes pay as much as $20 to get in. A chain-link fence surrounding the beach is presumably there to keep drunks from falling into the river, which makes it feel like a prison yard once you realize what’s framing your view. But it’s a far cry from the pious pastures and geriatric walkways that the Parks Department and community groups are otherwise inclined to give us.
A few blocks away from Water Taxi Beach, a fine park preserves the old iron gantries once used to move freight from barges on the East River. It even spurns the predominant Olmsted nostalgia by adopting an industrial aesthetic and programming lots of sports activities. In May, I went to a presentation at the AIA NY’s Center for Architecture, where the landscape architect Lee Weintraub showed photos of two sad-looking people sitting on boulders as evidence of its success. Visiting a waterfront park without a place to swim, drink, or lounge is like going to a pool in order to watch the water. You’ve seen the view—now what?
The summer before last, I discovered—thanks to Josh Karant, the blogger of Porkchop Express fame, in his valiant search for delicious—something pretty close to the luxuries of Belgrade in New York. On Saturdays and Sundays, I’d ride my bike to Red Hook Pool, an enormous WPA project built by that devil Robert Moses in the 1930s, an age when, ironically, money for infrastructure and public works seemed to have grown on trees. After a swim and some lounging by the pool, I’d walk across the street to the soccer fields, where on weekends Latin American vendors sell huaraches, seviche, pupusas, spicy mangoes, watermelon juice, barbecued corn, and everything in between. Red Hook Park combines water, if not the waterfront, and food, if not drink, in a park that is free and open to the public; it has special after-work hours for swimming, and inexpensive, flavorful food nearby. In short, the good life. (No beer, though, at least not legally.)
That same summer, however, the gods of the Parks Department in their infinite wisdom discovered that people were having fun in the park and tried to expel the food vendors because of a lack of permits. Maybe the real problem was the realization that someone else was providing services and making money on city property. Thankfully, the vendors formed an association and fought the city for the right to stay: they returned last summer a little worse for wear, forced to operate out of cramped food trucks parked on the street but meeting all the codes the city has created to protect us from the good things in life. No good deed goes unpunished, as my editor likes to say.
I am still somewhat hopeful about the East River–waterfront project in Lower Manhattan designed and master-planned by ShoP Architects in collaboration with the landscape architect Ken Smith. The radical concept, at any rate, is to bring some of the qualities that we like about cities to the waterfront itself—active uses that will integrate new facilities into existing neighborhoods, with enhanced connections that might make it seem like less of a hike through a postapocalyptic landscape to get there. Their schematic plan calls for all kinds of amenities, and the renderings indicate a variety of activities—dog walking, bike riding, ball playing, bench sitting, hand holding, stroller pushing, flower buying. Almost all of these images show people in groups of one to two—well, not groups, but individuals and couples anyway. In one view there is a small café with enough seating for perhaps three. There are karate classes, which is sort of a group activity. But no socializing crowds straddling benches at waterside beer gardens, no rows of lounge chairs with merry people sipping drinks under umbrellas, no lines of tables with seafood served up to the hungry masses, not even a crummy food kiosk to supply some comfort to the lonely stroller pushers and dog walkers. The list of activities in their proposal is long, and eating is among them, shown in a line drawing, but drinking is not. It’s not pictured anywhere. Here’s to hoping.
I understand that plans for the renovation of Greenpoint’s own WPA-era pool in McCarren Park are finally progressing beyond the community-meeting and farcical-schematic-architecture phase. Mayor Bloomberg has kicked in $50 million for the good people at Rogers Marvel Architects to upgrade the facility next year with some simple but necessary improvements: a functioning pool, a lounging area, a surface for a winter skating rink, and even, astonishingly, kiosks for food and drink. I dare not say beer, out of fear that the gods will strike me down. (Alternately, the city could just stop fining and arresting people for drinking beer in parks, which offends all that’s right and good in the world.) And it appears that, in between the swimming and skating, the Parks Department intends to allow the concerts that began the revival of the pool three or four summers ago to continue during the off-season, meaning that it’s possible for the government to learn from how people really use the city, when they are permitted to use it. Will northern Brooklyn’s waterfront be next? Based on the first vacantly bucolic pier, food-and-drink-deprived promenade, and rock-hard benches opening on the East River next to the Northside Piers condos, I sincerely doubt it.