when you ride from the north along the Hudson toward downtown, you can feel the landscape suddenly collapse at 59th Street. Suddenly, Riverside Park, with its sweeping sycamore-lined promenade buffering the riverside bike path and city highway that brutalist city architect Robert Moses sculpted between Manhattan and the water, disappears.
The view also changes to the right. Past the marina on 79th Street, the old docks now jut into the river like the fringes of a leather jacket. As many as 30 of them line up on the West Bank of Manhattan before ending up directly in front of Ground Zero.
There, the Hudson River Greenway joins a waterfront promenade lined with benches and lanterns that winds around Battery Park City, a collection of skyscrapers built in the 1970s atop the World Trade Center excavation dumped into the river.
Riverbanks were gloomy places
From here, beyond the Statue of Liberty, you can see what is now considered the Port of New York: the forest of cranes unloading large container ships on the New Jersey coast. Most of them are robots, controlled by an invisible hand in an invisible circuit center. This view reminds the cyclist that the 30 piers he just passed were still in use almost 60 years ago, before they were greened and turned into sports and entertainment facilities.
The era of dock workers’ quarters ended in the early 1960s. And with the departure of the port that had fueled New York’s prosperity since the city’s founding as a trading post in the 17th century, New York’s shores began a slow decline.
Who in the 70s or 80s in New York who knew rivers were no place to go without need. The dilapidated docks were roosting places for the homeless and trampled ground for cheap prostitution. There were wild drug parties there and whenever there was a deal to be made or a body to be busted in a gangster movie, it was done from the water. The water was no place for walking, cycling or jogging.
New York has 1,000 miles of coastline
In the 80s, no one would have thought of going to the river. When you lived in New York then, you didn’t really think the city was actually on the water.
It was a strange state. Because New York has an incredible 1000 kilometers of waterfront – along the Hudson, East River and Harlem River, north and south of Brooklyn and Queens, all the way along the southern edge of the Bronx, not to mention mirrors of smaller waterways, such as the Gowanus Canal, run through Brooklyn.
But the city has always had a pragmatic and rarely romantic relationship with its shores. The famous scene from Woody Allen’s film “Manhattan,” in which he sits under the Queensboro Bridge on the East River with Mia Farrow, admires the city lights and raves that New York is the most beautiful city in the world, remained Runaway.
More realistic was Ridley Scott’s Black Rain from 1989, in which illegal motorcycle races take place under the Brooklyn Bridge between parking lots and junkyards in the opening scene.
Wasteland has been turned into building land and parkland
Rivers have always been usable areas, industrial zones. It wasn’t until the 2000s and during the reign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg that New York discovered its shores for its citizens. Entrepreneur Bloomberg saw the many vacant lots along the waterfront as untapped opportunities. He saw endless opportunities for construction and profit.
Of course, banks first had to be made attractive before there could be incentives to invest in them. The greening of the Hudson River Greenway, the narrow strip between the water and the freeway from Battery Park City to the northern tip of Manhattan, was one such project. The phenomenal park under the Brooklyn Bridge, where hundreds of millions of public-private partnerships converged, is another.
The orientation towards the water has been a resounding success. The geography of the city has changed dramatically in the minds of New Yorkers in recent years.
New York has gained hundreds of miles of space: space to play music, picnic, skate, ride a bike, practice the saxophone without disturbing the neighbors, lie in a hammock and look at the New Jersey coast, fish, barbecue – and for teenagers to do things parents shouldn’t see.
Hurricane Sandy hit Manhattan and Brooklyn hard
Bloomberg’s vision of opening wasteland near water for large-scale construction projects has worked at least partially. On the East River in particular, from Williamsburg down to Long Island City, entire test-tube cities have grown from glass towers to luxury apartments.
But in all of this newfound coastal enthusiasm came October 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, roaring with thunder along the Atlantic coast. The confluence of three hurricanes just a dozen miles east of Manhattan has made the city painfully aware of what it’s like to live near water in times of climate change.
In the afternoon, as the dark clouds gathered, the water level on all banks rose to the brink of overflowing. When the evening winds came and the ancient trees of Central Park broke like matches, the dams no longer held anywhere.
The Westside Highway was submerged in no time, as were the main tunnels that connected Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey. Flash floods cascaded like waterfalls into subway stations. No basement in Lower Manhattan stays dry. Red Hook, Brooklyn’s last longshoremen’s neighborhood, was inundated by a flash flood. Half of Manhattan and much of Brooklyn were without electricity for a week.
The city is vulnerable to the effects of climate change
Sandy made it painfully clear to every New Yorker what climate activists have been preaching for decades. The waterlogged metropolis is more vulnerable to the consequences of climate change than any other in North America. Projections for the next 30 years assume that 25% of the city’s area will experience regular flooding. Approximately 800,000 New Yorkers live in areas that will no longer be reliably livable after 2050.
Ever since Sandy, New York has known that the future, like the past, is tied to water. The fact that the city ignored its water connection for so long is proving to be a fatal omission. Now New York can no longer deny its dependence on water.
After Sandy, many smart minds in New York have figured it out. The people of the city understood that survival of the city and concern for water go hand in hand. For example, soon after Sandy, New York announced a competition to redesign the shores of Lower Manhattan. The winning company, Rebuild by Design, produced a plan that included not only protecting vital infrastructure but also creating extensive parks and recreation areas that can act as flood defences.
In other places the mills grind more slowly. Plans to build a giant flood barrier at the entrance to New York Bay are still awaiting grants from Washington. And in Brooklyn, construction is happily continuing near the waterfront.
New York has no more time to waste
Ever since Sandy, you’ve had mixed feelings when you’re in Battery Park looking out over New York Bay. It’s still a sublime sight when the Staten Island Ferry passes the Statue of Liberty. One inevitably thinks of the millions of immigrants who crossed the sea to New York and made this city what it is.
Think of the waters that flow here from all directions and give life to one of the largest cities in the world. But at the same time we have to think about the destructive power of these waters, of which Sandy has only given us a taste.
It’s clear right now that New York has a future in the 21st century only if it reconciles itself with these bodies of water that form a wild and unpredictable vortex here in the city’s birthplace. And New York has no more time to waste.
The text is an excerpt from the recently released book “Lesereise New York” by Sebastian Moll, Picus Verlag, 132 pages, 16 euros.