Water's Edge | The Nation


Water's Edge

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Manhattan is a tight little island. Around thirteen miles long, it has a width that varies from two miles to a few hundred feet. After centuries of having its shores sculpted by erosion, excavation and landfill, it is a land mass that has acquired on maps the profile of a right whale swimming into the open sea. But this nautical image is too neat, if not another of the city's cruel jokes, since Manhattan is a small island that can often make one feel utterly landlocked. The financial district is formed by granite and glass canyons; in midtown, trade and tourism funnel crowds inland toward Central Park, Times Square and Madison and Park avenues. A tenement roof offers some respite--a vista of sky vaulting a sea of shingle, tin, terra cotta and tar. The soft wails of unseen tugs linger in the air, and the nearest body of water lies in the many cubic yards of upstate reservoir stored in the squat elevated towers cluttering the horizon. From the roof the cables of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges are visible, but the river they span is not. At night, glittering with tiny lights, the cables dip from their towers into the dark, the extravagant decorations of a street fair for the landlocked.

About the Author

John Palattella
John Palattella is literary editor of The Nation. His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications,...

Also by the Author

Among the Kurds in southeastern Turkey.

Victor Navasky’s The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and their Enduring Power

A glimpse from an airplane or a skyscraper's upper stories reveals a different picture. Wedged between three rivers, Manhattan is part of a large urban archipelago. Of New York City's five boroughs, only the Bronx rests on the continent. Staten Island looms in the southwest, and to the east Brooklyn and Queens blanket the western tip of Long Island. A host of smaller islands dot the harbor and rivers. Liberty Island houses a monument, Rikers a prison. Lesser-known islands like North Brother, once used as quarantines for the criminal and the ill, are now inhabited by birds, insects and mice. Freshwater tributaries feed the rivers that ribbon the islands, which means that the Manhattan archipelago is bathed by an estuary, a nutrient-rich marine habitat created by the merging of fresh and salt water.

Phillip Lopate explains in Waterfront that when he began telling people he was writing about Manhattan's shoreline, "many would get misty-eyed and ask me if I had read The Bottom of the Harbor (which of course I had)." It's a legitimate question since few books convey a richer sense of the fecundity of Manhattan's estuary than Joseph Mitchell's work, which contains six delicate and dazzling portraits of the waterfront that Mitchell published in The New Yorker between 1944 and 1959. The Bottom of the Harbor is an estuarium, one that elegantly combines, as Lopate acknowledges, "the perspectives of marine biologist, geologist, urbanist, anthropologist, and historian" to explain how the harbor churns together past and present, nature and humanity, predators and prey.

But to get sentimental and imply that Mitchell had already done the job in The Bottom of the Harbor is to diminish the importance of Lopate's very different but perceptive and valuable Waterfront. Even if he had wanted to, Lopate couldn't have written a book like The Bottom of the Harbor, since Mitchell's subject, the culture of New York City's maritime economy, has all but vanished. By the early twentieth century most of the immense oyster beds in the Lower Bay, decimated by overharvesting and pollution, had been condemned. As for fin fish, they "stopped arriving by water in the early 1970s," Lopate tells us, "partly because New York Harbor was too polluted to supply a local catch (or store it in the river, once caught)," and partly because it was cheaper to truck in refrigerated fish from elsewhere. The biggest economic blow came in the 1960s, with the arrival of container ships, which require deep drafts and fifty acres of backspace for the unloading of cargo, both of which Manhattan lacks. After World War II, the city handled one-third of all foreign cargo shipped to the United States; by the early 1970s, after the maritime trade had drifted westward to the deep waters and acreage of container facilities in Newark, Manhattan's port was all but dead. (The piers in Red Hook, Brooklyn, have remained the home of a few small, vibrant shipping firms.) What was once a shoreline thick with bustling piers, wharves and ferry slips is now a hodgepodge of parks, piers, promenades, luxury apartment buildings, landmarks, housing projects, power plants and parking lots. No wonder, then, that when Lopate examines Manhattan's profile on a map, instead of a right whale he sees "a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere."

Lopate takes us nearly everywhere as he meanders up and down the banks of the Hudson, Harlem and East rivers, from the Battery in the south to Inwood Park in the far north, and from South Street Seaport to Highbridge Park in East Harlem. Strolling along promenades, scrambling over train tracks, slogging through underbrush, squeezing through holes in chain-link fences, Lopate hugs the water's edge as much as possible. Interspersed among the chapters describing these rambles are excursions into the history of the waterfront's architecture, geology, literature and development. Underlying these explorations are several fundamental questions: "What is our capacity for city-making at this historical juncture? How did we formerly build cities with such casual conviction, and can we still come up with bold, integrated visions and ambitious works? What is the changing meaning of public space? How to resolve the antiurban bias in our national character with the need to sustain a vital city environment?"

Waterfront is a vivid blend of history, guidebook, white paper and urban sketch, one that may surprise readers of Lopate's work as a personal essayist. Yet the waterfront is a natural subject for Lopate, since local history has often been a catalyst for his essays. "I am like a worm that prefers to enter a dying organism," Lopate writes in "Memories of Greenwich Village," from his collection Portrait of My Body. "It excites my imagination more to take an archival angle on the past than to go where it is 'happening.'" In several essays in the early collection Bachelorhood, that angle of vision is sharp but narrow: Lopate describes how seedy, vibrant neighborhoods (such as Times Square and the Upper West Side) began to be transformed or threatened by gentrification in the late 1970s, and his observations, while vivid, are mostly impressionistic.

Lopate refined his archival vision in a novel, The Rug Merchant, in which the owner of a sleepy Oriental rug shop on Amsterdam Avenue has his rent tripled by gentrification-happy landlords. The unfashionable shop is a dying organism, one that its owner has for personal reasons maintained in a makeshift way; Cyrus Irani inherited the shop from an uncle, and he had started working there only after the fear of success led him to abandon his doctoral studies in art history. Although Cyrus's store is on Amsterdam Avenue, the distance between it and the shoreline described in Waterfront is narrow, since in his new book Lopate is again burrowing into the remains of a local enterprise that for centuries had a makeshift feel. As Lopate notes, the relatively calm waters of New York City's sheltered harbor saved it the expense of building stone piers, and when ships began getting wider and longer, the city opted simply to lengthen its rickety wooden piers instead of replacing them with sturdier, more expensive ones. In The Rug Merchant Lopate tells the subtle story of a place's inertia and slow decline; in Waterfront he tells a rich and more subtle story about a place's rapid decline followed by equal parts of inertia and transformation.

Inertia: Battery Park City, a cluster of residential, commercial and recreational developments built on ninety-two acres of landfill, part of which was extracted from the excavation of the World Trade Center site in the late 1960s. Because its design severs it from its immediate context (the Wall Street financial district), Battery Park City is, in Lopate's opinion, "something of a transplanted organ that has never quite taken hold." Transformation: the Riverbank State Park, nestled atop a sewage treatment plant on the Hudson between West 137th and West 145th Streets. Harlem residents were understandably outraged when they learned in the late 1970s that the state wanted to build along their neighborhood's western edge a plant for processing the effluents of millions of people. The state's consolation prize was to erect a park atop the plant. Nearly 4 million visitors a year now flock to Riverbank's ballfields, pools, amphitheater and cultural center, Lopate says. (An added attraction: the state finally figured out how to eliminate the plant's stench.) Lopate praises Riverbank's designer, Richard Dattner, for refusing to treat its waterfront location as either the outer edge of residential development patterns or an empty vista for soothing the landlocked. Like Lopate, Dattner resists the island's deeply ingrained habit of turning inland.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size