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Water's Edge | The Nation

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Water's Edge

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During his many decades as an essayist, Lopate has cultivated a prose style that's supple and vigorous enough to tackle diverse tasks, such as tender reminiscence ("The Dead Father: A Remembrance of Donald Barthelme"), sardonic self-revelation ("On Leaving Bachelorhood") or contrarian argument ("Resistance to the Holocaust," an eloquent, sharp-elbowed attack on writers, museums and memorials whose representations of the Holocaust are mired in mystification and kitsch). Writing directly about the waterfront, Lopate had to inventory facts and impressions about scores of physical places. It's a task with no precedent in his other work, and one that he handles deftly by punctuating his lively historical and geographical excursions with colorful bursts of description. The Starrett-Lehigh Building, a blocklong, nineteen-story warehouse near the Hudson River, is a "flapjack stack of fenestration." Ten blocks north sits the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center; with nearly 2 million square feet of space warehoused under a canopy of black glass, it is a "bold lump of coal." The Con Edison power plant on the banks of the East River at 14th Street sprouts "stacks of coiled wire like the laboratory headdress of Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein." As for the joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers who dart and glide through Hudson River Park, they are clad in "the global uniforms of the body-snatched, those who have allowed their limbs to be turned over to machines for happiness."

About the Author

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

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Such growls about the waterfront's temples of finance and sweat should not be mistaken for bohemian sneers. Lopate admits that he recoils from places like Hudson River Park and Chelsea Piers not out of principled urbanist objections to their design but because of "my own estrangement from my body, and my fear and envy of people who celebrate life through their pores--I who live in my head, looking out at the world as if I were constantly reading a book, while my belly softens and my hair thins." Still, a balding pate can't account for the passages in Waterfront that echo Low Life, Luc Sante's hip and pungent history of downtown Manhattan's nineteenth-century underbelly. While tracing the boundaries of the old fish market in South Street Seaport, Lopate reminisces about long-gone purveyors of vice who lived by their wits "with improvised cons at the border of legality. In the end, that way of life could not survive here: it fell to the corporations and realtors who call the tune in this city, and who practiced a smoother type of dishonesty, breaking their promise to the fish-dealers." In Low Life, Sante presents those nineteenth-century hustlers as the guardian spirits of an urban wilderness, an unfinished Wonder City poisoned in the early twentieth century, and again during the 1980s and '90s, by prosperity and public relations. Sante treats those scruffy spirits as the source of a regenerative myth; they are the protagonists of a morality play about the struggle between flamboyance and sobriety, the irrational and the rational. There is no such struggle in Waterfront because, despite being a flâneur, Lopate is not a bohemian who romanticizes poverty or marginal classes. He is curious about the waterfront's past shabbiness but not inured to it.

As for principled urbanist opinions about waterfront development, Lopate has a bushel of them. One is a revisionist take on Robert Moses, the master builder of many of New York City's tunnels, expressways, parks, beaches and bridges. Lopate defends Moses against those who, like Jane Jacobs and Marshall Berman, think he was "a monster, the enemy of the good" because he bulldozed through waterfront neighborhoods to build highways. I credit Lopate for his effort, but I think it will take more than a few thousand words, and better arguments than the claim that Moses "accomplished much more good than harm" or that some of the neighborhoods he razed to make way for an expressway "were doomed to change and wither" anyway, to convince thoughtful skeptics that Moses was not an imperious planner indifferent to the plight of the thousands of lower-class folks displaced by his projects.

Much more persuasive is Lopate's carefully researched and gamely argued discussion of Westway--"the road not taken." Announced in 1972, Westway involved a plan to submerge several miles of the West Side Highway in the Hudson River, thereby creating the opportunity to build an expansive waterfront park downtown. Better yet, because Westway was to be part of the nation's Interstate system, the federal government would pay for its riverine tunnels. Westway had many opponents in Greenwich Village, which would have been most affected by its construction. After failing to prove that Westway would worsen their neighborhood's air quality, village activists argued that its tunnels would harm marine life, especially striped bass. The state countered that it was willing to do whatever was necessary to ease any impact Westway might have on the fish. Striped bass have adapted to landfill and dredging in the past, Westway's planners argued. Why not now? The courts agreed with the opposition, and Westway was scrapped in 1990.

The Westway chapter shows that, as far as urban planning goes, Lopate is a conservationist. As the architect Nathan Silver explains in Lost New York, preservation, through the limited protection and veneration of certain urban forms, keeps change at bay, whereas conservation seeks to accommodate change by cultivating ways of sustaining a certain type of urban milieu, such as an informal, pedestrian culture. Conservation can involve preservation, but preservation can't include conservation. "The battle of Westway was a triumph of People Power over the Establishment," Lopate rightly concludes. "This time, however, the Establishment had the progressive vision and imagination, and the people...dug in their heels." It was a triumph of preservationists over conservationists, of advocates for striped bass over advocates for striped bass and a sprawling park. Westway's legacy, Lopate surmises, is that New York City "is ruled by a fractious civic culture, better suited to stop anything from getting built, than to respond creatively and energetically to the need for fresh urban solutions."

Lopate concludes his book with a survey of such solutions, and even those who quibble about the details or nod off at the slightest whiff of white-paper wonkery will be hard-pressed not to appreciate the most valuable feature of Waterfront, Lopate's quicksilver essayistic style. In one of the most exuberant passages of Low Life, Luc Sante calls Manhattan "a creature, a mentality, a disease, a threat, an electromagnet, a cheap stage set, an accident corridor. It is an implausible character, a monstrous vortex of contradictions, an attraction-repulsion mechanism so extreme no one could have made it up." Lopate has spent nearly six decades living in that vortex and grappling with its contradictions by cultivating an essayistic style that's lyrical and historical, elegiac and pragmatic, steely and serene, affable and brash. In Waterfront Lopate has enriched and refined his style by taking it quite literally to the vortex's watery edge, and for anyone wandering along that shoreline, his book will be a lively and trusty compass.

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