“The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell and the sight of this plentifullness always give me a feeling of well being, and sometimes they elate me.”
— Joseph Mitchell
One of the the notorious legacies of famed city planner Robert Moses is that his vision left New Yorkers disconnected from their waterfront on the island city. Roadways, pollution, signs, fences and other impediments kept people out and away from the water.
The spaces available for residents to enjoy their lives has dwindled as the isolated city has become more crowded. Park space has dwindled to 3.5 acres per 1,000 residents, one of the lowest ratios in the country.
The city is trying to alleviate the crowd by expanding to one of its greatest underused resource – water. After all, New York City is made up of four islands and a peninsula. Major waterways are never more than a few miles from any place in the city.
While announcing the city’s waterfront initiatives, Mayor Michael Bloomberg likened the city’s waterways and the New York coastline to a “sixth borough.” New York has 520 miles of coastline. If the many nooks and crannies were straightened out, the coastline would reach Toronto with some miles to spare.
These miles are being rediscovered by local government. New York City Department of City Planning put out the Comprehensive Waterfront Plan in 1992 with a goal to open up New York’s waterways. The city renovated the West side Promenade and prompted the $500 million facelift Brooklyn Navy Yard. Vision 2020 expands on the Comprehensive Waterfront Plan with a mission to open up access to the water. Over the next 10 years, the city will invest $3 billion into 130 funded projects across every borough. The city wants its inhabitants to find new ways to interact with the waterways and create some more space.
But plenty of New Yorkers have been using the water as an integral part of their lives, without the help of the city. He is part of a small, diverse community that has forged a dynamic bond with the water without waiting for the structured formality of a bureaucrat or urban planner to lead the way. Some found their homes along the shorelines. Others found their livelihoods. There are people who believe the water is sacred, a place of worship. Children go to the water to cool off and have fun, despite the danger. And some enthusiasts tired of waiting for the government to clean up their water; they took it upon themselves to make a change.
The Sixth Borough offers city dwellers a new territory full of possibilities. But as was the case when Columbus discovered the “New World,” New York’s developers will find that there are already people who inhabit its newly-discovered territory.