illustration by James Dawe, photographs by The New York Times and Getty Images
City of Water
by Kevin Baker
One of the great things about New York used to be how easy it was to ignore the natural world. With a public transportation system that never closes, moving from climate-controlled apartment to office to entertainment, and living high above the earth itself, New Yorkers never had to worry much about anything as mundane as the weather.
No more. A year ago this month, Hurricane Sandy swept down on the city, killing 43 people and causing $19 billion worth of damage. A beachfront neighborhood, Breezy Point, Queens, was leveled when flooding set off an electrical fire; on Staten Island, houses were torn from their foundations. A 14-foot surge knocked out almost all power south of 34th Street and created the unnerving spectacle of a Manhattan split between light and darkness.
New Yorkers had to confront the reality of the natural world around them. They had to ask themselves if Sandy was the harbinger of a new era of climate change that would force them to dramatically alter how and where they live.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg says no. On a gorgeous, late-summer day last month, I traveled with the outgoing mayor and two of his top aides, Amanda M. Burden, the director of the Department of City Planning, and Caswell F. Holloway, the deputy mayor for operations, as they toured the East River to make the case for a waterfront New York that will not only endure, but triumph.
“This is just the beginning,” the mayor said. “We’re leaving in place the bones, the approvals, the transactions that will now let the marketplace go and build a lot of stuff,” a process he sees lasting for decades.
“Back in the days of La Guardia, what’s-his-name tried to separate us from the water,” Mr. Bloomberg said, forgetting (or pretending to forget) the name of the master builder Robert Moses. “He built roads all along the water. … Today, we’re trying to reconnect everybody to the water.”
BEFORE there even was a city, there was the harbor. New York was made by water. It possesses one of the great natural harbors in the world, along with San Francisco and Hong Kong, and more shoreline than the waterfronts of Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles combined.
As we set out, Pier 11 at the foot of Wall Street was a scene of happy urban tumult. Sightseeing helicopters buzzed industriously up and down nearby like giant locusts. Traffic twanged overhead on the drive. Dozens of New Yorkers ran or biked along well-marked exercise trails. Just upriver, the sailing bark Peking sat at anchor, its rigging creating a gorgeous matrix with the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge just beyond it.
Everything seemed stunningly new and bright, and if there was a sense of something artificial about it all, it was probably because New Yorkers are unused to seeing what is new and bright in such settings. In living memory, there was a mountainous open garbage dump along the Lower East Side waterfront, where, during the Great Depression, desperate men and women fought the sea gulls for scraps.
For centuries, New Yorkers pumped and tossed and slipped pretty much everything into the water that surrounded them: raw sewage, tons of used film, all the PCBs that made a Superfund site out of the Gowanus Canal. During the American Revolution, more than 11,000 prisoners died of disease and starvation on rotting British prison ships in Wallabout Bay. Their corpses were tossed into the river, and for years their skeletons would wash up on the shore.
Wallabout Bay glimmers prettily today between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, the harbor cleaner than it has been at least since anyone started testing it, back in 1909. Fish and other marine life abound, and there are even reports of beavers — beavers! — being spotted along the banks of the Bronx River, the first time in centuries they’ve been seen anywhere outside the city seal.
Cas Holloway boasted that “95 percent of the harbor is open to boats.” Amanda Burden enthused in turn about the swimming races, and the more than 40 kayak launches along city waterways and the “visceral desire” people have to “touch the water and put their feet in the water.” She called the harbor “our largest park.”
That was the original idea. The early-19th-century planners of Manhattan’s grid system acknowledged they had left little room for parks but noted that “those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan Island render its situation, in regard to health and pleasure … peculiarly felicitous.”
The large arms of the sea around Manhattan would become increasingly peculiar but hardly felicitous. New Yorkers regarded the harbor unsentimentally as a place of business. By 1807, New Yorkers had developed the first commercially viable steamboat. Ten years later, the Black Ball Line advertised that one of its ships would sail on a fixed schedule, a change that transformed the shipping industry. By 1825, the Erie Canal — the greatest public works project since the pyramids — had pushed through to the American heartland, setting New York in the cockpit of the Atlantic world at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
By the late 1830s, the city was importing nearly two-thirds of all goods that entered the United States and three-quarters of all immigrants. By the Civil War, 30,000 ships a year were coming through. At the turn of the century, New York surpassed London as the busiest port on the planet.
The Bloomberg administration’s plans for the port of New York today are nearly as transformative, and Ms. Burden, long a major player in city planning circles, has a vision for New York every bit as encompassing as Moses’s was. Much of it revolves around the word “seamless.”
“The harbor now has become mentally part of the city, the center of the city — not Manhattan,” she told me. “People are thinking of the harbor now as the fulcrum, and the water is the connective tissue between the boroughs. People can see all of it, they can travel to all of it, it’s a seamless connection.”
Ms. Burden has rezoned nearly 40 percent of the city’s landmass, largely to this end. Under her guidance, the city has usually developed carefully, on a human scale at the water’s edge, and the results are often dazzling. The ferry on which we were riding, the Yogi Berra, stopped at one mixed-use conversion of the old industrial waterfront after another: the former Domino Sugar refinery, which “will be preserved, and turned into a mix of housing and commercial space”; the former Schaefer brewery has been redeveloped as housing, 40 percent of it “affordable.” The Hunters Point South stop, where abandoned factory buildings will become mostly “middle-income housing,” homes for the city’s “firefighters, police officers.”
Developers are required to build paths to alluring riverside parks and are then encouraged to hand them over to the city. Graceful little ferry stations have sprouted, transporting more than 2,000 commuters a day across the East River alone. Even more inventive riverfront developments are to be found in the South Bronx.
The change in the weather — in the climate, really — adds an incalculable degree of difficulty to all this. After Sandy, the mayor ordered an extensive study that put the cost of defending the city against another hurricane and other threats at $19.5 billion. All but $4.5 billion has already been allocated or accounted for, and once again, the city plans to work smart and small. To help prevent flooding, it has identified some 6,000 green infrastructure installations, instead of what Mr. Holloway called “two or three huge gray things.”
Some prefer the big gray things. There are calls for a system of dikes and levees, akin to what the Dutch are now using in their battle to hold back the North Sea, or the immense new sea wall protecting St. Petersburg in Russia. This would be constructed somewhere outside the Verrazano Narrows, perhaps with a highway, or a train to the airports, running across its top, a public works project from a science-fiction movie.
Mr. Bloomberg dismissed the big wall, with a price tag starting at $10 billion, as “impossibly expensive” and “environmentally unsustainable.” His administration has focused instead on raising street grades and buildings, moving utilities up out of vulnerable basements, keeping insurance affordable for waterfront residents and building up protective dunes and berms. The administration is studying and implementing “soft defenses,” like oyster reefs, wetlands and offshore barrier islands around the city. Mr. Holloway said the city has added “extra levels of treatment” at its sewage treatment plants and speaks of absorbing storm water “at the source, so you don’t have combined sewer overflows.”
Manufactured barriers will be relatively small, and selective. Noting that a huge amount of the water damage caused by Sandy came from “backdoor flooding” that swelled up from unprotected channels, rivers and creeks, Mr. Bloomberg wants to place floodgates and tidal barriers at certain strategic locations, like Coney Island Creek or Newtown Creek between Brooklyn and Queens.
The Bloomberg administration is convinced that the city can protect a lot of its territory simply by updating the building code. Mr. Holloway maintains that “something like 75 percent of the damage was to buildings that predated that 1961 building code,” and Mr. Bloomberg contended, “Without bragging, all of the infrastructure that we’ve put in in 12 years survived Sandy fine.”
Even before Robert Moses, the waterfront had become a world unto itself. It was a place of rampant vice, crime and desperation. The waterfront was where prostitutes went when they had nowhere else to go. Where black men, excluded from gainful employment on the “white man’s waterfront,” danced for the eels thrown at their feet. Where sailors were routinely robbed, swindled, murdered, shanghaied. By the end of the 1860s, some 15,000 seamen a year were robbed along Cherry Street, yielding up an estimated $2 million. Outfits with exotic names like the Daybreak Boys, the Swamp Angels and the Kid Cheese gang made careers out of raiding ships at anchor, cutting the throats of watchmen and even launching forays upriver against sleepy farm towns.
Tens of thousands of longshoremen were ruthlessly exploited by their own, mobbed-up union. Theft and neglect became endemic; at one point, an entire electrical generator disappeared from the docks. The racketeers and their bosses resisted even basic repairs on the hundreds of piers that rimmed the harbor, and the port began to shed market share to other ports and the trucking industry.
The port rallied during World War II. New York Harbor shipped out half the men and one-third of all the supplies sent overseas before the Japanese surrendered aboard the battleship Missouri, itself a product of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Yet soon thereafter New York’s share of general cargo slipped to just 27 percent of the nation’s total. The fight to drive the mob from the docks exploded at last onto the city’s front pages. It became the main focus of the Kefauver Committee hearings, the first corruption hearings to become a television phenomenon, and was soon popularized in books and movies.
Suddenly, the waterfront was fully, luridly visible again. Then it was gone.
SHIPOWNERS accelerated their investments in a new technology, container ships, that required only a small fraction of the same labor force and more space than the city could provide. By the late sixties, not a single freight pier was still in use on Manhattan’s West Side. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, which employed 71,000 men and women during the war, had shut its gates in 1966.
New Yorkers now beheld what would have once been incomprehensible: the empty harbor.
“People will forget this ever existed,” Mr. Bloomberg said, referring to the old industrial waterfront. “And it’s good. I mean, why dwell on the past?”
The mayor’s vision is a surprisingly liberal legacy for the merchant prince. It’s government-driven, with an abiding faith in human will and ingenuity to overcome all obstacles. But it comes with a libertarian kicker.
“Nobody should think that if you live by the water that you’re as safe as if you live inland. You’re not! O.K.?” Mr. Bloomberg said. When pressed on what will happen if future storms prove even worse than Sandy, and New Yorkers by the water could no longer afford insurance, the mayor said: “Nature is tough. … Who knows? You’d be self-insured, and you’d gamble. That’s the real world.”
By the city’s own estimates, some 800,000 residents live now on territory, roughly a quarter of the city, that will be on a flood plain by 2050. Yet Mr. Bloomberg has sworn to defend “every inch” of the city and dismissed any alternative strategy as “retreat.”
“The climate problem is a manageable problem,” Mr. Holloway said. “It’s not one of these existential things that will get you in the end,” but adds almost in the next breath: “People have a misconception that protection from the water means not getting wet.” Climate-ready, he said, is “not climate-proof.”
This can sound almost flippant in light of how avidly the Bloomberg administration has promoted the waterfront. Nor has its development always been judicious. An attempt to revitalize Coney Island has ended up with nearly $100 million in taxpayers’ money handed over to a developer and rezoning that would allow four high-rise hotels and a bevy of residential towers to be built there. This is an enormous project for a vulnerable barrier island. And for all the talk about ferries tying the city together, no one has come up with a way to keep the water out of the subway.
Mr. Bloomberg conceded that in protecting the city, “The trouble is, you always prepare for the last war.” There are a lot of other things to worry about.
“You’ve got to look and see other things: storm surge, wind, that sort of thing. Blackouts. Plague! Whatever it is,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “I would argue some of the things you can prepare for by having physical things, some of the things you can prepare for by having in place a structure that can respond to whatever the next thing is, which is going to be for the first time: smart people, communications and training, investment in lights and police cars, and that sort of thing.”
He’s right — even about the plague. What makes climate change most frightening is how little we know about what is to come. But if another Sandy, or worse, does strike, none of this will prove much consolation to a citizenry that has been so actively encouraged to flock to the waterside. It is possible that we will then have preferred to hear someone in power sound retreat.
Yet if the Bloomberg administration has pushed the city to the water as fast it could go, it’s also true that the city was going there anyway. The waterfront was always too great an asset to simply abandon. And if Mr. Bloomberg does not have all the answers, it’s also worth noting that neither of the remaining candidates to replace him, Bill de Blasio or Joe Lhota, has had much of anything to say about it.
“We are a water city,” Ms. Burden concluded. “We have to embrace it.”
The Yogi Berra made its last stop on the Manhattan side, at 34th Street. The mayor spotted a nearly empty Citi Bike stand when he disembarked, and kvelled over another of his legacies, and how it all fits together: “Hey, look, the bikes are all gone. People came over, and they took the bikes, and they went to work. At night this will be full up.”
Ms. Burden beamed beside him: “Seamless.”
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