New York’s perimeter, where the land meets the rivers and the harbor, has always been the city’s beating heart.
The waterfront has morphed over the centuries, from booming port to waste ground to what it is today, a shifting, contested zone of new parks, ferry piers, aging public housing, infrastructure and upscale development. Its history is the history of New York — just as the water is the city’s sixth borough, toward which, as Phillip Lopate once wrote in “Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan,” New Yorkers often look for “inner peace.”
Twenty-five years ago, the architect Deborah Berke settled with her family at Gracie Square on the Upper East Side. Ms. Berke founded Deborah Berke Partners, and now divides her time between the Manhattan-based firm and Yale University, where she is dean of the School of Architecture.
With her husband, Peter McCann, an orthopedic surgeon in the city, she has long made it a habit to stroll the East River promenade, starting around leafy Carl Schurz Park, where the better part of a century ago Robert Moses, the city’s omnipotent planning czar, ordered up a deck to be built atop the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive.
This is the latest in a series of architecturally minded walking tours. While New Yorkers take shelter during the coronavirus outbreak, the tours are devised to distract readers and remind everyone that the city is still what it always has been, a glory and a rock. Ms. Berke’s walk is the first to be conducted virtually, meaning over the phone, using Google maps. Our conversation has been condensed and edited. It’s intended to be consumed at home, for the time being.
She suggested we “meet” toward the southern end of the promenade, beside a metal signpost of a walking man in silhouette, a portrait of John [Huston] Finley.
Michael Kimmelman Who’s John Finley?
Deborah Berke He is a former president of City College, where I graduated from the urban planning program. I like that the city named the walkway after him. Finley was also editor of The New York Times. In New York if you dig a little, you always discover some interesting tidbits of history.
What’s nice about this southern end of the promenade is that because it sits on top of the highway you don’t hear traffic. You’re walking past trees and the gardens in the park, along the water’s edge. I mostly do this walk in the morning, when the sun is to the east and makes the river sparkle while the tugboats go by. Depending on what the tide is doing, you can get some furious action on the surface of the water. Sometimes I think to myself, if the water were cleaner — and I was a much, much better swimmer — I could swim to where I grew up, in Douglaston, Queens.
You associate the water with home?
If it weren’t for the water, there would be no New York. As an architect, I also find it meaningful that Manhattan doesn’t end, like many cities, by petering out. It ends because it is contained by rivers and a great harbor — by a hard, crisp edge, which gives the city its physical drama. For me part of the drama is seeing the barges going by, the ferry terminal at 90th Street, the bridges. There are moments along the walk when there’s a plane taking off from La Guardia, a train going across Hell Gate Bridge, traffic backed up on the Triborough Bridge, a tooting tugboat — trains, planes, automobiles. It’s not the New York of monuments.
It’s the inner workings of the city, its bloodstream.
And walking the promenade is a little like walking the High Line — a long skinny park, so that, unlike in Central Park, you follow a linear path, a kind of narrative.
Which on the High Line is the neighborhood. Here it’s rivers and civic infrastructure.
Right. So if you look east over the water as you’re walking past Carl Schurz Park, you notice a tiny lighthouse on the northern tip of Roosevelt Island. Cute is not a word I like, but it’s kind of cute. By James Renwick.
James Renwick Jr., the 19th-century architect, designer of the Smithsonian in Washington and St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Grace Church in New York. The lighthouse isn’t his masterpiece.
Definitely not! But from the promenade, when you look toward it you also get a view beyond to the ferry stop at Halletts Point and to Mark di Suvero’s giant sculpture at Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens — you see the layering of the city and different ways of making.
I mean you see the block-by-block building stones of the 19th-century lighthouse, and then this enormous 20th-century steel sculpture and then the complicated loading contraption that is the ferry stop in Astoria. They represent all these different ways of putting materials together, unfolding in sequence.
You also see the Astoria Houses in Queens, a public-housing project, on a spectacular waterfront site, built in the early 1950s, which, architecturally, are not very good buildings but reminders of what makes a city like New York great, namely providing shelter for members of our community who can’t provide for themselves.
You mentioned Hell Gate Bridge, the great railway viaduct from 1912 by the engineer Gustav Lindenthal.
Henry Hornbostel was the architect. When trains go over it late at night, I hear their long, low horn, a very romantic, pleasing, urban sound. And, of course, I love the bridge’s shape.
A bowstring truss.
Which sits on massive legs. My husband and I like to bicycle to Randalls Island and ride around those legs, which you can’t experience if you’re on the train, but which are part of the bridge’s majesty. That truss is of course what’s most amazing. The shape is so obvious and simple — an arch, boom, done — perfect.
Then, walking north along the promenade, you get to the ferry pier at 90th Street. Sometimes I hop the ferry down to 34th Street and walk to my office from there. The pier is nondescript. But what’s interesting to me about it is how people use it differently. In the morning there’s a queue to get on the boats but in the middle of the afternoon old guys are smoking cigars, reading the newspaper, and little kids are looking over the edge and watching the waves lap up on the rocks. A simple piece of infrastructure serves many public functions. The other day my husband and I noticed all the blue-green ropes that hang from the pier as part of the Billion Oyster Project.
That’s a project to return oysters to the city’s rivers and harbor, create new reefs, restore the ecosystem. The idea is that oysters help filter the water and the reefs soften blows from large waves, to reduce the impact of floods during big storms.
For a long time, the harbor was America’s oyster capital. Ellis Island and Liberty Island were known as Oyster Islands. Almost two hundred years ago, Trinity Church was constructed using oyster-shell mortar paste. At some point pollution killed the harbor’s ecosystem. The ropes remind everybody that the oysters are returning, gurgle, gurgle, doing their job. The city is at work.
Having gotten to the pier, the promenade has now dropped down to the level of the F.D.R. The next big thing to see is Asphalt Green.
A former asphalt plant from the 1940s, designed by Ely Jacques Kahn and Robert Allan Jacobs, shaped like a giant canned ham. Converted during the ’70s into a recreation center. Moses famously called it “the most hideous waterfront structure ever inflicted on a city by a combination of architectural conceit and official bad taste.”
I really love the building. Maybe it’s just a rumor, but I have heard it has survived because the structure is just too dense and massive to demolish — an appealing thought to an architect!
It has not only survived: It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
I wouldn’t compare Asphalt Green to the Guggenheim Museum. But until recently it was one of the very few curvilinear buildings in the city. Everything in New York is about right angles. Also, I find it interesting that from the outside Asphalt Green doesn’t tell you anything about what its function is. It’s just this huge, incredible form — resolutely quiet. And I appreciate that it was not designed to be a treasure house or a cultural center but part of the machinery that makes the city function.
It’s the sort of building that seems timely now with talk about a new public works program focused on infrastructure, to provide jobs lost to coronavirus, and with politicking in Washington over the imposition of an official anti-modernist, “classical” style for national buildings.
Sometimes on this walk I pass another example of a public works project from that earlier era a little farther up the F.D.R. Drive, an old Art Deco power station — again, the sort of architecture that says, “the public deserves no less.” And right next to Asphalt Green, the Marine Transfer Station, a new garbage pier, opened recently. For years everyone who lived in the neighborhood opposed it. Now that it’s here, nobody seems particularly upset, me included.
It’s as bland-looking as Asphalt Green is the opposite.
It has no architectural merit, except for the giant blue cranes that stick out over the water, which remind me of what the Brooklyn Navy Yard must have been like in its heyday. But I saw the most beautiful thing at the Marine Transfer Station the other day. It was a barge stacked full of containers. A tugboat captain was docking the barge. He would have made Balanchine proud. He could’ve crashed into the F.D.R. He could’ve crashed into the terminal. Instead he parked as gracefully as my grandmother used to put on a glove.
Often I will walk past another piece of local infrastructure, the pedestrian bridge at 103rd Street, the Wards Island Bridge, which creates a sort of proscenium opening to the Harlem River. It frames a wonderful view. The walkway itself also goes up and down to let ships pass and I like that these functional structures aren’t always rigid — that they involve movement.
Then you turn back home?
Which means, walking south, I look a little bit less toward the water and more at the skyline. In the typical postcard view the skyline is seen from the side, from east or west, but in this direction, looking south, it’s an agglomeration of very tall buildings smooshed together. My mother, who came to the city 80 years ago as a teenager to study at Parsons, says the city’s horizon line keeps rising. She means that the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building used to define the skyline, when maybe you could also pick out a church steeple. Then in the 1950s all these square-topped buildings raised the horizon line.
And now the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, while still recognizable, are like middle schoolers standing next to a basketball team. Whether I’m coming from seeing my mother in Queens, or from New Haven on Amtrak, or from south of the city, the skyline today looks entirely different from different vantages in different lights. And all the new tall buildings on the waterfronts in Queens, Brooklyn and New Jersey have changed the diagram of the city. The city used to peak in Manhattan and taper out from there. That was the city’s diagram. Now the rivers have cliffs on all sides.
Is that a problem?
It’s what it is. But I will say that I like this particular East River walk because the city opens up here. You aren’t hemmed in. You get a view that’s more than 180 degrees. It’s a luxury. There are few places in Manhattan that offer this feeling.