It’s still winter, and for the first time this year it’s starting to drag a bit. Sure I’m still looking for the season-specific beautiful moments, the things you aren’t going to find any other time of year, but I’m also starting to really look forward to all those other times of year as well. But oh no, just yesterday I was thinking of how it would be October again before you know it, and I was thinking: how can anybody really enjoy October knowing that November comes after it and then months and months of winter after that; and it made me feel like: what’s the point of looking forward at all? What?! Did I just ask that? That’s when I know winter’s starting to get to me. Maybe I can flip the approach and say that feeling this way is the whole point of February – so let’s really get down into it. Let’s embrace the moment disliking the moment, and still giving it up begrudgingly. I think that’s the best way to pass the time till spring.
I went ice skating at Chelsea Piers the other day (which is kind of the approach I’m talking about) and it did afford me some great wintertime views: the Hudson with light snow falling. It also made me appreciate anew the ongoing construction of Hudson River Park. From the Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers I could look down onto the park at Pier 62, scheduled to be opened later this year alongside Pier 63. Pier 64, the third pier of the Chelsea section of the project, opened last spring and like the rest of Hudson River Park, I think it’s awesome. It feels really of the moment – beautiful open public spaces where people can be outdoors and remind themselves they live on an island.
Hudson River Park is pretty new, (especially as my tastes go) having been created by an act of the New York State Legislature in 1998. It stretches along the Hudson from Battery Park north to 59th Street, and at 550 acres it’s the second largest park in Manhattan after good ole’ Central (although 400 acres of that is tidal estuary – aka, underwater, so kind of a pointless stat). As I said, it’s not fully finished yet, but plenty of it exists to enjoy, including five miles of the Hudson River Greenway, a bike path that runs through the park and makes up a section of the much larger Manhattan Waterfront Greenway – 32 miles of (not quite connected) bike paths that circumnavigate the island. The Hudson River Greenway, which runs in its entirety from Battery Park all the way to Dyckman Street in Inwood, is the most heavily used bikeway in the United States.
The whole idea of the park of course is that it reclaims the waterfront, and its surviving piers, after decades of stagnation and disuse. For most of New York’s history, and especially the latter part of its history, the West Side had been teeming with shipping and industry, all the way up to about 72nd Street. No one of means desired to live around here, and unless you worked the docks or the various plants, factories, warehouses, and railyards that sat along them, it wasn’t a place you wanted to visit. With the coming of supertankers and containerization all of that shipping eventually moved away, but until recently nothing had come to replace it and the piers were simply left to rot in the water.
It was changing technology that had brought shipping to the Hudson to begin with. Prior to about 1880 New York shipping was still centered on the East River, around South Street Seaport, which was better protected than the Hudson from ice, flooding, and the prevailing westerly winds. The arrival of steam ships brought about the need for a deeper anchorage for these much larger boats, something that the West Side shoreline could provide. The Chelsea Piers, opened in 1910, were built specifically to accommodate these giant steam ships, in particular the new luxury liners that were coming to define trans-Atlantic travel. Designed by the firm of Warren and Wetmore (who also designed Grand Central Terminal) the piers originally ran from around 12th Street up to 23rd Street and served as the docking point for both the Cunard and the White Star Line. The Titantic was due to land here on its maiden voyage in 1912 and the Lusitania embarked from here on its equally fatal voyage in 1915.
The construction of Chelsea Piers marked one of the few times in New York’s history that developed land was actually removed to make way for shipping. In 1837 the New York State Legislature had allowed for landfill to extend Manhattan out to a 13th Avenue. The city began to sell underwater, shoreline lots with the stipulation that the owners would fill them in and develop them. The Avenue began at 11th Street in the West Village (where it was east of 12th Avenue) and followed the shoreline north to meet 12th Avenue around 23rd Street; from there it would have continued on to the west, eventually running parallel to 12th Avenue like the city’s other north-south blocks. By the time development had reached that point however the Legislature had changed its mind about expanding Manhattan any further westward, afraid of encroaching on the shipping lanes of the Hudson. As it was the existing 13th Avenue already limited the space that piers had to work with, effectively making them too short to house the new luxury liners. To fix the problem the city had 13th Avenue removed, giving itself the extra space to construct Chelsea Piers. The only segment of 13th Avenue that survives today is the unmarked parking lot of the Bloomfield Street Sanitation Depot, across the West Side Highway from Gansevoort Street.
It seems fitting that a 13th Avenue would have such an unlucky history. And on a slightly tangential note, thinking about 13th Avenue has made me forget all about the fact that it’s winter still – which is one nice thing about knowledge, or else I mean to say, the time you spend in books.
(Originally posted Feb. 19th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)