Crossing Waters

22 May

“…it’s a safe wager that half of you never yet have set sail upon that quaint little old uptown ferry, guarded by the venerable ticket seller and his big gray cat, who scans with shrewd and unflinching golden eyes every fare as it is paid.”  — Sarah Comstock, New York Times – June 21, 1914

And it’s a safe wager that over a century later the same could be said of you.

From the 18th Century until the Great Depression, ferries ran from Hallet’s Cove.  The streets of this often bleak and woebegone peninsula, jutting into the East River at the southern edge of Hell Gate, are among the oldest in the city.  Granted to William Hallet by Peter Stuyvesant in 1652, with additional acreage fought over and eventually bought from local Native American tribes, this small nub of land has seen farms, brickworks, British cannons, American forts, 19th century industry, and the fashionable mansions that followed.  And through it all, well into the 20th century, the passengers came, by foot and coach, bicycle and trolley, the rails converging upon Astoria Boulevard before dropping down to the water.  From the Steinway Factory in the north to the busy intersection of Steinway and Broadway to the east, the trolleys rolled down the old thoroughfare to the 92nd Street Ferry Terminal and it’s crossing to Yorkville.

From Long Island City, workers made a similar journey across the river to 34th Street, and then south to Fulton street, convenient to the financial district for those who worked there.  And though, for a price, special boats were run for the more affluent, boss and laborer alike were treated to the morning scent of the Fulton Street fish market.

For decades they thrived, knitting together the disparate peoples of this rapidly growing city.

And then they were gone.  The Long Island Railroad discontinued the 34th Street ferry in 1925, and with the completion of the Triboro Bridge in 1936 the “quaint little old uptown ferry,” despite its continued popularity, had no place in Robert Moses’ vision of the future.  The last of the East River ferries, he personally oversaw the destruction of the 92nd Street Terminal, ripping out the piers so it could never return.

But Robert Moses has failed.  For this morning I walk the ragged streets of Astoria Village down to Hallet’s Cove.  With my NYC Ferries app loaded and ready I step aboard the gleaming white vessel, climb up into the open air and find my seat.  It is not quaint, and I see no cat, but I am on a journey nonetheless, and one well worth taking.  For, surprisingly, the landings of that bygone time have been reborn: Long Island City, 34th St. and Wall Street, with Roosevelt Island thrown in as a bonus.  With connections to other lines, further maritime ports have returned to life: Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Redhook, all the way around to Rockaway.

Plus, they serve beer.

We live among waters.  We travel above and below them without a thought.  The most diverse community in the nation, over half of us crossed untold rivers and oceans to be in this place, where, like the estuary that surrounds us, saltwater meeting fresh, beings from radically different environments thrive.  To travel the surface of the East River as it glistens in the cold  morning light is to the see this world anew.  And  for all the wonder of the trains, buses and bridges that ease our journeys across this city, there is a grace to being on the water, and a humbleness in the recognition that this most basic of elements,  which could so easily divide us, continues to bind us together.

 

An earlier version of this article piece was published in Idlewild Magazine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: