I was invited by Maddie Hewitt to participate in the Flux Factory talk on NYC Water. After researching the harbor for the past year and a half, I had some simple observations to share about one of the biggest overlooked spaces of the city.

Best open space in NYC

New York harbor is one of the largest natural harbors in the world, and it feels like almost no one out there. May times I was out on the water with dense skylines and not another boat in sight. The harbor offers a sense of openness like nowhere else in the city.

Nowhere to park

Berthing (or docking) a boat is a deceptively complex task. The berth needs to be the right shape and material for the given vessel, spots need to be available to secure the right kind of lines, the water needs to be deep enough, and you need to be able to get on and off the boat safely. Then, on top of this, you need permission to be there and services such as electricity, running water, and waste disposal options. In a city once geared toward the waterfront, options of berthing boats are now few and far between, often coming at a steep rental price. No wonder no one is out on the water anymore.

Oldest regulations in the city

This was the excuse the coastguard gave us for all sorts of activities being complicated to pull off. New York was founded and populated by water. Movement of people and goods by water was one of the first things to be regulated. The layers of rules and agencies gets into a complexity that I only brushed up against over the course of the year, so I can’t speak to it in detail. But the combination of old regulations combined with comparatively minimal usage and traffic today make for a high friction environment for getting things done.

Historic boat people are dedicated

Given the berthing and regulations challenges, it’s nearly a miracle that historic boat operators keep their operations going. Folks like David Sharps of the Lehigh Valley Barge and Mary Habstritt of the Lilac Lighthouse Tender run passion projects of keeping these ships accessible to the public despite what seems like every possible natural and bureaucratic and financial obstacle to do so.

Lighthouses are in limbo

One of those quiet shifts in the build environment that captures my imagination so is changes in lighthouse administration. Gone are the days when a person needed to live at a lighthouse year round to keep the light burning. Now the lights are automated and solar powered. Coast guard simply has to check up on them every few weeks. This leaves the houses and towers of lighthouses available for re-purposing. The government has been auctioning them off at bargain rates since 2008. Takes include the independently wealthy to the dedicated cultural institution to wide-eyed entrepreneurs to dubious New York mob affiliates. Many more lighthouses are up for sale. It will be interesting to see how they are re-purposed.

Islands hold dirty secrets

For each beautiful, maintained, polished island in NYC, there is a forgotten, neglected island of dubious history. These islands are the psychological underbelly of a city that has grown and shifted through multiple historical periods and shifting populations. Hoffman and Swinburne Islands were created to dump off immigrants too sick for even Ellis Island. North Brother similarly rots away as former home to institutions for the sick and unwanted. Roosevelt Island is currently getting remade, with the various hospitals being removed for modern academic institutions. Still in dark times are Hart Island and Riker’s Islands.