On the Waterfront: Williamsburg in the 90s

Photos Anna West

The following is an excerpt from The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, a personal and reported history of the Northside from 1988 to today, published yesterday by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In it, journalist Robert Anasi recounts his explorations of the waterfront in the 1990s, from the abandoned buildings and piers to the locals and artists who hung around there.

The Williamsburg waterfront was a gem. I had no particular justification for going there—it didn’t make me smarter or richer, didn’t give me a line on my CV or increase my chances of getting laid. My waterfront ran from the Bayside Fuel Oil tanks on North Twelfth all the way south to Domino Sugar. By year two in the neighborhood, where I’d moved in 1994, I had learned to navigate that corridor. You needed denim and long sleeves because you crawled under fences, vaulted razor wire and pushed through thorns—the shoreline had become second-growth forest. You climbed walls and edged out along broken docks that made a rusty trapeze. On most of the trail the loudest sound was wave- slap against shore, the only witness the gleaming metal face of Manhattan. What you saw made the thorn punctures and wire cuts worthwhile—seabirds, the broken factories of the old order, sweet views of skyscrapers. On the Fourth of July, I’d navigate the fences and trees to a rocky breakwater where I’d sit and watch the fireworks, my private show, so alone, so far from the cops and crowds on Kent Avenue that I felt rich.

To all the Brooklyn folks surprised to learn that you live on Long Island (I know you’re out there), please consult a map: New York City is surrounded by water, four of the five boroughs on three islands. Water made the city, from its Dutch trading post days through the 1940s when it was the largest port in the world. As the Commissioners of Streets and Roads noted in 1807 by way of excusing the lack of parkland in their city plan: “those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan Island, render its situation, in regard to health and plea sure, as well as to convenience and commerce, peculiarly felicitous.” Translation: who needs parks when you have an ocean?

A strange thing happened in the decades after World War II: New York turned its back on the water. No more ocean liner fleet at the West Side piers, no more freighters nestled up to Brooklyn docks, no more destroyers launching from the navy yard below Vinegar Hill. It became almost impossible to make your way to the shore. Expressways ringed it, cutting off the approaches like an asphalt moat stocked with mechanical crocodiles. Even in the places where you could get through, the water was fifteen feet down the side of a pier and opaque with filth. Joe Mitchell’s 1950s New Yorker pieces about paddling around the harbor talking to fishermen read like science fiction (my literary agency represented his estate and I’d swiped his complete works from the office). By 1995 the Brooklyn waterfront was a toxic wasteland from Newtown Creek and its oil spill to the ruined docks of Red Hook. The capital of the twentieth century stood knee-deep in a sewer. Yet the rot provided opportunity. There were holes in the fences. Mitchell had been stopped and grilled at the waterfront by cops infected with Cold War paranoia; we could reach the water without a second look.

The waterfront I navigated in jeans and boots was the waterfront for the daredevil, the urban Indiana Jones. It also contained a more sedentary stretch. Between Bayside Fuel and a “waste transfer station” on North Sixth the waterfront opened. Those five blocks contained three defunct factories, four abandoned warehouses, two concrete loading docks and three piers topped by meadow and forest. In the open spaces nature had returned, all high grass and bushes and marsh. You went there for the breezes and the open space and for the views. The views were as good as the one from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade except that on the Northside the freeway didn’t shake the ground and you could walk all the way to the river.

Beside one of the loading docks an antique fire hydrant leaked into an iron bathtub. Overflow from the tub fed a marshy pool bordered with long grass and cattails. Dragonflies hovered over the pool and flocks of small birds seamed the grass. You could hear wavelets break and gulls croak and traffic hum on the FDR Drive all the way across the East River. I’d walk to the end of the longest pier and step off the edge onto a narrow mooring that led to a piling. The guanoed posts shifted and rocked as I sat looking at tugs and seaplanes. Circle Line tour boats churned by and tourists waved. I waved back.

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