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Thread: On the Harlem River, Hope Floats

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    Default On the Harlem River, Hope Floats

    October 30, 2003

    On the Harlem River, Hope Floats


    WATER'S EDGE Armand LeGardeur designed the boathouse.

    THE Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse, soon to set sail from a marina in Norwalk, Conn., is not the type of vessel normally seen in those waters. Neither is Bette Midler the usual sort of captain. But when the green and yellow boathouse, flying three colorful pennants from its hipped roof and looking like a modest but proud Victorian train station, is ceremonially towed around the Battery late next month en route to its Harlem River home at Dyckman Street, Ms. Midler will be very much in command, if only symbolically.

    It would be too much to give Ms. Midler, 57, sole credit for the boathouse, or for the new city park where it will be moored, or for the sculling programs designed to awaken the Harlem River's dormant reputation as a center of competitive rowing. Nonetheless, her star power drove the seven-year process, harnessing bureaucracies and big donors alike.

    "I saw pictures of the number of people engaged in sport on the Harlem River in its former incarnation," she said, "and then I saw the ghost town it had become. If it existed once, why not again?"

    Last night her annual Hulaween Ball at the Marriott Marquis raised more than $1 million for the New York Restoration Project, the group she founded in 1995 to restore neglected parks.

    After its overnight trip through Long Island Sound and Hell Gate, the boathouse will be moored at the new five-acre Swindler Cove Park, on the Harlem River's west shore in northern Manhattan.

    Seven years ago, the unused city-owned site, in the shadow of a public housing project, was littered with discarded toilets, an upended one-ton safe and piles of shoreline debris. Wearing overalls and work gloves, Ms. Midler started the cleanup one Saturday in 1996 by leading a few dozen volunteers in bagging refuse among the slimy rocks.

    It wasn't the first Saturday that Ms. Midler had done uptown cleanup, usually unrecognized. "Picking up the garbage with Bette is a very insider club," said Bernadette Castro, the state parks commissioner.

    After Ms. Midler initiated the cleanup, $10 million — most of it state money — was spent on the reconstruction of the site. Ms. Midler raised another $2.3 million for the boathouse. Swindler Cove was opened as a city park in August.

    Though small, the park is rich in natural features. At its north end, behind Public School 5, is a garden where students planted flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits. A curving path bordered by steel railings in the shape of cattails leads to a modest pond and waterfall whose burblings hush the rumble of traffic on Harlem River Drive. At water's edge, a bridge passes over a mini wetland of wavy spartina grass, one of more than 100 species planted in the park. Just beyond the wetland is what Ms. Midler calls "my beach," a 30-foot strand of sand.

    An imposing double gate with aluminum oars leads to a 325-foot walkway, partly floating to accommodate tides, where the boathouse will be moored. Like the boathouse, the gate was designed by Armand LeGardeur, 47, who began the project in 1998 as an architect in the office of Robert A. M. Stern, and continued it when he opened his own office two years later.

    As late as the 1930's, this narrow and unusually calm stretch of river was known as Scullers Row. More than a dozen boathouses lined its banks, many of them floated on old barges used to dredge oysters. Boisterous weekend crowds gathered on the riverbanks and aboard steamers to watch regattas.

    Ms. Midler wasn't thinking of rowing when she founded her parks group in 1995, shortly after moving back to New York from Los Angeles. Rather, her aim was to help neglected uptown parks. "There were already enough rich stupid white women like me who could save their own parks," Ms. Midler said.

    In 1995, the group sent a squad of eight volunteers and four hired workers into Fort Tryon Park, home of the Cloisters, to pick up trash seven days a week. Two years ago, the group turned a neglected snack bar near the Cloisters into a lively restaurant, the New Leaf Café. The group also helped remove the stripped remains of more than 60 stolen cars from Highbridge Park, which rises sharply over Harlem River Drive.

    Rather than merely clean another park, the group set out to create a new one at Swindler Cove. In doing so, it happened to benefit from an obligation incurred by the State Department of Transportation in the early 1990's: the department was required to create a new acre of wetland to replace one filled in along Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive near Sutton Place.

    "Once we learned about this requirement," said Joseph Pupello, the New York Restoration Project president, "we suggested that the wetlands mitigation be done at Swindler Cove, which is one of the few places on the river which still has a natural shoreline." The department eventually provided $10 million for the wetlands, walkways and other features.

    Ms. Midler and Mr. Pupello first visited the site at the urging of Billy Swindler, a city garden advocate who was helping students from P.S. 5 plant in the as-yet-unborn park. "We went through the gate of a chain-link fence, which the kids had stuffed with cafeteria milk cartons," Mr. Pupello said. "Underneath all the abuse, you could see the promise." Mr. Swindler died of AIDS at age 39 in 1997, and the park was named for him.

    The idea of adding a boat-building program for local teenagers came to Ms. Midler seven years ago as she walked past the McGraw-Hill building on West 42nd Street.

    "I saw this enormous wooden boat under construction in a street-level window, and I walked in," she said. The boat was a 25-foot-long Whitehall Gig, a common craft in New York's nautical heyday. It was being built by Floating the Apple, a group trying to renew waterfront recreation.

    Floating the Apple helped Ms. Midler's group start a boat-building program for middle school students now run by a full-time instructor in a former gas station on 10th Avenue just north of the park. "The kids learn tool safety and measuring and team cooperation," Ms. Midler said.

    Three boats have been built so far, including one named "Nonpareil" after a boathouse that once stood at Swindler Cove. "When we'd have our launchings, these kids would put on their life vests and go out there and row and they were absolutely enchanted," Ms. Midler said. "It was the first time they realized that the river was theirs."

    Soon the river will also be theirs to race on. Ms. Midler and Mr. Pupello were standing on the Harlem River promenade in the fall of 1997 when a crew from Columbia University stroked down the river. "A group of kids from the projects were glued to the balustrade fence watching the rowers with total intensity," Mr. Pupello said. He and Ms. Midler started a rowing program, paid for by the New York Restoration Project, so that the best neighborhood rowers might win college scholarships.

    The rowing program will get serious this spring under the tutelage of the New York Rowing Association, an amateur group.

    Of course, a proper racing program needs a proper boathouse. Ms. Midler's group first considered building a simple storage shed. But it was feared that the structure would cause environmental damage to the restored waterfront. The solution was to build a floating boathouse a short distance from shore. Ms. Midler broached the subject with Mr. Stern, the architect, at a party in 1998. "He agreed to help us," she said. "And when he said `pro bono,' I went, `Aah. . .' "

    Mr. Stern assigned the job to Mr. LeGardeur, an amateur sailor. "Bette wanted a design that would be appropriate to city park tradition," Mr. LeGardeur said. "She particularly had in mind the Dairy in Central Park." Mr. LeGardeur also studied collegiate boathouses at Harvard and Yale, and Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia. "I never tried to assign a style to my boathouse," he said. "It is a distillation of a lot of floating buildings."

    By the time Mr. LeGardeur opened his own office in 2000, the boathouse project was stalled for lack of funds. Ms. Midler eventually raised $2 million from the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, endowed by the late developer whose holdings included the Carlyle hotel, and the Transportation Department contributed $300,000 for the barge on which the boathouse would float. The barge, built of Styrofoam modules sheathed in concrete, was built in Vancouver, British Columbia, and shipped to the Norwalk marina. Woodwork for the boathouse, including board-and-batten siding and elegantly curved brackets for the broad overhang of zinc-shingled roof, was precut in Maine and trucked to Norwalk. While the boathouse work has gone smoothly, there have been delays in rigging the utilities. "All the cables have to go through a single tube that is strung under the walkway," said Amy Gavaris, the group's executive director. "The tube has to be flexible but resist the elements, including freezing underwater. It's not standard stuff that engineers do."

    As the boathouse was nearing completion, Ms. Midler was stoking her performing career, completing an album of songs in homage to Rosemary Clooney. She is now acting in a remake of the 1975 film "The Stepford Wives," filmed coincidentally in Norwalk.

    Last week, at the boathouse's destination, a pair of nattering hawks wheeled overhead. In the children's garden, all that remained on the vine were bright-red hot peppers. A riot of purple and white asters grew amid a sweep of goldenrod in a meadow near the river. A pair of sculls rowed by Columbia University's crew team knifed downstream, urged on by their coach in an accompanying launch.

    Until now, the neighborhood has only watched from the sidelines. Next spring, it will have rowers of its own. "The Olympics may be coming to the New York in 2012," Ms. Midler said. "I told Joe Pupello that Washington Heights should have a championship rowing team. Once you say that out loud, it's a goal. We've got spirit. We've got pluck. Why not us?"

    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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    Default Harlem River

    Columbia leaves it's mark.

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    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Oct 2002


    Unveiled> Edge Portals

    Bade Stageberg Cox designed a storm-resilient pavilion on the Harlem River for the New York Restoration Project.

    by Nicole Anderson

    Courtesy BSC

    Following an extensive environmental clean up of the Harlem River in the mid 1990s, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) transformed a 5-acre stretch along the toxic waterway in Inwood/Washington Heights into Sherman Creek Park. Now Bade Stageberg Cox (BSC) has been tapped by the NYRP to design a storm resilient pavilion at the shoreline of the park to serve as an outdoor recreation and learning center.

    The Brooklyn-based firm’s flood-resistant pavilion, dubbed “Edge Portals,” will be situated on two natural peninsulas where dozens of boathouses once stood. The pavilion, made of weathered steel panels, will consist of a boat storage building and an open classroom. The metal exterior, which provides good sun-shading as well as ample light, will also contain slits to allow for water to easily pass through the two buildings.

    “It is a yin yang effect. The buildings form a space between them and frame a view of the river, even from the entry way,” said Timothy Bade, partner at BSC. “The question was how do you position a building so that it enhances the site, your view, and your experience of going there?”

    BSC has selected materials that will at once withstand flooding and complement the landscape. “We wanted to find something that had warmth and a sense of materiality,” said Jane Stageberg, partner at BSC.

    The classroom will be outfitted with furniture in Southern Yellow Pine and storage spaces constructed out of galvanized steel. In addition, the building will include a skylight and a cistern to collect and recycle storm water for a nearby garden.

    Gangways connecting the classroom and boathouse will form a space for a science cove, which will provide direct access to the river for a variety of educational programming.

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    Oct 2002


    New York's Once-Neglected Harlem River Experiences a Rebirth

    by Nathan Kensinger

    The Birdman of Inwood is on his knees, with a cockatoo on each shoulder. Using his bare hands, he is digging out a secret spring underneath a rock. The freshwater begins to flow, clear and cool, carving a path down to the edge of the Harlem River, and he leans back, savoring his work. "The first eight months was picking up the glass," says James Cataldi, aka the Birdman, who has been cleaning up this piece of New York City's waterfront for five years. "I personally have taken out 1,240 cubic yards of debris by hand."

    For many decades, the Harlem River tidal strait between Manhattan and The Bronx was known as "New York's Forgotten Waterfront," its nine miles fragmented by a patchwork of industry, freight trains, chop shops, and communal dumps. In recent years, a loose coalition of concerned citizens and neighborhood groups has been working with the city to slowly reclaim the waterway, piece by piece, and today the Harlem River is showing renewed signs of life. Where abandoned boats and cars once littered the shoreline, a new system of parks, marshes, beaches and bike paths has opened, creating access for both humans and wildlife. This year, the latest additions to this network include Columbia University's Muscota Marsh, which opened in Inwood this January, and Bridge Park, a Bronx shorefront space so new it has yet to have an official opening ceremony.

    Unfortunately, despite millions of dollars in city investment and years of hard labor, often by volunteers, some New Yorkers remain unaware of the Harlem River's recent successes. In an op-ed published this September by Crain's, one pundit called for the river to be filled in and used as a dump for construction debris, so that developers could build new towers above it, "a historic return to New York's golden age of monumental public works." When told about this proposal, the response from those who actually live and work on the river—including fishermen, boy scouts, artists, boaters and environmental remediators—was unanimous: "ridiculous."

    "New York is a water city," said photographer Duane Bailey-Castro, a Bronx native who has been exploring and documenting the Harlem River for seven years. "Access to the sea is what made New York. So it's odd that, despite that reality, we are still so disconnected from the water." With the much anticipated reopening of the High Bridge looming on the horizon, Duane believes this long-neglected waterway may finally gain the city's full attention. "I think it will be Uptown's High Line," says Duane, who is working on a book project that will detail the area's history. "It's not the Seine, it's not idyllic, it has its rough edges. Like New York, it's not always the most glamorous of places. But even despite that, there is a uniqueness to it, and if you look carefully enough you might be surprised by the beauty you find."

    A walk along the shores of Harlem River today also reveals ample evidence of the return of nature. "There's a lot of life in there," says Freddy, who has been fishing the Bronx side of these waters with his son for the past year. "Porgie, eels, flounder, blues, catfish, toadfish, striped bass. There's some nice crabs. I wish I had a net. I jumped in the other day to get a crab and I was up to my waist." Last year, over 70 different species were catalogued at Inwood's North Cove by James Cataldi and his volunteers, including 45 types of birds that had stopped off at this remediated marsh, as well as mussels, clams, oysters, possums, raccoons, and muskrats. And even more species have visited Sherman Creek Park, where the New York Restoration Project is currently expanding Swindler Cove to reclaim the grounds of an abandoned boat club.

    This past Saturday, Boy Scout Troop 729 from nearby Washington Heights was out in full force at Swindler Cove for the International Coastal Cleanup Day, picking up trash and removing invasive species like mugwort, ragweed and marigold. "To me, the Harlem River is precious," said Scoutmaster Antonio Camacho, but "as well maintained as this place is now, there is still an amazing amount of trash." Several community events have been planned in the near future to bring neighbors out to the waterfront, including a cleanup and music festival this Saturday at North Cove and the annual Harlem River Festival in October. However, much work remains before the entirety of this once forgotten stretch of shoreline is returned to the people and to nature.

    On the Bronx side of the Harlem River, the newly opened Bridge Park gives the public access to one of the longest uninterrupted stretches of this waterfront.

    This section of the shore is not cut off by trains or highways, a rarity along the strait, which is hemmed in by CSX freight tracks, Metro-North, the Harlem River Drive, and the Major Deegan Expressway.

    The park includes a bike path, wide lawns, and seating areas, like this space under the Alexander Hamilton Bridge. This is the second major park to open recently on the Bronx side of the Harlem River, after Mill Pond Park, which opened in 2009.

    The park provides a unique vista of several of the many bridges that cross the Harlem River, including pathways underneath the Washington Bridge.

    Outside the south entrance of the park, workers used dumpsters to clean up rubble on what was once a dead end street. "I think they are going to clear it all out," said one worker. "Make it part of the park. Keep going all the way down."

    At the nearby High Bridge, the city's oldest bridge, workers were still putting the final touches on the soon-to-be-opened public walkway, which will provide a pedestrian link between the Bronx and Manhattan over the Harlem River.

    On the north end of the Harlem River, in Inwood, Columbia University and the Parks Department recently opened Muscota Marsh, a one-acre public park adjacent to the Columbia boat club.

    The park includes a saltwater marsh and a new freshwater wetlands, meant to capture stormwater and lure in birds.

    Columbia rowers ply the Harlem River, passing the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse in Sherman Creek Park, a public park operated by the New York Restoration Project (NYRP).

    Swindler Cove, which opened as part of Sherman Creek Park in 2003, was once a neighborhood dump and now offers one of the few public beaches in Manhattan.

    Boy Scouts from Troop 729 were busy removing invasive species from the park. "I want my scouts to be stewards of the neighborhood," said Scoutmaster Camacho. "It's about maintenance, and claiming some type of ownership."

    NYRP plans to build an education pavilion on this newly remediated peninsula, which was once home to the ruins of an abandoned boat club. It will be "a state-of-the-art, flood-resistant outdoor recreation and learning center."

    At Inwood's North Cove, James "The Birdman" Cataldi is still working to clear out an area that was a communal dump for 35 years. "This is remarkably clean compared to what it was," said James.

    A freshwater spring flows in to the Harlem River here. "I'm hoping this doesn't become a park, actually. I hope it stays a peoples place," said James. "We want as many people as possible to come down to what I call a jewel in the rough."

    "In the winter, it's a wildlife sanctuary," said James. "At least 1,800 ducks and geese were here in the winter of 2013."

    Across from the North Cove, a local Bronx dumping ground is still present, with abandoned trucks, sofas, and rugs at water's edge. Like the shoreline further south in the Bronx, this section of the Harlem River is largely industrial, with access cut off by train lines.

    Large swaths of unused land are present on this side of the Harlem River. This empty lot is north of the University Heights Bridge, and part of a proposed Harlem River Brownfield Opportunity Area, which includes 162 acres of Bronx waterfront.

    The property is currently accessible from the street and borders a concrete plant. It already resembles a park, with overgrown railroad tracks, dirt roads, open fields, and several stands of trees.

    From atop a mountain of dirt in this open space, the Harlem River is plainly visible, as is the ongoing tension between industry, neglect, and public access along this waterway.

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