From Splintered Piers to Fancy Park of Today, We’ve Come a Long Way

Relaxedly straddling a concrete Jersey barrier, a Husky hung out by Pier 45 (the Christopher St. Pier) circa 1988. The West Side waterfront had really “gone to the dogs” after it ceased to be a working waterfront before its eventual transformation into Hudson River Park. Yet, many loved the area’s free and funky feeling back then. | Photo by Tom Fox

BY MICHELE HERMAN | May 1985: My husband and I are young and unmarried; upper Upper West Siders by address, budget and general affiliation — and we’re going to move in together. We’ve come to the Village because in the middle of our long, demoralizing apartment hunt a realtor has called out of the blue to ask if we’d like to see a little place on Jane St.

Jane St.?! we say. Who wouldn’t?

The apartment is in a recently converted warehouse a half block from the Hudson. The building has no lobby, the apartment is taller than it is wide, but it’s clean and has a little charm. On one side of the place is the derelict High Line; the three-block section between Gansevoort and Bethune Sts. was removed a few years later, despite our attempts to save it. On the other is the derelict waterfront, with a smokehouse and an abandoned building, soon to burn to the ground; we later watched transvestite prostitutes squatting there escape. A building-supply company and an SRO hotel are across the street. We shake the realtor’s hand and wander over to the river as the sun begins to set.

Christopher and West Sts. in 1979, totally desolate, not a tree — and certainly not a fountain, as there is now in the park — in sight. | Photo by Jim May

It’s out by the mighty Hudson that we feel the entire orientation of our lives shift.

This is ’85, four years after the demolition of the elevated Miller Highway and just four months before its proposed replacement, Westway, the sunken-highway-riverfront-development project, is abandoned. In other words, there’s not much there but river.

There is no raised planted median in the middle of West St., so it’s easy to see across to Jersey, where there’s no skyline to speak of. There are no trees and thus no shade. There’s no greenery, unless you count three small trees in concrete pots way down around Christopher St.

Looking northeast from the Bank St. Pier in 1985-86, above. | Photo by Jonathan Kuhn

We wait for an opening in the traffic and cross West St. and its service lanes and the wide paved no-man’s land beside the river. Then we hike out to the end of the derelict pier that seems to go halfway to Hoboken. It’s surfaced with huge wooden planks, some sections laid straight, some diagonally, as if one shift of workers ignored what the previous shift had done. The planks are shrunken, shredded, worm-eaten, warped, sun-bleached, fire-charred, with whole sections missing or pried loose to reveal a lower layer of planks laid in the opposite direction.

The pier is a thousand splinters and accidents waiting to happen. There is no barrier of any kind around the periphery. We don’t care. We feel as if we’re on a ship. A cool breeze blows. We look back at the city. The pier’s planks and low-rise buildings along West St. are bathed in golden twilight. The ragged edge of the Village looks breathtakingly beautiful.

Buttons recall the waterfront battles of the past by the Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waferfront and Great Port. “The barge” refers to the Bibby Venture, a prison barge with nearly 400 beds that the city, in 1989, planned to keep berthed at Pier 40, at W. Houston St. The community ultimately defeated that idea. | Photo by Michele Herman

We are so astonished to be living on Jane St. that we set out to get involved, and what a first-rate education in activism, city government and preservation we receive. We join Save the Village, a new incarnation of Jane Jacobs’s pioneering preservation group, started by Pearl Broder. We meet the cast of local characters, including the late, great Verna Small, Bob Oliver, Ben Green and Leslie Lowe, to name just a few. We learn to speak ULURP, MOU, RFP, EIS, SEQRA.

After a few years, Save the Village and a bunch of other neighborhood groups join forces to become the Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront & Great Port (Great Port being an old name for the waterfront). We plan fundraisers, put out newsletters and brochures, stuff thousands of envelopes, attend countless meetings. All this volunteer energy is aimed at a perfectly sensible plan: a modest, green, self-sustaining waterfront park paid for with available funds left over when Westway died; no shadowy quasi-governmental city-state agency in charge; no non-water-dependent uses; no decade of waiting; no development “nodes” (a small word to denote some large tracts of land, most notably, Pier 40) to pay for it all.

The view along the bulkhead — the Manhattan seawall — looking south from Christopher St., with Pier 40 just to the south, and the World Trade Center in the distance, in 1979-80. | Photo by Jim May

One of the tasks I’m most proud of is the hot June day in 1988 when we organized a tiny band of volunteers in the insane, impossible task of cleaning up the entire length of the Village waterfront in preparation for a big festival the Federation was running the following day.

It clearly hadn’t been cleaned in years. Papers and candy wrappers had collected in every crevice. We worked from morning to sundown. I remember that, after a certain point, the sweat inside my gloves seemed more objectionable than bare hands; I was terrified of lifting a piece of yellowed newspaper and uncovering a rat family. I spent so many hours bent over that I split my ’80s jeans, the ones with the little zippers at the ankles.

The Jane St. Pier in 1985. | Photo by Jonathan Kuhn

Now, as I think back over the enormous changes we have witnessed in our 33 years in the West Village, it takes some effort to call back into view that wild waterfront that was nothing but potential. Back then, you could do things out there with impunity. Some of these activities were benign, if not always G-rated, like the guy in short shorts who used to practice his baton twirling, and the sun worshippers out on the splintered piers in their leathery birthday suits. Some activities were semi-sanctioned, like the guy who sold Christmas trees from a truck, who used our super’s bathroom for years. And some parked-car activities I don’t even want to know about, because I imagine they mirrored the things the Sopranos did in the dark on their side of the river.

In 1986, fearing lawsuits, the city or state fenced off the piers to keep the Liberty Weekend crowds safe from the conditions caused by the city and state’s own neglect. In 1993 when the fences proved insufficient, the Hudson River Park Conservancy, the new entity in charge, chopped off the first 30 feet of the old piers, causing a huge outcry from those who wanted to save them.

Models doing a fashion shoot on the waterfront at Horatio St. circa 1986. | Photo by Jonathan Kuhn

Meanwhile, my husband and two sons had the outlaw spirit. The boys learned to ride bikes on the  concrete surface of Pier 54, up at W. 13th St. This was not allowed, but no one ever stopped them. They trespassed on the old fireboat pier at Gansevoort Peninsula and got invited in for a tour by the firefighters; they liked the sign on the bathroom door that said, “Beware: Toxic Gas.”

When Hudson River Park, whose new Greenwich Village section opened in 2003, was being created, a staging area on the inland side near Jane St. filled up with a massive mound of building materials. Over many weeks, the boys built themselves a Belgian-block house with a plywood roof. My husband, the art historian, built a two-room cinderblock conceptual piece. They even brought out table settings. Six months went by and no one knocked their creations down, though the table settings did occasionally get rearranged. For a long time, there was a block-long depression in the paving on the outboard side. When this became a semi-permanent puddle and froze one winter, the intrepid trio mounded up snow at one end to create a hill and slid across in milk crates.

The scene during Liberty Weekend in 1986, viewed from the writer’s Jane St. rooftop, above. At left is the old Superior Ink printing company with its towering smokestack. Where the “upland” part of Hudson River Park is today was just a long asphalt strip more than 30 years ago. The then-decrepit piers were fenced off for safety reasons for the event, which commemorated the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, and featured a parade of tall ships. | Photo by Jonathan Kuhn

Not all our family activity was subversive. I remember a joyous spring when all it took was a last-minute phone call to reserve the magical space way out at the southern end of Pier 40 for a bunch of us PS3 parents. The park supplied a roof, a grill, picnic tables, tetherball and basketball hoop, and we brought food. We also spent a lot of happy hours down at the old Pier 25, at North Moore St., where there was a shack that served cheap burgers and blasted great music, and we were allowed to play mini golf to our heart’s content, and then cool off in the sprinklers.

Boys on the Jane St. Pier in 1986, with a view looking Downtown, with Pier 40, the St. John’s Building and the World Trade Center in the background. | Photo by Jonathan Kuhn

One of the lessons you learn when you try to fight City Hall, not to mention the governor’s office, is that it’s just as hard as they say it is. I love having Hudson River Park and I use it hard, particularly the bike path. But the park we got is pretty much the opposite of the one we fought for: After 15 years we ended up with a fancy park in need of complex maintenance. It’s run by a quasi-governmental city-state trust, with nodes of development, non-water-dependent uses, and even paid advertising in the form of banners. To pay for it, there’s a ton of high-rise development still to come — across the highway from the park — through a complicated process of air-rights sales.

A boy on the waterfront in 1986, between Jane and W. 12th Sts., with Superior Ink and Westbeth in the background. | Photo by Jonathan Kuhn

Harold, of the children’s book “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” always knew he was home when he saw the moon outside his bedroom window. I know I’m home when I see the Hudson River just ahead. Just as it did before the Europeans arrived, the mighty river — because it’s a tidal estuary — still flows both ways. When the wind blows just the right way, I breathe in deep the salt tang of the sea. I watch the river cycle through its many moods, just like us; sometimes it sparkles, sometimes it just lies there, as if it couldn’t be bothered; sometimes it gets all whipped into a frenzy. In 2012 it memorably overflowed its banks, ruining a lot of buildings and some lives; and though we aren’t praying people, we pray it will not do this again.

As I look back, it seems nearly inconceivable that no one stopped us in 1985 when we walked to the end of that old broken-down Jane St. pier. We could have sued! But we didn’t. Instead, we became lifelong Villagers.

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