By Robert Beck
The farthest I can get from the hard and fast of Manhattan is the wharf that sticks out into the Hudson near the 79th Street Boat Basin. It’s more than space and quiet; it’s a frame of reference. When I look north toward the sliver of the George Washington Bridge, I see the young boy peering out the side window of my father’s ’50 Ford as we cross from New Jersey. We drove down the West Side along the water, passing the rail facilities, then the stacks and superstructures of ocean liners sticking up above their piers, on our way to the Battery and Brooklyn for Sunday with the grandparents.
This stretch of shoreline is different from what it was then, just as it was different before that. Before Robert Moses, Emery Roth, Fredrick Olmsted, or Vanderbilt and Edison. Before it was New York, or even Nieuw Amsterdam.
From out on the water, looking upstream at the larger contours of the river and the outcroppings and trees on each side, it’s easy to let the buildings dissolve and envision a historic line back to the Lenape and their forebears. Much of that history has been obliterated in the rush for more and bigger. Anything worth remembering you can see behind glass in the museum, right? Here? I don’t know what was here.
Some city changes are relatively gradual, like the growth of the Upper West Side over the past couple of centuries. Some remakings bloom at a condensed pace, as when expansive rail yards and shore facilities appeared in the age of rail, then surrendered to new and different ways as that age succumbed to automobiles and planes. Neighbors and neighborhoods can suddenly vanish in service of the latest ideas and powers, like Lincoln Center rising on the Hill. When time is up, whole histories fall into the churn.
This part of the river is an estuary. It has a tide that has been rising and falling five feet twice a day for millennia. I don’t know what these wood structures in the water are—they could be deflective bulwarks or bridge pilings—but they are of a time. Of the city and its clock.
Out in the stream of the river, I am in the hands of nature, and there is only now. The sky, the water, the breeze, and that tide. But changes are coming.
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