On a breezy Wednesday in New York, it’s standing room only on the upper deck of the 34th Streetbound East River ferry. The early evening sun illuminates a myriad of passengers: a young girl sitting cross-legged reading her Kindle; an animated French-speaking couple snapping selfies against the skyline; a suit-and-tie wearing commuter scrolling mindlessly through his phone; and a tattooed expectant mother wearing oversized earphones and bopping her head rhythmically – either to the music or perhaps the sway of the rocky waves lapping against the boat.
New York may be known as a concrete jungle, but these days it’s increasingly leaning into its island identity. After all, two out of its five boroughs – Manhattan and Staten Island – are completely surrounded by water, while the other three are also coastal. So rather than pound the city’s hardened, gum-stuck pavements or take a chance on the old, overcrowded and frequently delayed subway, locals and visitors alike are turning to ferries as an efficient and picturesque means of getting around.
Launched by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017, the subsidised NYC Ferry system currently spans six circuits. The East River, Rockaway, South Brooklyn and Astoria services were launched progressively during the summer of 2017, while the Lower East Side and Soundview routes debuted this August. Earlier in 2018, after ridership far exceeded forecasted numbers, de Blasio announced that he’ll be doubling down on the commuter service, with an additional US$300 million in funds to add more boats and improve docks. It’s now anticipated that roughly nine million commuters will ride the NYC Ferry each year, twice the projected amount.
Prior to de Blasio’s administration, passage across the East River was infrequent, with only one ferry route, seven stops and tickets that cost US$4 on weekdays and US$6 on weekends. These days, passengers can hop on one of the system’s 20 vessels serving 21 piers for the same cost as a subway ride (US$2.75) and travel from the lower tip of Manhattan across to Governors Island, the 34ha Brooklyn Bridge Park, Domino Park, Long Island City, Astoria and even up to Rockaway on the southeastern edge of the city.
Coupled with the rejuvenated ferry system is the recent revival of many of New York’s waterfront neighbourhoods, including Dumbo, Brooklyn Heights and South Williamsburg. What were once gritty dockside areas primarily dominated by manufacturing and trade have gradually been transformed into some of the most desirable places in the Big Apple to live, work and play. Together with the buoyed fleet, there’s now good reason to escape the solid, harried hustle of Times Square for the floating, breezy bustle of the harbour.
The evolution of the city’s waterfront is perhaps best exemplified by its newest addition, Domino Park, which opened in June on the site of the former Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn’s ever-hip South Williamsburg. The 2.5ha site pays homage to its 160-year-old roots, while also managing to be an appealing modern green space offering water fountains, a Japanese pine garden, mist machines and a taco stand.
“We had strong feelings that [Domino Park] should contain a lot of references to its history,” says David Lombino of Two Trees Management, which developed the property, along with various others on Brooklyn’s waterfront such as the refurbished Jane’s Carousel in Dumbo. “You’re blessed when you have a site in New York with that sort of fabric, but we didn’t want to do it in a way where you’re stumbling on plaques. We wanted it to be open to interpretation.”
The result is a linear park that salvaged and preserved 30 artefacts and remnants from the factory by painting them a bold teal colour and dispersing them throughout, such as two giant gantry cranes that once unloaded bulk sugarcane. There’s also an elevated walkway, a playground inspired by the sugar-making process, a beach volleyball court, a bocce court and even a dog run.
“We wanted it to be a [New York] place,” Lombino adds, “And that means a place where the people are the most interesting part of the park. It’s hard when you also have amazing views and interesting design, but it’s a real slice of New York life.”
And a delicious one at that. Danny Meyer, founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, which runs the park’s taco joint, Tacocina, is only one of the latest restaurateurs eager to feed hungry gourmands on the riverfront.
Over in the Dumbo area – a 12-minute ferry ride away from South Williamsburg – a host of new dining options has recently opened up, including Cecconi’s, a modern Italian spot in the historic Empire Stores brick building on Water Street; the Osprey, which dishes up American comfort fare in the new 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge; and Celestine, a neighbourhood restaurant serving eastern Mediterranean classics with up-close views of Manhattan Bridge and the water.
Those who prefer to socialise in a less traditional (and even more nautical) setting can be found at Pilot, a 43m former racing schooner docked at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6 – not far from the park’s newest addition, Pier 3, which opened just this July. There you’ll find a granite terrace, large central lawn, Adirondack chairs and exploratory labyrinth, just the latest in the city’s ongoing pier-to-park initiatives to turn obsolete ports into areas of refuge, relaxation and recreation.
“They serve lots of different needs for lots of different types of people from all backgrounds and cultures,” says Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation president Eric Landau on the various parks that have sprouted up in the city. “Whether you are on a team that plays soccer at Pier 5, or you go for a run every day, [Brooklyn Bridge Park] has helped a community develop. It’s transformed neighbourhoods.”
Brothers Miles and Alex Pincus – who helm Pilot, its sister ship, Grand Banks, and the land-based Island Oyster located on Governors Island – certainly know a thing or two about transformation. Before segueing into the service industry, the pair owned a sailing company and an architecture firm. Their real passion, however, lay in oysters, which Alex claims were the preeminent New York street food back in the day.
“In the harbour, there were all these boats called oyster barges. People would go to the barge on the land side, like a saloon, and they’d get an oyster and a beer for fifty cents,” he says. “It blew my mind, so I thought it’d be cool to have something like that [again].”
A five-minute ferry ride from Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6 – or eight minutes from Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building – is the Pincus brothers’ sister restaurant Island Oyster, on the increasingly popular Governors Island. Yellow-and-white-striped awnings protect diners from the sun, but there’s no holding back the occasional splash from any number of boats that pass by throughout the day. However, this doesn’t deter crowds from slurping shellfish at this modernised beach shack on the edge of what was a former military base.
While the 70ha Governors Island has been open to visitors since 2003, it’s been gaining attention in the last eight years or so, playing host to music festivals, movie screenings and art exhibitions. Day-trippers come to bike around its perimeter, laze about on hammocks or hike up the Hills, a series of undulating landscapes that rise up to 20m above sea level and feature slides and an art installation. All it was lacking was somewhere to bed down for the night.
That is, until this summer, when hospitality company Collective Retreats brought their distinct form of lodging to the island, complete with glamping-type tents that zip open to reveal direct views across the water of Lady Liberty herself. Designed in order to connect guests with a sense of place, the company’s founder and CEO Peter Mack dubs Collective Governors Island as a “travel experience” rather than a hotel.
“Waking up with the Manhattan air breezing through your tent and staring at the skyline – to me, [this] is much more authentically connected to its place than staying on the 37th floor in room whatever of some big hotel in Midtown,” says Mack, who worked for Starwood Hotels & Resorts for nearly a decade before debuting Collective Retreats in Vail, Colorado, back in 2015.
With 37 total units, the Governors Island property is not only far from basic, it’s also the largest of the company’s five establishments in four states (a new California offering opens in early 2019). The Summit Tents have ensuite bathrooms, private decks and complimentary s’mores-making kits, while the tepee-like Journey Tents are also pretty plush, and come with 1,000-thread count linens, Turkish towels and hip furnishings like cow-hide rugs. Mack claims that this sort of escape from the city is exactly what New Yorkers need.
“There are all these studies on mental health; that having trees and being by the water brings happiness,” he elaborates. “We’re very excited about what New York has been doing with the harbour and we’re happy to be a part of it. Most cities need it, but New York was screaming for it.”
Indeed, while no man is an island in New York – with its spiffy new ships shepherding passengers between boroughs, its blooming manicured parks and its pristine waterfront promenades with world-class views – the Big Apple may soon be counted among the great island retreats of the world.
Photography by Ricky Rhodes
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This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine.