For decades, New Yorkers avoided the waterfront as it became increasingly dirty, derelict, and even dangerous.
By the 1970s, the Chelsea Piers, unsafe for boats, were used to store impounded cars. Soon after, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was all but abandoned — with cranes rusting at six drydocks where, during World War II, 70,000 workers built battleships for the U.S. Navy.
And over the years, the Coast Guard pulled out of Governors Island, leaving crumbling barracks filled with asbestos and lead.
The nadir came in the 1980s: By then, highways and fences blocked access to the water. Even if anyone wanted to take a stroll or try fishing, waste dumped for years had poisoned the Hudson, the East River, the Bronx River, and New York Harbor, which once was home to more than half the world’s oysters.
Where some New Yorkers saw industrial wastelands and tainted rivers to avoid, The New York Community Trust and others saw unlimited opportunities to reclaim the waterfront for jobs, transportation, recreation, education, and the arts. Since the 1990s, we have invested millions of dollars in groups that are painstakingly changing how New Yorkers interact with the city’s 520 miles of waterfront, plus hundreds more on Long Island and in Westchester.
Businesses, government, and nonprofits have joined to re-open the waterfront to all New Yorkers. Today, joggers throng paths in Red Hook, summer visitors fill Governors Island ferries, and a $2 billion tech university rises along the edge of Roosevelt Island.
“We are fortunate to work with visionaries who realize that reviving the waterfront is key to enhancing the quality of life across New York,” says Arturo Garcia-Costas, who oversees The Trust’s environmental grantmaking.
To improve the waterfront, Trust program staff combine money from donors who left funds for a variety of causes. Although some of these bequests were made nearly a century ago, they address today’s problems.
For example, The Trust has a fund for the environment, thanks to the family of Henry Phillip Kraft, an inventor who made his fortune in the 1920s.
Another fund is dedicated to protecting air and water because of the generosity of Harry and Sarah Rogers, a cabbie and his stock-picking wife, who died more than 25 years ago.
Other donors are very much alive and engaged in philanthropy. William Donnell, an investor, started a fund in The Trust to preserve open spaces, among other things. Marcy Brownson cares about parks. “Where there used to be warehouses and tumble-down wharves,” she says, “now we walk the emerald necklace, knowing The Trust had a role in making this possible.”
It’s difficult to choose a single place that represents The Trust’s efforts on the waterfront, but the stretch of the East River from Astoria to Dumbo is a good starting place. A few highlights: We are long-time funders of the Waterfront Alliance, which enlists businesses, government, and civic organizations for everything from preserving jobs to making sure the East River Ferry takes workers to areas where subway and bus transportation is limited. When an investment banker, Milton Puryear, founded the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative to connect bike paths instead of expanding the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, he, too, got support from the Trust’s environmental funds.
Meanwhile, arts funds from The Trust underwrite fellowships for emerging artists at Smack Mellon Studio, which faces the Brooklyn Bridge and attracts art-lovers to Dumbo. Other Trust fellows have created public art at Socrates Sculpture Park, overlooking the East River in Astoria, where The Trust also helped fund a landscape master plan as well as a plan to prepare for the addition of a building on the site.
“The East River is the new Central Park,” says Roland Lewis, CEO and president of the Waterfront Alliance, which successfully pushed for a kayak launch and free kayaks by the soccer fields, picnic tables, and barbecue grills at the piers south of the Brooklyn Bridge. He refers to the restored piers as “the Hamptons for people who cannot afford the Hamptons.”
Farther north, the Bronx River, once a graveyard for auto parts, is slowly transforming into a refuge for neighbors as well as wildlife. Groups we support, such as the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, have been cleaning up the water and the shore. In Starlight Park, the Bronx River Alliance is building environmentally friendly headquarters, to monitor water quality and offer canoe trips.
Twenty years ago, Roderick Jenkins, who coordinates our youth development grantmaking, was impressed by the way start-up nonprofit Rocking the Boat used boat building to teach math skills and environmental education. Jenkins encouraged founder Adam Green to submit a proposal for funds to bring his program out of the basement of a Bronx apartment building. Now in its own workshop, it reaches thousands of young people. As Green puts it: “Our kids don’t just build boats, our boats build kids.”
Just across the county line, one of our two suburban divisions, the Westchester Community Foundation, funded Groundwork Hudson Valley to engage residents and planners in removing layers of concrete covering the Saw Mill River. The Saw Mill was buried in the 1920s because of industrial pollution.
This isn’t to say we have resolved centuries of problems. In fact, the new popularity of the region’s waterfront brings new challenges. In gentrified areas, the demand for luxury apartments and the arrival of national stores and banks pushes working people and neighborhood businesses out.
Flooding is probably the biggest worry along the resurgent waterways. In 2012, superstorm Sandy inundated businesses and homes from the Rockaways to Staten Island, and from Battery Park to Long Island’s Long Beach. The century-old Regional Plan Association, which we support, recently warned that hundreds of thousands of residents are at risk as sea levels rise.
In an ambitious project created largely with Trust support, the Waterfront Alliance developed guidelines for development along shorelines, something akin to the LEED certification for green buildings. The certification calls for creating buffer areas of parks and open space to absorb storm surges. In Staten Island, we helped the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy preserve salt marshes. Of course, buffers aren’t a new idea—the Dutch and other immigrants used them to protect against storm surges as far back as the 1600s.
Patricia Jenny, The Trust vice president who oversees grants, puts it this way: “It’s only fitting that The Trust, which is so intertwined with New York’s history, supports projects that draw lessons from the past.”
By David L. Marcus and Dean Woodhouse-Weil