New York City once boasted the largest port in the country, if not the world, and while the massive container complexes in Elizabeth and Bayonne remain the largest on the East Coast, it is safe to say New Yorkers have all but forgotten about their once mighty waterfront. Over the last decade or two, that attitude has slowly changed, as parks have sprouted where piers and factories once stood—and in some cases, they rise atop those that still remain. With a century’s worth of pollution finally leaching away, an idyll has returned to the waterfront.

Still, the waters of the Hudson and East rivers remain all but off limits, be this more through stigma than actual danger. Short of the occasional yacht, sailboat, or brave (make that wise) sea kayak, the New York shoreline remains a mystery. For 17 years now, the Municipal Art Society and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance have been fighting to change that, and they were at it again last night with the launch of their annual summer boat tour. The cruise offers an almost alien view of the city, one of neglect and potential, of rebirth and real estate.

Setting sail promptly at six o’clock (this reporter, along with speedy architect Fred Schwartz, were seen running up to a receding gangway), the Circle Line ferry pulled away from Pier 83 into the admittedly drab and murky waters of the Hudson. (As one passenger explained, the West Side piers correspond to their streets, plus 40.) The air was still muggy, but as the boat picked up steam, a breeze overtook the decks and the 600 or so passengers began to relax, enjoying their paninis, soft pretzels, and cans of Corona Light.

Chugging down the western shore of Manhattan, MAS outgoing President Kent Barwick and MWA President Roland Lewis—replete in matching seersucker suits—took over the MCing duties. “We want to welcome you all aboard and just say that we hope you enjoy yourselves and what is a very different but no less important view of the city,” Barwick said.

That was the prevailing sentiment for the night: how the city was finally returning to its waterfront, how that mission could be furthered, but also how it could be jeopardized. Approaching the tip of Manhattan, Barwick was quick to point to Jersey City and Battery Park City, both ahead of their time in riverfront reclamation, but also dangerously close to privatization, which could still be a potential problem for some of the cruise’s later destinations, like the Williamsburg waterfront and Brooklyn Bridge Park, both of which are still developing. “This cannot become a wall of condos,” Barwick said.

Councilmember Dan Garodnick happened to be on board as a passenger, but he was asked to say a quick word about another promising waterfront project, the Eastside Waterfront Park, which he spearheaded over the last year with the help of the MAS. (Asked if there was any word yet from Tishman Speyer on its Stuytown lawsuits, he said no, then looked at his watch and added, “Today’s the 30th, so they’ve got one more day.”)

A special trip was made up Newtown Creek to get a look at the new “egg-shaped digesters” recently completed by Polshek Partnership. Lewis praised them as an example of how the sewage treatment facility, which serves a 25-mile area including Brooklyn, much of Queens, and Lower Manhattan, could be beautifully designed, just as any other piece of infrastructure.

And what boat tour this summer would be complete without a stop by Olafur Eliasson’s waterfalls? While some critics have called them wasteful and underwhelming—at least from the land—from the water, they truly look spectacular. It could be that from this perspective they look more natural, but it is also the recognition that, as Barwick said at the beginning, everything looks better on the water.

Hopefully, more New Yorkers will come to realize this as well. Lewis was quick to note that at one point in its history, New York enjoyed 110 ferry lines crisscrossing the water. With congestion on the streets and subways only getting worse, Lewis said, this is one of the best options for alternative transportation in the city, and also one of the most affordable. If nothing else, it will provide New Yorkers with some much needed perspective on what can at times feel like a rather landlocked island. Just be sure to watch out for that kayaker down there.

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