Community Rowing at Pier 40 and Why it Matters

Sally and Deborah wrote an article that was published in our local newspaper The Villager. Here’s the link to the article: Community Rowing at Pier 40 and Why It Matters

In all of the hand-wringing, wheeling and dealing around the future of Pier 40, little attention has been given to the community boathouses that have occupied space on the south side of the pier for almost 20 years.

The last remaining community boathouse on Pier 40, Village Community Boathouse, is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that provides free public access to New York Harbor, utilizing a fleet of traditional wooden rowboats, most of them built in the shop at Pier 40 in conjunction with local schools. The history of V.C.B. goes back to the late Mike Davis, founder of Floating the Apple.

Mike Davis was a cultural archeologist working on a dig in Istanbul, when he noticed the many rowing craft and boathouses along the shore of the Bosporus, owned and operated collectively by neighborhood people. He knew that New York Harbor, too, had once been home to dozens of community boathouses where anyone could rent a boat. As recently as 1930 there were 40 neighborhood boathouses in the harbor. By the 1990s there was only one. The city’s waterways were considered polluted and dangerous.

Inspired by his experience in Istanbul, Mike’s vision of providing universal public access to the New York City waterfront led him to found Floating the Apple in 1992. A little like Johnny Appleseed, his idea was to create community boathouses in neighborhoods all over the city.

Mike commissioned an engineer and navel architect, Mike McEvoy, to design a 25-foot long “Whitehall gig,” named for Whitehall St. in Lower Manhattan, where the gigs were first built 250 years ago. Known as the “bicycles of the sea,” these boats were the most efficient way to get around the city’s waterways. In the 18th and 19th centuries Whitehall gigs were used in New York Harbor as workboats, rowing out to meet the tall ships and offload passengers, mail and baggage. In 1776, General George Washington evacuated his severely outnumbered troops from the Brooklyn side of the East River in a flotilla of Whitehalls to escape the British in the Battle of Long Island.

With the newly updated Whitehall design, Mike Davis enlisted a crew of waterfront activists, including Don Betts, Brendan Malone of New York Harbor School, Louis Norris and others, to lead local residents and high school students in community boatbuilding sessions in the lobby of the old McGraw-Hill building on W. 42nd St. Once complete, the 500-pound vessels were loaded on dollies and rolled down 42nd St. to the Hudson River, sometimes with police or firefighters escorting with flashing lights, but always with lots passersby waving and pointing the boat crew on toward the water. At Pier 84 at the foot of 42nd St., the boats were launched into the Hudson.

There were no boathouses as of then, however. But down at Pier 40, at W. Houston St., Tobi Bergman — the chairperson of Community Board 2 during 2015 and 2016 — was working to get youth sports fields and an indoor practice center, and was renovating a space once associated with a prison barge docked at the pier. Tobi is a legend of sorts among waterfront activists because he helped create the boathouse at Pier 40 by offering Mike Davis a dockside part of the space for it. Tobi recognized that he and Mike shared an interest in promoting youth sports, so he offered to share his modest space on the south side of the pier.

In September 1997, Brendan Malone began building the Whitehall gig Rachel Carson in Tobi’s space on Pier 40, in collaboration with students from P.S. 811 and Junior Navy R.O.T.C. students from High School of Graphic Communication Arts. By the time the Rachel Carson was launched a year later, Tobi was complaining about the dust, noise and proliferation of gigs in their tiny shared space, and suggesting that Mike consider investing in a wood chipper.

In 1998, the Hudson River Park Act created the park and the Hudson River Park Trust, with the mission to promote, encourage, and expand public access to the Hudson River and to promote natural, cultural and historic aspects of the river. Their shared vision made Hudson River Park and Floating the Apple a perfect fit. Mike and his mission were embraced by Noreen Doyle, now vice president of the Trust, who offered Floating the Apple a much larger space on the south side of the pier, which is now occupied by Village Community Boathouse. Eventually, in 2007, Mike moved back to Midtown to Pier 84, at W. 44th St., to a boathouse conceived and designed in conjunction with Doyle to fit the needs of the Floating the Apple mission, leaving the boathouse on Pier 40 to the newly incorporated V.C.B.

Village Community Boathouse continues to realize the vision of Mike Davis and the Hudson River Park Act. V.C.B. would not exist without the consistent and generous support of Noreen Doyle and the Trust, which set the terms of the boathouse’s lease at $1 per year. This allows V.C.B. to offer rowing and boat building programs to the public free of charge. The V.C.B. boat building and rowing programs run from the boathouse on Pier 40 seek to fulfill the goal of universal public access to the waterways of New York City: All of the programs are free and are offered on a walk-in basis.

During the rowing season, utilizing a fleet of traditional wooden rowing craft, V.C.B. offers community rowing two or three times per week. Novice rowers, with the guidance of an experienced coxswain, can practice in the safety of the embayment on the south side of the pier. Four oarsmen, each with one long sweep oar, sit facing the stern, where the coxswain steers and coordinates their rowing. Protected from the winds and currents by the pier’s massive structure, the embayment is uniquely suited for “learn to row” programs. Once “newbies” have learned to row sufficiently, V.C.B.’s senior coxswains take them out onto the river where they can safely experience the full force of nature in the winds, waves, tides and currents and see the city from a new perspective.

V.C.B. is the only boathouse remaining in Pier 40 that offers free access to the water. Other boating outfits within the park are open to the public, but at a price that restricts access to those without the means to pay. Free kayaking is offered by Downtown Boathouse at Pier 26, at N. Moore St., but kayakers must stay within the boundaries of the embayment. In contrast, V.C.B. rowers voyage throughout the harbor: down to the lower harbor for a close-up of the Statue of Liberty, up the river to Hoboken Cove, or around the Battery to the East River.

Directly serving the mission set out in the Hudson River Park Act, V.C.B. provides a physical connection to the water to all who live in, work in or visit Manhattan. In their 18 years at Pier 40, community boathouses have invited the public, including youth from local public schools, to utilize the city’s waterfront and harbor, improving people’s quality of life, fostering a sense of environmental stewardship, and establishing a spirit of collaboration in crewing or building a boat. V.C.B. has introduced tens of thousands of international visitors, local residents and young people to the joy of rowing on the Hudson and other waterways that surround New York City.

In December 2016, the City Council voted to approve the transfer of air rights from Pier 40 to the St. John’s Center terminal across the street. The St. John’s developers will pay the Trust $100 million, to be used to repair the crumbling pier. Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at a City Council meeting that the city would support plans to redevelop Pier 40 that included preservation of the ball fields at the center of the donut-shaped pier.

After several requests for proposals (R.F.P.’s) put out by the Trust for public-private partnerships — including Cirque de Soleil, an aquarium and high-rise residential towers — failed due to opposition from local politicians, Pier 40 stakeholders and local residents, it is time for the park’s administration, politicians and the community to work together to plan the future of the beloved pier.

To that end, C.B. 2 has created the Future of Pier 40 Working Group. As an advising member of that group, we will advocate for the boathouses and other noncommercial boating access, to ensure that any plans should include preserving free community boating on Pier 40, whose southern embayment is the best-protected, most-usable piece of water in the park.

Curtis is president and Clearman is a board of directors member of Village Community Boathouse

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