Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Changing Relationship

The Hudson River.  It's one of the most prominent natural features of New York City's landscape - part of its past, present, and future - the fluid border between Manhattan and New Jersey.  Though I can see the Hudson out my apartment window every day, I tried to step back and examine what kind of relationship a hypothetical Columbia student might have with this mighty landscape feature who doesn't have the luxury of such a view.  The relationship I "discovered" was surprisingly complex, reflecting the historical particularity of the engineered landscape adjacent to the river.  My journey began at the fabled gates of Columbia University at Broadway and 116th St.

The street is unusually wide for an east-west thoroughfare in the area, and as I've never noticed a particularly heavy amount of car traffic on it, I can only assume it must have been designed that way for the express purpose of giving Columbia passersby a sweeping view of the distant river, veiled by the leaves and branches of Riverside Park (aptly named).  But as you follow the path compelling you forward toward this natural space, a curious design feature emerges - the entrance into the park, marked by a fine old monument, is quite noticeably off-center from the middle of the street, oriented not with the symmetry of the university, but instead toward the forward path of the sidewalk walker, with you.  Down a flight of stairs, the paths ahead meander downward toward an empty pavilion overlooking the river, forcing the viewer to approach and contemplate the river slowly and visually, in a move that Hoskins himself might have thought up.

Once on the pavilion though, your path closer to the river is cut short - you must be content simply to look at the river over the hoods of the cars speeding along on the parkway, the silence broken by the unending mechanical roar, the breeze tainted with exhaust.

It was at this point that I first began to realize how physically removed the average resident of the Columbia area is from the river itself, forced simply to look at it from afar.  Granted, there is the Hudson River Greenway - but a narrow path alongside rushing cars and determined cyclists and runners, devoid of benches or open spaces, is hardly a personal, contemplative space.  Contrary to what I assumed, the intruding parkway was not purely an early 20th century sacrifice of beauty for convenience, but the vestige of an even older usage: New York City's first freight railway, built in 1849, long before Riverside Park was even conceived.  Instead of technology pushing in on nature, it was something of the opposite, with constructed "nature" molding itself around technology.  In fact, when Robert Moses first conceived of his redesign of Riverside Park in the early 1930's, hiding the rail line underground (where it still resides, seen below beneath the grate), it was with the idea that a scenic parkway would be a much better alternative:

"Couldn't this waterfront be the most beautiful thing in the world?... Staring at the bleak mud flats covered by a haze of smoke from the railroad engines, [he painted] a picture of what the scene could be like on a Sunday - the ugly tracks completely hidden by the great highway, cars traveling slowly along it, their occupants enjoying the view..." (from Robert Caro's "The Power Broker," 1975)

To make sufficient room for the parkway, the shoreline was expanded outward into the river using landfill material partially left over from the construction of the Catskill Aqueduct 25 years earlier.  Though it left the river cut off from the city, the contemporary mindset about automobile technology still conceived of the possibility of a leisurely Sunday drive in New York City to admire the view (attempting that now could be an interesting experiment).  At this point I traveled north from Riverside Park to West Harlem Piers Park in Manhattanville for a decidedly different interaction with the river.

Though the area may seem a little intimidating for the first-time visitor, the trek down to the end of 125th St. is well worth the experience.  A truly open space in this dense city, from the short lawns and piers of the park the Hudson expands three-quarters of a mile across - three-quarters of a mile of open water and sky - to the shore of New Jersey.  In this space you can walk out over the water, into the river itself, to get a sweeping view from downtown and Jersey City to the south, past the George Washington Bridge to the north.

Just opened in 2008, West Harlem Piers Park offers completely new forms of interaction with the river, from sitting and watching (at close proximity!) to launching a kayak out into it (yes, there's even a spot for that).  From day to day in the city, particularly at Columbia up on the hill, barricaded from many views of the river, it's easy to forget the close, tactile presence of this body of water that has been so bound up with the history of this city.

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