There is a genre of writing that can be called “On the Road” literature. It often attempts to portray the enigmatic ordinary of Elsewhere in a series of trenchant, if necessarily superficial, observations. Writers of this kind of ostensible nonfiction are almost always outsiders, intellectually curious sophisticates with a wandering bent who bring a sharp eye, ear, and journalistic voice to their travels. Photographers hit the road for the same purpose, sometimes producing indelibly memorable, culture-defining images. Still, there are pitfalls here. Within the seemingly dispassionate writer’s pen or photographer’s lens lurk preconceived political positions and an inevitable, if unconscious, sense of superiority, which even the most sympathetic artists and writers have toward their subjects simply because they are in control of the presentation of their material.

Nowhere is urban flux more evident than on Manhattan’s twenty-first-century waterfront.

In Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan, Phillip Lopate has chosen a more restricted compass and an approach that is both more tentative and deeply exploratory than that of the usual “On the Road” authors. Lopate’s sensibility leads him into meditative byways that carry him (and the reader) to a less complacent conviction of having fixed in words a particular local identity. He is not a motorcycle man streaking across Middle America, interviewing cattle ranchers, barflies, trailer-park residents, marine reservists, and gas station attendants. He is, first and foremost, a son of the city (New York City, of course), an inveterate urban walker, a latter-day flâneur, and a master of the personal essay, especially the peripatetic personal essay.

Lopate has two other taut strings in his literary bow: He is an anthologist and an aficionado of film. His first anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, reflects his familiarity with the literary form he has appropriated for his own, and the second, Writing New York, made handy for immediate recall a rich body of New York waterfront literature. Linking word and place, he can summon at will lines of Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, refer to the lurid and tantalizing plethora of nineteenth-century “Lights and Shadows” books that sensationalized New York’s high- and low-life, or heighten our social awareness of the past with incidents drawn from Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) or Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York (1928). As someone whose lifelong love affair with the movies has yielded a body of reviews and essays on the subject of film, he sees street life cinematically and remembers the streets of the city (or the Hollywood set designs of them) in all their moody film-noir glory and Woody Allen satirical charm.

As Lopate points out, most of our solitary walks take place not only on the pavement but also in our heads, as our thoughts shuttle back and forth between self-absorption and observation. It is good, therefore, to find ourselves in the company of such a well-furnished head as his and to know that all the seeing and learning and remembering that are stored up in him will come to us as the same kind of interior monologue we would like to have with ourselves—pondering some flash of beauty or decrepitude, some piece of history or personal memory, some missed opportunity or qualified urban planning success—if we only had so much lightly worn historical research, behind-the-scenes interviews, quick recall of great old movies, and passages from hundreds of books about New York in our heads. Moreover, it is good to be reminded that we all see the world idiosyncratically and to realize that, if we live long enough in as restless a city as New York, the scenery of our past and present walks in the same neighborhoods will become increasingly disassociated through change.

Nowhere is urban flux more evident than on Manhattan’s twenty-first-century waterfront. Not only in New York but in many formerly important port and manufacturing cities, industrial lands adjacent to shorelines and river docks have become “brownfields,” so called because sites vacated by shipping and industry now present an opportunity to create recreational “greenfields.” And nowhere is the opportunity to renew the urban edge more potently dramatic or more fraught with political and bureaucratic obstacles than in New York. In his self-assigned task of exploring on foot as much of the Manhattan waterfront as possible, Lopate tells us,

All along, I kept coming up against certain underlying questions: What is our capacity for city-making at this historical juncture? How did we formerly build cities with such casual conviction, and can we still come up with bold, integrated visions and ambitious works? What is the changing meaning of public space? How to resolve the antiurban bias in our national character with the need to sustain a vital city environment? Or reconcile New York’s past as a port/manufacturing center with the new model of a postindustrial city given over to information processing and consumerism?

While these pressing issues engage Lopate’s attention, Waterfront is anything but a prescriptive book. Like Baudelaire or Walter Benjamin before him, Lopate’s real métier is walking to write, a desire to sample the pleasures and perils of modernity with a sensibility attuned to history, to experiencing what he calls the enigmatic fusion of presence and absence. He is, in other words, a connoisseur of how the transformation of cities by industrial, and now postindustrial, forces is played out in the lives and visages and words of casually encountered strangers. At the same time, he sees the waterfront as an anthology of past lives and a palimpsest of past places. It is a landscape that he has tried to read like a text, conjuring the stevedores and the sailors, the gamins and the grit, the factories and the foghorns. Often pulling himself up short of sentiment, Lopate nevertheless slips into elegy, for, as he remarks, “The walker-writer cannot help seeing, superimposed over the present edifice its former incarnation, and he/she sings the necropolis.”

In Waterfront we follow Lopate first up Manhattan’s Hudson River shoreline from the Battery to Washington Heights and Inwood and then from the Battery to Highbridge Park along the East River as he traces the present shoreline and its bordering neighborhoods, reading them as layered accumulations of older narratives. Though its cacophonous vibrancy is stilled, his Manhattan waterfront is yet haunted by colorful, if continually fading, ghosts. He calls attention to the comparative vacancy of the once-busy harbor as abandoned piers rot or, as he explains in one fascinating chapter, are eaten away by shipworms. Always, we see tantalizing opportunity for waterfront “reclamation” being tortuously realized or just out of reach of political will and economic necessity as we follow Lopate’s physical and intellectual perambulations.

Because Waterfront is personal in its perspective, one has to recognize Lopate’s penchant for the vulgar, seedy, and picturesquely decrepit: the “rotting timbers, tall grasses, jagged rocks, and wharfside warehouses which constituted the 1970–1980s New York waterfront, after it had been given up as a port but before it had begun to be ‘rehabilitated.’” Even before then, the waterfront had become a kind of abstraction devoid of almost all of its old marine traffic and commerce and sealed off from physical contact by highways. At best (and indeed a blessing), it could be viewed from a high promenade such as the one that decks over the FDR Drive as it passes beneath the grounds of Gracie Mansion and Carl Shurz Park. Only in a few marginal places can you thread your way through riprap, rusty fences, and high weeds along-side the water’s edge, as is the case in East Harlem.

It is not, however, precisely this “ragged, unkempt, undiscovered, and unidentified territory” that, sore of foot and leg, Lopate means as an antidote to the manicured edge represented by the Battery Park Promenade. What frustrates him are the too timid official planning visions and bland consumer-oriented public space improvements prevalent nowadays. He longs for an older, crustier reality that somehow acknowledges the vanished dockworkers and harbor traffic—but without turning the waterfront into self-themed, commercially driven historic preserves, as at the South Street Seaport. But none of us knows how to summon an economically defunct past without having it seem like a staged revival. At best, one can join Lopate in applauding the kind of vigilante urbanism by communities that give up on government and improve derelict public spaces on their own.

Shoreline meditation gives rise here and there to an excursus or digression. These chapters constitute thematic essays of a historical or biographical nature, thus differing from the more purely descriptive ones elsewhere. For me, the most telling of these digressions is the story of the bitterly fought and defeated plan to replace Manhattan’s West Side Highway with Westway, a submerged shoreline transportation corridor in the Hudson River that would have been decked over with several hundred acres of parkland. Lopate explains how this proposal would have reconnected the city’s street grid with its waterfront, making the Hudson between 79th Street and the Battery as accessible as it is above 79th Street in the neighborhoods adjacent to Riverside Park. Yet it was killed after a protracted fight that pitted community activists and planners against one another.

At best, one can join Lopate in applauding the kind of vigilante urbanism by communities that give up on government and improve derelict public spaces on their own.

Lopate helps us see in hindsight how Westway fell victim to historical timing. By the late 1960s, when this project was on the drawing boards, federal funding was available. But in the early 1970s, as lawsuits to block Westway were wending their way through the courts, any Robert Moses-style top-down urban planning project had become de facto suspect, and newly established community planning boards were finding their principal political power to be opposition to large-scale, government-sponsored urban renewal. For more than a decade, opponents fought the project, at last winning on environmental grounds based on the importance of the Hudson estuary as a breeding habitat for striped bass. Now, thirty years later, instead of the large park that would have united the riverfront with its adjacent inland neighborhoods, 9A—a rebuilt West Side Highway in the guise of a wide boulevard—continues to separate them from the bikeway and recreational pier projects that are gradually aggregating as state funding again becomes available. Such is Lopate’s revisionist take on the project that he, like many other New Yorkers, opposed at the time.

This affinity for planning analysis, combined with a sensory appreciation of Manhattan’s old waterfront landscape—a description of what was, is, might have been, and is coming into being in this most incessantly self-transforming of cities—makes Lopate’s book more original, balanced, and nuanced than others on the subject. It is hard to say which of the personal essays that constitute Waterfront is best. The entire circuit that this walker in the city makes around Manhattan’s waterfront, narrated as the story of one man’s love affair with the greatest city on earth and the incomparable estuarine harbor that set its dynamic development in motion, is fascinating and timely.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 9, on page 78
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