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On the waterfront.

On the waterfront

Phillip Lopate Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan. Crown, 432 pages, $25.95

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 Apparent; visible; exhibited.

Ostensible authority is power that a principal, either by design or through the absence of ordinary care, permits others to believe his or her agent possesses.
 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 pre·con·ceive  
tr.v. pre·con·ceived, pre·con·ceiv·ing, pre·con·ceives
To form (an opinion, for example) before possessing full or adequate knowledge or experience.
 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.

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 New York City: see New York, city.
New York City

City (pop., 2000: 8,008,278), southeastern New York, at the mouth of the Hudson River. The largest city in the U.S.
, of course), an inveterate inveterate /in·vet·er·ate/ (-vet´er-at) confirmed and chronic; long-established and difficult to cure.

1. Firmly and long established; deep-rooted.

 urban walker, a latter-day flaneur flâ·neur  
An aimless idler; a loafer.

[French, from flâner, to idle about, stroll, of Germanic origin; see pel
, 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 A Spanish word that means fan, devotee, enthusiast, etc. There are loyal aficionados of every subject in the computer field.  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 tan·ta·lize  
tr.v. tan·ta·lized, tan·ta·liz·ing, tan·ta·liz·es
To excite (another) by exposing something desirable while keeping it out of reach.
 plethora of nineteenth-century "Lights and Shadows" books that sensationalized New York's high- and low-life A low-life is an Americanism for a person who is considered sub-standard by their community in general. Examples of people who are usually called "lowlifes" are drug addicts, drug dealers,pimps, slumlords and corrupt officials or authority figures. , or heighten our social awareness of the past with incidents drawn from Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) was a pioneering work of photojournalism by Jacob Riis, documenting the squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s.  (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 de·crep·i·tude  
The quality or condition of being weakened, worn out, impaired, or broken down by old age, illness, or hard use.

Noun 1.
, 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

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 metier is walking to write, a desire to sample the pleasures and perils of modernity with a sensibility attuned at·tune  
tr.v. at·tuned, at·tun·ing, at·tunes
1. To bring into a harmonious or responsive relationship: an industry that is not attuned to market demands.

 to history, to experiencing what he calls the enigmatic fusion of presence and absence. He is, in other words Adv. 1. in other words - otherwise stated; "in other words, we are broke"
put differently
, a connoisseur of how the transformation of cities by industrial, and now postindustrial post·in·dus·tri·al  
Of or relating to a period in the development of an economy or nation in which the relative importance of manufacturing lessens and that of services, information, and research grows.

Adj. 1.
, 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 palimpsest (păl`ĭmpsĕst'): see manuscript.  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 elegy, in Greek and Roman poetry, a poem written in elegiac verse (i.e., couplets consisting of a hexameter line followed by a pentameter line). The form dates back to 7th cent. B.C. in Greece and poets such as Archilochus, Mimnermus, and Tytraeus. , for, as he remarks, "The walker-writer cannot help seeing, superimposed su·per·im·pose  
tr.v. su·per·im·posed, su·per·im·pos·ing, su·per·im·pos·es
1. To lay or place (something) on or over something else.

 over the present edifice its former incarnation, and he/she sings the necropolis necropolis: see cemetery.

(Greek: “city of the dead”) Extensive and elaborate burial place serving an ancient city. The locations of these cemeteries varied.

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 ca·coph·o·nous  
Having a harsh, unpleasant sound; discordant.

[From Greek kakoph
 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 wharf-side 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 rip·rap  
1. A loose assemblage of broken stones erected in water or on soft ground as a foundation.

2. The broken stones used for such a foundation.

, rusty fences, and high weeds alongside 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 The South Street Seaport is a historic area in the New York City borough of Manhattan, located where Fulton Street meets the East River, and adjacent to the Financial District. The Seaport is usually considered a historical district, distinct from the neighboring Financial District. . 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 vigilante n. someone who takes the law into his/her own hands by trying and/or punishing another person without any legal authority. In the 1800s groups of vigilantes dispensed "frontier justice" by holding trials of accused horse-thieves, rustlers and shooters, and  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 ex·cur·sus  
n. pl. ex·cur·sus·es
1. A lengthy, appended exposition of a topic or point.

2. A digression.
 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 pro·tract  
tr.v. pro·tract·ed, pro·tract·ing, pro·tracts
1. To draw out or lengthen in time; prolong: disputants who needlessly protracted the negotiations.

 fight that pitted community activists and planners against one another.

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 bike·way  
A bicycle lane or path.
 and recreational pier projects that are gradually aggregating as state funding again becomes available. Such is Lopate's revisionist re·vi·sion·ism  
1. Advocacy of the revision of an accepted, usually long-standing view, theory, or doctrine, especially a revision of historical events and movements.

 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 es·tu·a·rine  
1. Of, relating to, or found in an estuary.

2. Geology Formed or deposited in an estuary.

Adj. 1. estuarine - of or relating to or found in estuaries
 harbor that set its dynamic development in motion, is fascinating and timely.
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Title Annotation:Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan
Author:Rogers, Elizabeth Barlow
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2005
Previous Article:Reticent achievement.
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