Look – but don’t boat, fish, or swim. That’s what the federal government seems to tell residents who live in the waterfront communities of Hudson County and New York City, according to a nonprofit organization that’s trying to increase access to the local waterways.
According to the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, the New York Harbor is home to the busiest port on the East Coast, historic national parks and landmarks, more than a half million acres of shoreline, and critical habitat. Despite this, the Alliance argues that public access to the water is limited, iconic parks and landmarks are crumbling, maritime commerce is impeded, and the region’s biodiversity and ecology are suffering.
When taken together, these factors make it difficult for local residents to fish, boat, or swim in the local waterways, as is common in other waterfront communities.
Most residents of such communities as Jersey City, Bayonne, and the Bronx don’t think of themselves as “shore communities,” according to Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance President and CEO Roland Lewis, largely because they have very little interaction with the waterways that surround them every day.
“The New York-New Jersey Harbor is ‘America’s Harbor,’” said Lewis. “We believe it can be a dynamic, world-class harbor with equitable public access, green infrastructure, and sustainable maritime business.”
Thus, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance is now trying to get local residents to pressure federal legislators to back laws that will restore the New York Harbor.
‘We’re seeing people sort of breaking through that fourth wall and starting to use the water for recreation and education.’ – Roland Lewis
The waterway as backyard
The Alliance formed to galvanize public support in the fight to secure the federal dollars needed to fund water and shoreline restoration projects. Lewis said that similar resident-led campaigns were successful in securing millions of dollars in federal money for environmental projects in the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and Long Island Sound regions.
For example, Lewis said the Great Lakes region gets about $300 million annually and Long Island Sound receives between $6 million to $10 million each year from the federal government to restore and preserve their waterways.
“We’re getting [money in] the hundreds of thousands for this type of work. We’re playing catch up. They’re getting more money than we are for environmental restoration. We ought to be doing a better job here in the New York-New Jersey region,” Lewis said, adding that he’d like for the New York Harbor to receive between $5 million and $10 million in federal dollars.
Restoring wetlands, planting oyster beds – which help to clean the water – and creating greater access to the waterway by creating more docks are the types of projects the Alliance would like to see funded.
For those who doubt that a revitalized harbor is possible in the filthy waters of, say, the Hudson River, the Kill van Kull, the Harlem River, or the Gowanus Canal, Lewis points to ongoing work that is already being done by organizations in the region.
Various groups in New Jersey and New York are currently hosting a summer-long series of boating and catch-and-release fishing events in the New York Harbor to introduce residents to the local waterways. The events include kayaking, canoeing, “hidden harbor tours,” paddle boating, and cruises. There are even a few swimming events; earlier this month, for instance, there was an “Eight Bridges Swim” in the Hudson River that began at the Rip Van Winkle Bridge near the Catskills and finished at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance also has an Open Waters Initiative, through which the organization is building accessible public docks so local residents can have greater access to the water. As a companion to the new docks, the Alliance is also creating a database of educational, commercial, and historic boats that use the New York Harbor.
As part of this initiative, on Saturday, July 20 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Alliance will host its sixth annual City of Water Day – essentially a waterway festival – that will feature music, boating, food, and fun along the harbor. In Jersey City, the boating activities and fun will take place at Liberty State Park. Comparable events will be held in New York City on Governor’s Island as part of City of Water Day. In addition to these two primary sites, the Alliance will on June 20 partner with several New Jersey and New York groups that have their own ongoing waterway activities. This City of Water programming is known as In Your Neighborhood and will include activities at the Hoboken Boat House.
Last year, Lewis said this event attracted about 25,000 participants, total, in New Jersey and New York.
All waterway activities are offered free of charge, although registration is strongly suggested.
“The hope is that we are able to change people’s perceptions about the local waterways and their relationship to the waterway so they begin to enjoy it as an extension of their backyard and start to demand that our coastline be preserved and better protected,” said Lewis. “To see people kayaking, paddle boarding, sailing – that’s the kind of thing that we hope will become commonplace. And already we’re seeing people sort of breaking through that fourth wall and starting to use the water for recreation and education.”
The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance works in conjunction with other advocacy and membership-based organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Hudson River Foundation, Ironbound Community Corp., New Jersey Audubon, NY/NJ Baykeeper, NYC Environmental, Justice Alliance, Regional Plan Association, Trust for Public Land, and WEACT.
To learn more about the Alliance’s work to revitalize the New York-New Jersey waterway and increase public access to local waters, visit www.WaterfrontAlliance.org. City of Water Day has its own web page, which can be accessed at www.CityofWaterDay.org.
Please note, while City of Water Day events are free, Lewis stated that registrants may be asked to make a deposit when they sign up for events. This deposit is returned if the registrants show up for their activity. The deposit is forfeited if registrants do not show up.
“We had to start doing that because we had some people who were registering for events, who were preventing other people from registering, and then they wouldn’t show up,” Lewis explained. “Now we require this deposit to discourage that sort of thing. But, again, the deposit is returned if you show up for the event you registered for.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.