Sincerest apologies for my three-month hiatus from A Child Grows—writing deadlines, student essays to grade, diapers to change, and an active threenager were taking every moment of my time. But alas, summer has arrived, classes are over, Stringbean has turned four, Butterbean is taking her first steps, and the water calls! With all this in mind, I thought I’d make the next entries in my Park Series on water-related activity.
To me, perhaps the most tangible, ironic element of New York City is the fact that, while water is so much a part of its landscape, it’s so taken for granted that many residents don’t pay much attention to the fact we are surrounded on all sides by ocean, river, and estuary. Unlike Venice with its street-canals or even Boston with its smaller-scale estuary system of fens, wooden loading docks, and the gentle-flowing Charles River, the streets of New York City are relatively cut off from the massive Hudson estuary surrounding them on all sides (four out of five boroughs are islands, after all).
But if there is a time when New Yorkers take notice of their watery condition, it’s summer. And I find kids especially attuned to any hint of water, from ocean to fountain to puddle. My last Parks Series entry focused more on the destructive capacity of the water around us, but one of the many great things about kids is that they don’t see that. They see puddles to jump in, waves crashing into them, sparkly reflectors of golden sunshine and azure sky.
Every single one of my trips to parks last summer with Stringbean involved water. It was a prerequisite, and she took great pains at the beginning of each adventure to pack her swimsuit, apply her sunscreen, and find out in advance not which parks we were visiting but what water would be involved. And being an adult with a remarkable capacity for sapping the mystique and fun out of these spontaneous encounters with my children and my child-self, I’ve spent some time codifying and categorizing these experiences. Once a month this summer, I’d like to present to you my findings. For my June post, I’ll tell you about one of my favorite categories of water-mongering: ferry-riding.
Especially in a city with such a rich history as a world port, New York—especially Brooklyn and Manhattan, the two boroughs with the most loading docks—has an illustrious narrative of ferries. Before DUMBO was DUMBO, which of course is short for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, in fact before it had any bridges passing over it, the area served primarily as the landing for Robert Fulton’s steamboat ferry. Fulton Street, in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, begins at the historical landing of this, the first ferry service between then-rural Brooklyn and the burgeoning metropolis of Manhattan.
Absent the Manhattan ferry, for many years Fulton’s Landing existed in name only. In 2011 though, in partnership with the Brooklyn Bridge Park project, NYWaterway launched East River Ferry, with Fulton’s Landing as one of its main hubs. With only two Manhattan landings, at 34th Street and Wall Street, the ferry serves primarily the East River coast of Brooklyn and Queens, reason enough to get me and Stringbean on it. We decided to spend one day going up and down the coast between South Brooklyn and Greenpoint, starting at Fulton’s Landing, traveling to Greenpoint for some walking and playground action there, and taking the ferry to Hunt’s Point in Queens, across to Manhattan, and back to Brooklyn Bridge. The price is $4 each way, and in terms of transit time it’s actually a bit faster than the G train; I actually wished it would go at a bit more leisurely rate.
But the views from the ferry are absolutely stunning. I had, as a 12-year New Yorker, more than one moment of complete infatuation with seeing the city from a new angle. The most obvious is seeing the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges from the water:
Just as unique and iconic to me is the view of the surviving (and non-surviving) factories that line the Brooklyn waterfront, including Domino Sugar in North Brooklyn:
And, perhaps most heartwarmingly, Stringbean seemed just as interested:
I noticed, checking this year’s summer schedule, that Governor’s Island is now a stop. Guess where we’re traveling next?
Of course, even in Brooklyn, no tour of ferries would be complete without a trip on the most iconic ferry in New York City, and perhaps the world: the Staten Island Ferry. Unlike the relationship between the Brooklyn Bridge and Fulton’s Ferry, the building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge did not signal the demise of the Staten Island Ferry. If anything, it enshrined it as a historic landmark. This is probably mostly because the Verrazano was built in 1964, roughly 80 years after the Brooklyn Bridge and well after the romantic newness of bridge crossings had dulled; the Verrazano was in fact one of the final projects of bridgebuilder Robert Moses, an icon of his widely recognized neighborhood-destroying development projects. The more practical reason for the Staten Island Ferry’s continued existence is that while the Verrazano connects Staten Island to Brooklyn via car, the ferry is still the only mass-transit connector between Staten Island and Manhattan.
Of course, Stringbean and I weren’t commuting on our Staten Island Ferry trip. In fact, we only spent enough time in Staten Island to disboard and then board the next ferry back to Manhattan. Not that Staten Island isn’t worth visiting, but it is land, and we were seafaring.
One major difference between the Staten Island and East River ferries is that, while the East River Ferry generally runs parallel to the shore, the Staten Island Ferry runs in essentially a direct line between Manhattan and Staten Island. This means that you can get the feeling, at least for a few minutes in the middle of the trip, of being, if not lost at sea, at least far enough away from shore to see only water. Because of this, and because of its iconic status and closeness to downtown New York City, the Coast Guard now has an armed chaperone that travels alongside the ferry. Stringbean found this perhaps the most amusing part of the trip:
That was the extent of our ferry trips last year. This year, besides the Governor’s Island trip, we plan on trying the more expensive, but longer, Circle Line, as well as the New York Water Taxi, Circle Line’s smaller-scale operation. The Water Taxi now also has “Destination Red Hook” summer service run in cooperation with IKEA.
Next month I’ll have more on water-related activity that might actually get you and your kids wet. For now, ease into summer with some time on, rather than in, the water!
John Proctor is our resident dad and writes on his experience living and raising his two children in Brooklyn. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2000, and been a father since 2009. Besides keeping company with his wife, two daughters, and chihuahua, he also writes memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in the Diagram, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, New York Cool, and Gotham Gazette, and he serves as editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can see more of him at his website NotThatJohnProctor.com, and he can also be reached at email@example.com. He’d love to hear from you!