OPINION: Renewed ferry services transform NYC waterfront
Within the past two years or so, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration have put together an admirable assemblage of ferry routes, collectively known as NYC Ferry.
Stops on the Queens and Brooklyn shoreline include Astoria, Long Island City, Hunters Point, Greenpoint, Williamsburg (two stops), DUMBO, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Coney Island (both in the planning stages), Atlantic Avenue, Red Hook, Bay Ridge and Rockaway. The ferry has made many destinations more accessible — for example, the trip from Lower Manhattan to Rockaway is faster and more pleasant than the trip by subway.
Furthermore, while New York Water Taxi no longer has a Brooklyn-Manhattan commuter route, it still operates sightseeing boats with a stop in Brooklyn Bridge Park. And while this is outside the purview of this newspaper, NY Waterway is still king of the hill as far as trans-Hudson ferries from Manhattan to Hudson and Bergen counties are concerned.
Historians, both professional and amateur, know that the idea of ferry service in the city is not new. In the early part of the 20th century, many different ferry services connected people across the Hudson River, the East River and elsewhere. My late father remembered taking the 125th Street Ferry and Dyckman Street Ferry, both of them long gone, in the 1930s.
Most of the Hudson River ferries, although not all, were operated by railroad companies that had terminals in Hudson and Bergen counties and needed to ferry their passengers to Manhattan. The East River ferries were mainly operated by other private companies.
Some of these ferries, especially the Fulton Ferry that ran from what is now Brooklyn Bridge Park to Lower Manhattan, dated back to colonial times. The line, which originally had several different names, became known as the Fulton Ferry when inventor Robert Fulton started running his then-innovative steam ferries on the route in 1814.
The Staten Island Ferry, the only one of the original group that still exists, was first owned by the Staten Island Railroad, then transferred to municipal ownership. The 69th Street (Bay Ridge)-to-Staten Island ferry, which this writer rode on as a toddler, was taken over by the city at the same time, in 1903.
Most people would surmise that the original ferries went under because the bridges opened. But in reality, both coexisted for a time.
The Brooklyn Bridge (which carried streetcars and elevated lines in the early years) opened in 1883, yet the Fulton Ferry, which later became known as the Wall Street Ferry, lasted until 1924. Some sources say that it lasted as long as it did because Brooklyn Heights residents who worked on Wall Street adopted it as their favorite form of cross-river transportation. Similarly, the Williamsburg Bridge opened in 1903, but the Williamsburg Ferry, under various incarnations, lasted until 1931.
In many cases, it was Robert Moses, the powerful head of the Triborough Bridge Authority (later the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority) who hastened the ferries’ demise. When the Triborough Bridge was finished, Moses was so intent on finishing off the Astoria ferry that he directed crews to demolish one of its terminals while the ferry was still running and packed with commuters. When the Verrazzano Bridge, overseen by Moses, opened in 1964, the 69th Street ferry ceased operations a day later.
No matter why they closed, by the 1950s and ’60s, few people mourned the passing of the East River and Hudson River ferries. It was faster to drive over the East River, George Washington and Verrazzano bridges, or, if you didn’t have a car, to take a bus. It wasn’t until 1986 that New Jersey trucking magnate Arthur Imperatore began NY Waterway with a ferry route from Weehawken to Pier 78 in Manhattan. Ferry service returned to Brooklyn with a route from Bay Ridge to Manhattan in the 1980s, although that particular service ended when the city began repairs on the 69th Street Pier in the ’90s. Interest in ferries boomed after 9/11 and has continued until the present day.
Since there was little interest in reviving ferry service in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, what has changed? In my opinion, it was the death of the industrial waterfront and the reinvention of the waterfront as recreational space and parkland.
Indeed, the closeness of ferry service is often advertised as an amenity in ads for new housing developments near the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront. People who can afford one of those new high-priced condos want a more attractive form of cross-river transportation than crowded subway trains.
Whatever the reason, ferries are once again an integral part of the city’s transit mix and are likely to remain so for the near future.
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