Nobody said houseboat life was easy, at least not in Manhattan. Longtime residents of the 79th Street Boat Basin have endured everything from nor’easter winter storms to near expulsion by the city.
The Parks Department, which administers the basin, has been more responsive to community concerns in recent years. But challenges remain and the costs of addressing them will be high, according to city officials.
“It’s not a picnic in the winter,” said Leslie Day, who has lived at the basin for 34 years. Ice floes on the river, she said, are powerful enough to push boats onto the docks and sever wooden pilings.
The marina is comprised of five docks, A through E, from north to south. Structures that break up the ice—often wood or steel pilings driven into the riverbed—have been renovated around A dock. Officials said they are exploring ways to expand the very limited protections on the south side.
But sentiment among many year-round marina inhabitants is that even the new reinforcements are not sufficient, leaving the marina exposed at key points.
“The E dock is our Achilles’ heel when it comes to ice,” Day said.
That dock was built perpendicular to the riverbank, not diagonal, and it is perhaps the most vulnerable to ice carried by the Hudson current.
Security is another big concern for residents. A court-mandated exit at E dock was padlocked more than five years ago, limiting safe egress in case of fire. Under pressure from Council Member Gale Brewer and high-profile civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, whose services were retained by basin residents, the city is now preparing to reopen the gate at E dock, with a crash bar on the inside.
“Parks has good intentions,” Brewer said. “They just need to be pushed a little because they have so many other responsibilities.”
Brewer, who sits on the Council’s Waterfront Committee, wrote a letter to the Parks Department in September listing several items of concern, among them dredging. Launching boats has become increasingly difficult with the accumulation of silt on the riverbed, despite a city mandate that all vessels in the marina be operable and seaworthy.
“I think there’s only one answer. You have to dredge,” said Brewer, adding the project would be expensive and probably require assistance from the federal government. “I would like to work with the Congressional delegation as well. But first you need buy-in from Parks.”
That buy-in is not exactly forthcoming. The department, which has either taken action or outlined plans with regard to the other basin-related issues, is more blunt on the topic of dredging.
“Environmental and engineering assessments would need to be conducted to determine the costs of dredging the marina,” said Cristina DeLuca, a spokesperson for the department. “These assessments cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and the actual dredging based upon the assessments would cost millions of dollars. The city has no such assessments or plans at this time.”
Environmental review and remediation present another dredging hurdle, according to both Brewer and the department.
“We cannot confirm contamination without environmental studies, however our discussions with the New York State DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] suggest that contamination in the silt of the Hudson River is likely,” DeLuca said.
Notwithstanding the ongoing problems, the boat basin is in the midst of a small revival.
“For a long time, we thought it was a dying community,” said Day, the resident of 34 years. In 1979, city officials sought to evict everyone in the aftermath of an accounting scandal. As recently as two years ago, vacant slips were not being filled with potential renters. But residents are resilient, and for good reason.
“This place has meant everything to me,” Day said. It’s where she and her husband first met—he lived in the boat next door—and it’s where they raised their son.
“It also brought me my work. I became a naturalist here,” said Day, who teaches life science and is the author of the Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City. Mayor Bloomberg wrote the introduction to the book, which was published in 2007.
On a recent afternoon, walking along D dock, she discussed the rich wildlife of the boat basin: oysters and sturgeon, shrimp and snails, herons and egrets. She pointed to an uncommonly large mallard floating in the water. The duck, named Henry, is routinely trailed by schools of striped bass, looking to share the food that locals throw him.
“He’s the marina mascot,” Day said.
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