“You’re better off on the West Side.”
The man in the bike shop wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, but since it had been a few years since I had ventured over to Manhattan’s East Side to ride what purports to be a riverside bike path, I figured there might be a good place to get on in the 20s, 30s or 40s.
I found myself riding into the same unscenic dead ends that I used to whenever I had the urge to give the East River waterfront another try. Until I backtracked at East 35th Street and headed back to ride with the traffic last weekend, it took mere minutes to see several groups of riders forced to do the same thing.
One was a family of six German tourists, ranging in age from about 12 to 70. The father said biking in Germany was “very better.” Looking at the cars whizzing by us on the foreboding FDR Drive, he added, “New York—you can’t ride bikes, you ride cars. Germany, everyone rides bikes.” I might have explored the irony of the country’s apparent aversion to cars in light of the autobahn and Mercedes-Benz, but he had to catch up to his family, and his English probably was not up to it.
The sorry state of affairs on the East Side affects more than just bikers. People who like to stroll, jog and sunbathe would benefit from a better waterfront, as would lots of others. But however big the group of beneficiaries is, they do not make a good argument for government investment in park space during tough economic times. You have to balance it against more pressing needs such as public safety, maintaining infrastructure and education.
Squishy, tree-hugger-type arguments can never survive in austere times, but what should hold up and seldom does is the notion that parks are actually smart economic development investments. Just look at real estate prices around Central Park, Hudson River Park and even the High Line, which surprisingly, has helped spawn luxury buildings even though park visitors generate noise and get close-up views into some of the homes.
The elevated FDR hovers over and haunts the East Side waterfront, making it difficult to make improvements. Civitas, an Upper East Side nonprofit, recently organized an international design competition to “reimagine” the waterfront from East 60th to 125th streets. (The group looked at the more problematic area below 60th Street a year ago.) Most of the top designs, now on display at the Museum of the City of New York, proposed expanding the land out in the river to create enough space for real parks.
It’s easy to dismiss these design competitions as folly, but as an editor who has seen way more than my share of pretty pictures of things that will never be built—at the World Trade Center and elsewhere in Lower Manhattan—I know these efforts can be the first step to making progress eventually.
After the pictures, what you need are savvy advocates, powerful government supporters and large public use. Significant park construction did not begin on Hudson River Park or Governors Island until many people started going there to see how good they were and how great they could be.
Let the East River imagination continue. In the meantime, how about better signs to avoid the dead ends?
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