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How to Ride the Wave of New York's Revitalized Waterfront

All aboard for a tale of the city's refreshed waterways, complete with ferry rides, kayak tours and oyster bars boasting serious skyline.

Island Oyster bar

On the waterfront at the Island Oyster bar, facing the financial district in Manhattan.

Leaving The Beekman Hotel, a stone’s throw from Wall Street, it seems comical that this 10-storey structure – built in 1881 and now dwarfed by towers – was one of Manhattan’s first highrises. The restored building is a reminder of 19th-century expansion, when steamships turned New York into a commercial hub and streets were lined with shouting oyster hawkers. Dutch colonists once gushed about reaching into pristine waters and pulling out 20-centimetre-long oysters that thrived in brackish New York Harbor, a first step toward their eventual overharvesting. Surrounded by skyscrapers, it’s easy to forget the water is a 15-minute walk away, at the Financial District’s Pier 11, and after decades of pollution most New Yorkers forgot, too. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy was a harsh reminder that Manhattan is flanked by tidal estuaries – heck, there’s an ocean right there – causing $65 billion in damage.

Billion Oyster Project; Governors Island

Left to right: The Billion Oyster Project’s shell pile drying in the sunshine; show your stripes on Governors Island.

Now, locals and out-of-towners like myself are rediscovering the waterways thanks to a 2017 expansion of ferry transportation, watering holes popping up along riverbanks and revitalized greenspaces becoming calm escapes. Part of this changing eco-awareness is tied to New York’s love of a mighty mollusk. In his book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, Mark Kurlansky traces the city’s long relationship with the bivalve. Making a right onto Pearl Street, I imagine the heaps of oyster shells (called middens) he describes. These piles were made by the pre-Dutch Lenape nation – the original inhabitants who called the place “Manahatta,” meaning “hilly island” – and inspired the street’s name in the 1660s (though many think it’s because Pearl was later paved using shells left behind by lots of slurping).

Wire-mesh inserts for steel cages

Making wire-mesh inserts for steel cages that will help oysters grow into reefs.

Today, I’m taking a ferry to Governors Island, a car-free, 172-acre land mass with newly developed hills looking out over the harbour, to volunteer with the Billion Oyster Project (BOP). The non-profit launched in 2014 to rebuild oyster reefs, using over 362,000 kilograms of shells donated by 70 local restaurants. To feed, an oyster filters up to 190 litres of water in a 24-hour period. Before the city started treating the harbour like a garbage dump, causing contaminated beds to be shut down by the turn of the last century, New York Harbor contained enough oysters to filter its water in just a few days. The clean-freak bivalves also pull double duty as storm barriers by growing into reefs, building nat-ural breakwaters. In short, BOP’s mollusks are for filtration and protection, not consumption.

Alex Pincus; Grand Banks in Tribeca

Left to right: Alex Pincus kicking back at his outdoor bar, Island Oyster; Schooner or later: happy hour at floating restaurant Grand Banks in Tribeca.

As the hub of the new NYC Ferry, Pier 11 buzzes with passengers rushing off blue and white catamarans from Queens, North and South Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach. Three million people boarded in 2017, excited about an alternative to the overcrowded subway, and numbers keep rising. The ferry’s bow is packed, so I head aft as we leave Manhattan traffic in our wake. On Governors Island, I peel off to find BOP amid mostly empty historic houses that were home to 19th-century military officers. In a house used by the non-profit, I meet their technician Juan Pareja. Today, we’re making wire-mesh inserts to line gabions, steel cages that hold in the oyster shells to which larvae will attach and grow into reef structures. BOP is trying to hit the billion-oyster mark by 2035 and, with just 25 million planted, it’s time to gabion, so we carry reams of wire out to the elm-shaded yard and assemble mesh with pliers.

Governors Island; NYC Ferry’s East River line

Left to right: A waterside watering hole on Governors Island; riding the NYC Ferry’s East River line to the Dumbo stop, right by the Brooklyn Bridge.

For a break, we visit the hatchery where teens from the New York Harbor School learn to raise oysters. The room is packed with fibreglass tubes of algae (phytoplankton is oyster food), liquids the colour of fake limeade and muddy ponds. Pareja shows me the setting tank where larvae attach to shells: They’ll cling to most smooth surfaces – boats, rocks, piers – but other oysters are their favourite. Finally, we walk to the shell pile, a gigantic midden that would make the Lenapes’ jaws drop, with hundreds of thousands of shells. I spot clam and scallop shells in the mix; again, oysters aren’t picky. At quitting time, we’re joined by hatchery manager Jeremy Esposito. With the tired, smiling look of someone who just taught an aquaculture class to a bunch of 16-year-olds, he says “We’re creating marine advocates. It doesn’t take with all of them, but it might resurface in their twenties.”

Fish tacos and lobster rolls

Fish tacos, lobster rolls and refreshing cocktails sipped with ocean-friendly straws.

When Alex Pincus tells me Kurlansky’s book inspired him to open his waterside Governors Island bar, I picture mid-1800s barges where people slurped oysters insatiably. He opened Island Oyster last summer with his brother Miles, three years after their hit floating restaurant Grand Banks in Tribeca. Sitting next to Pincus under yellow- and white-striped awnings, I order a Veneto rosé, a refreshing complement to the strong liquor (that sea-flavoured liquid) of northern oysters, like the in-state Navy Points they shuck at stations built into the bar. Accustomed as he was to larger, milder mollusks that grow in southern waters, these smaller varieties took some getting used to for New Orleans-born Pincus. Nowadays, he focuses on sustainability and donates his shells to BOP. “We buy them where they grow, eat them, send the shells here and know they end up in the harbour – from water to water,” he says, as I watch a Staten Island ferry leave Whitehall Terminal.

Citi Bike along the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative

Getting from A to B is a breeze on a Citi Bike along the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative’s mixed-use path.

Pedalling along the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative’s 1.9-kilometre section through Brooklyn Bridge Park, I pass New Yorkers eating soft serve and spiking volleyballs on sand courts. I’m following Terri Carta, the executive director of this bike and pedestrian path in-the-making, designed to bring people back to the borough’s shore. Created in 2010, the park provides waterfront access to all locals, beyond the wealthy Brooklyn Heights residents whose condos snag prime views of Lower Manhattan. Once completed, elevated sections of the Greenway will act as storm barriers in areas ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, like Red Hook, and you’ll be able to ride safely from Greenpoint down to this up-and-coming industrial neighbourhood.

Shellfish; Long Island City

Left to right: Feeling shellfish? This steampot is for sharing; catching wind on the way to Long Island City.

“The city has 830 kilometres of waterfront, and we’re remembering it after years of industrialization,” Carta says, stopped at Valentino Pier, facing the Statue of Liberty. “The water could be New York’s next great park.” A tour group arrives and we leave for Brooklyn Crab with crustacean on the brain. The casual restaurant launched three months before Sandy hit and was spared from extensive damage thanks to its elevated stilt-style construction. Five local families opened this hangout so they could enjoy quality seafood, while their children ran around outside. Kids and big kids play minigolf in the backyard, but we opt for a picnic table upstairs: Hungry from cycling, we’re here for the Alaskan king, Dungeness and snow crab steam pot. I grab a mallet and an Alaskan king leg, my over-zealous whack sending enough juice flying that I’m glad to be wearing sunglasses. After busting up my hands, I pull out firm, salty meat that I happily double-dip in butter.

Hudson River; Red Hook’s Brooklyn Crab

Left to right: Paddling past a retired aircraft carrier to explore the Hudson River; it’s game on at Red Hook’s Brooklyn Crab.

I find the Manhattan Kayak + SUP boathouse at Pier 84 in Hudson River Park for a morning kayak tour. This stretch of Hell’s Kitchen waterfront became protected in the mid-1990s, providing estuary access along the park’s 7.2 kilometres. It’s the perfect time for a beginners’ trip, during the tide’s slack period, while more experienced paddlers cross over to New Jersey catching the end of the ebb. Before our hour-long skyline outing, seasoned guide Jay Cartagena gives me advice for twisting my core to keep my arms strong. On the water, Cartagena points his paddle downriver to the mixed-use Hudson Yards neighbourhood, springing up at a New York-minute pace. Despite the pro tips, my arms are burning for a break. I close my eyes, kayak bobbing on the waves, and the breeze feels like I’m on open waters. I realize the kids who will grow up in those towers could see their hometown as a maritime city and fight for its waterways, as New York cleans up its act.

Coffeed; Staten Island Ferry

Left to right: Take a moment in the sun with snacks from Coffeed at the LIC Landing in Queens; the Staten Island Ferry docks at Manhattan’s Whitehall Terminal.

On my last afternoon, I take the ferry to Long Island City, Queens, riding on the bridge with Kevin Mullins, a young captain who started his career in the navy. Passengers drink Corona and sauvignon blanc – maybe smoother commutes with happy hours across boroughs could inspire maritime advocacy. Captain Mullins says he’s looking forward to piloting to the Bronx, a part of his city he barely knows, when routes expand later this year. We cross paths with another ferry and the captains wave to each other, like bus drivers might. On dry land, families eat burgers at the LIC Landing. I get a lemonade from Coffeed, walk two minutes down to the East River and sit on a bench, facing Midtown’s Chrysler Building. I kick off my sandals, pull out my book and, for one magical moment, there are no dogs barking or kids screaming and the café’s reggae album is between tracks. There’s only me, the lapping waves and The Big Oyster. Then the ferry horn blows.

Barging in

Three Brooklyn barges that will float your boat

The Brooklyn Barge
Head to this floating Greenpoint bar for a waterside pint of Coney Island Mermaid Pilsner and grilled fish tacos with salsa verde.


Walk across the gangplank of a renovated coffee barge in Dumbo to hear chamber music at this venue that has hosted waterfront performances since 1977.


Waterfront Museum
Check out Red Hook on Sunday Family Fun days for pirate tales on an old Hudson River railroad barge.