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Liquid City


In the early nineties, I lived in a landlocked part of Queens, only vaguely aware of the water. I crossed the East River by bike daily, but I saw it mostly as a twinkling grid through the steel-grate roadway of the Queensborough Bridge. On some days, a damp, fishy breeze sneaked through our neighborhood, bringing a whiff of the Keys or the spray from a distant Atlantic storm. But despite these reminders, the presence of water in the city struck me as an archaeological relic. All I could see of the riverfront were stretches of oily concrete and sad sheds behind a chain-link fence. I knew that a canal still lurked beneath Canal Street, and that pleasure boaters sailed in Pelham Bay. On weekends I might make an excursion to Coney Island, where ghostly broadcasts of ancient Dodgers games drifted across the dilapidated beach.

Twenty years later, the New York that’s still reeling from Sandy is a much more maritime place, and the waterfront is shockingly … pretty. These days, you can paddle from one kayak launch to any of 46 others, canoe down the Bronx River, bike for miles along the Hudson, and commute by ferry from Williamsburg to the base of Wall Street. We have discovered the pleasures of conducting our leisure activities—skateboarding, sunbathing, drinking, watching movies, even swinging on a trapeze—within sight of boat traffic.

New York is besotted with its waterfront, or was, until Sandy made it clear that the city resembles the shipwrecked boy in Life of Pi, sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Like the beast, the water is beautiful, alluring, and vicious. The storm demonstrated that we can’t get away, we can’t ­confine it, and we can’t beat it back. As the Bloomberg report makes clear, the only option is a cautious love.


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