Bobbing in the Hudson 30 yards south of Pier 25, the Town Hall looks peaceful enough -- the only apparent occupant of the ramshackle houseboat is a mannequin whose fishing pole peeks coyly out of a window. But the boat has recently become the subject of a heated debate: Depending on whom you listen to, it's a den of iniquity, a floating symbol of resistance to creeping tyranny, or a model for the future of human habitation. It's also made of junked docks and spare parts.
The Town Hall has been moored off the TriBeCa waterfront since 1991, when the Coast Guard ordered the craft's eight occupants (among them a family of formerly homeless street musicians, the Flying Neutrinos) to discontinue their Provincetown-to-Mexico voyage for safety reasons. For a few years, the mariners flourished in their accidental home, making friends with what remained of the neighborhood's artistic community and even finding a measure of commercial success on the swing-jazz-revival circuit.
Recently, though, the Floating Neutrinos -- as the original occupants came to call themselves -- have drifted apart. Last summer, David "Poppa Neutrino" Pearlman led a small expedition across the Atlantic aboard the raft Son of Town Hall, and he's begun work on a floating orphanage in France. Pearlman's daughter, Ingrid Lucia, moved ashore to front the Flying Neutrinos. The Town Hall is now occupied only by Balázs, a mononymic Hungarian-Gypsy artisan who restores tile mosaics at the Cloisters.
But now that the city's long-delayed Hudson River Park is finally becoming a reality, such alterna-lifestyle bohemians have worn out their welcome on the waterfront. "They're squatters," says Mike Bradley, vice-president of management and operations for the Hudson River Park Trust. "The water out to the pier line is a state park, and people don't have a right to live in parks."
Stephen Short, the Neutrinos' friend and legal adviser, offers a surprisingly dramatic take on the case. "I studied New York City history and fascist politics in graduate school," he says. "Never did I imagine that the two would intersect as neatly as they have in this situation."
Nevertheless, Short missed a September 21 meeting at which Manhattan Community Board No. 1 voted 25 to 2 without debate to support the boat's removal. Further complicating the Neutrinos' case, say many neighborhood residents, is the friendship Balázs has struck up with the wife of Bernard D'Orazio, chairman of Community Board 1's waterfront committee. "This has nothing to do with my personal life," D'Orazio says indignantly. (Adele D'Orazio did not return calls for comment.)
Despite his adviser's no-show, Pearlman may get a de facto reprieve, courtesy of interlocking bureaucracies. "I honestly don't know how the legalities of removing a boat work," confesses Bradley. A Coast Guard spokesman is equally vague: "Unless it's blocking a channel, we'd have nothing to do with it; the Parks Department would handle it." But the matter doesn't fall under their jurisdiction, according to a City Parks Department spokesperson: "It might be a Coast Guard issue."
Though he has left behind his houseboat, Pearlman remains committed to its cause. "I challenge them to move my boat," he says defiantly. "This is not Kosovo, and I am not an ethnic Albanian."