By Deborah Clearman
Once again, Pier 40 is in the news, as the State Assembly has amended the Hudson River Park Act to allow office development on the pier. However, with some stipulations. Remarkably, the legislation calls for a boathouse, at least the size of the current boathouse, providing small-scale boating and water access on the south side of Pier 40, to be included in any proposed construction project. Why a boathouse?
Sally Curtis, president of Village Community Boathouse (VCB), which operates out of Pier 40, offering free rowing and boatbuilding programs to the public year-round, says, “The cove on the south side of Pier 40 is protected from the winds, waves, and currents by the pier’s massive structure. It’s the only place in the park that is suited for learn-to-row programs. Once ‘newbies’ have learned to row sufficiently, VCB’s senior coxswains take them out onto the river where they can safely experience the full force of nature in the winds, waves, and tides, and see the city from a new perspective.”
These days Pier 40 is considered by many to be an eyesore. However, when it opened as a state-of-the-art passenger and cargo terminal for the Holland-America Line in 1963, it was a sensation. Easy car, taxi, and truck access and gleaming modern design whisked passengers out to the sea and back to shore. Picture windows, terrazzo floors, snack bars, and convenient customs services made sea travel a breeze.
Its glory days were short-lived. The first jet aircraft crossed the Atlantic in 1958. By 1965 airlines carried 95 percent of transatlantic traffic, replacing ocean liners. Holland-America suspended transatlantic service. In 1973 Pier 40 ceased serving ships and became a massive parking garage, with space for up to 2,000 cars. Also in 1973, a collapse in the elevated West Side Highway caused the highway to be closed south of 18th Street. For the next 25 years, the west side waterfront was a blighted area in the shadow of the hulking abandoned roadway.
The creation of Hudson River Park, begun in 1998, changed all that and led to the waterfront renaissance that is still going on.
Like the highway and the waterfront, Pier 40 had been neglected. Its supporting piles had deteriorated, its roof leaked, rust was everywhere. Nevertheless, in 1997 Greenwich Village Little League president Tobi Bergman, who had a vision of youth team athletics on Pier 40, invited Mike Davis, founder of Floating the Apple, to set up a boathouse in the Pier 40 shed, in what had been a Department of Corrections facility, with a prison barge tied up on the south side of the pier. While Tobi and the parent activists of P3 (the Pier Park and Playground Association) were fighting to bring athletic fields to Pier 40, students from PS 811 and Junior Navy ROTC students from Graphic Arts Communication High School were building a boat on Pier 40 under the auspices of teacher Brendan Malone. The boat, a 26-foot Whitehall gig, would be christened the Rachel Carson in 1998.
For more than 20 years, as Hudson River Park grew up along the waterfront, as Pier 40’s beloved athletic fields established themselves, the boathouse at Pier 40, started by Floating the Apple, incorporated as Village Community Boathouse in 2008, has been inviting thousands of people a year to come down to the sea. To step into a small boat and set out, to feel the waves, to smell the salt air, to venture out past the Statue of Liberty even to the Verrazzano Narrows and the Lower Bay. Pier 40 is more than a playground, more than an office building; it is a pier—a gateway to the sea.