May 23, 2010

Ferry tour of Manhattan a great deal


---- — Pieter Minuit, director-general of New Netherland, got quite a deal when he paid the Lanape Indian tribe $24 for hilly, undeveloped Manhattan Island in 1626.

For just about the same price, one can circumnavigate Manhattan today by boat on the Circle Line. And it's still a bargain.

My wife, Marty, and I boarded at Pier 83, at the end of 42nd Street. Our tour along the island's 35-mile perimeter would pass a remarkable number of American icons.


Our guide, John Keatts — not quite a native of New York, as he moved there as a young adult — gave a spirited narration throughout the three-hour cruise. He began by spewing out a bit of geology, reminding us how the presence of bedrock determined where the tallest buildings could go. And he described changes in topography, such as the conjunction of shale and limestone underpinnings.

Most of those natural hills, some of which once separated, say, Chelsea from Greenwich Village, are gone in favor of a grid pattern of streets. Broadway's atypical course is the only thoroughfare still following those original contours. The only canyons left on Manhattan are formed by skyscrapers. Some areas, most notably Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, stand entirely on landfill.

Look across to Ellis Island, our guide urged, where the forebears of millions of Americans first entered the country. And there's the majestic Statue of Liberty, unique as a monument commemorating an ideal rather than a hero or an event. Even from a tour boat, one can imagine what immigrants felt upon seeing Lady Liberty, their first sight of a new country after a long and crowded ocean voyage.

A round brick building caught my eye. This turned out to be part of Governor's Island, where a young America built the largest fortress ever to guard New York City. Later, we would pass Roosevelt Island, formerly known as Welfare Island. In bygone days, a prison, an almshouse, a "lunatic asylum," an alcohol rehabilitation center and a smallpox hospital occupied the grounds. Now redevelopment is at hand.

We neared the Brooklyn Bridge, creation of engineer John Roebling and generally considered the handsomest of three spans crossing to Brooklyn. At its completion in 1882, it stretched twice the length of any other bridge in the world. Vents signified the Lincoln Tunnel, a six-lane highway beneath the waters of the Hudson River. The 59th Street Bridge, memorialized in song by Paul Simon, denotes where New York City Marathon runners first hit Manhattan.


Various viewpoints along the way allowed glimpses of a variety of familiar sights. The Empire State Building, whose top originally had docking for dirigibles before being modified into an observation deck. The Woolworth Building. The Chrysler Building. The opulent towers of Wall Street (there really was a wall once, a fortification built by the Dutch). The green glass Secretariat building of the United Nations, where an adjacent white structure marks the first addition to the U.N. campus in 60 years. The brick buildings of Bellevue, the first public hospital in America.

Count the Staten Island Ferry another icon, albeit a floating one. Back in 1810, an ambitious young boy would have offered to row you across. That precocious entrepreneur's name? Cornelius Vanderbilt. Unlike most things, passage on the ferry has gone down in price. In fact, it's now free.

From the northern extreme of the island, Yankee Stadium comes into view. And on the Upper West Side, by 125th Street, sits Grant's Tomb, the only resting place for an American president in the nation's largest city. Ironically, Grant didn't want to be buried here; the former president and Civil War hero never developed a fondness for big cities.

Riverside Park is nearby, one of the city's many open green spaces. Originally, its function wasn't to provide recreational space. Rather, it was a man-made landscape designed to stabilize the rocky shore.

Though not visibly marked, the spot where Capt. Sully Sullenberger safely brought down a US Airways plane last year merited description. Circle Line boats played a role in evacuation of air passengers that day. Though safety has long been a priority for the company, John said, "No one had ever drilled for that. Our particular boat had been assigned to pump water in case of fire."


Statistics on Manhattan can be a bit daunting. One million subsidized housing units. Half of the island's apartments have a single occupant. Five million subway riders a day. At one time, more than 32,000 factories.

My favorite statistic, however, is "one," exactly the number of single family homes remaining on the island. It's easily visible, right by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on the Upper West Side. The only single family home, that is, if one doesn't count Gracie Mansion. When Archibald Gracie bought this land in 1779, he was trying to escape the malaria risk of Lower Manhattan. Having eventually taken the home in forfeiture of unpaid taxes, in 1942, the city made it the mayor's mansion.

Some spots might be considered more infamous than others. Like Pier 76, home to the city's Parking Bureau, where violators' cars — some 136,000 last year — are towed.

John pointed out views of Brooklyn, first named Breuckelen by early Dutch settlers in honor of a village in their homeland. This would be the fourth-largest city in the country if still independently incorporated. The neighboring borough of Queens would rank fifth.

Our guide also called attention to New Jersey sites, including a couple of clock towers. One graced the Erie and Lackawanna ferry terminal; another topped the Jersey City plant where all Colgate products once were manufactured.

The miscellany on such a ride never ends. At one dock rests the USS Intrepid, one of the last surviving World War II battleships. Alongside is a more modern (but also extinct) form of transportation, a remnant of the supersonic Concorde fleet.

How about a four-story driving range, Manhattan's largest shrine to golf. And two satellite dishes marking the production facilities for "Law and Order." Or Alphabet City, the widest part of the island, with Brooklyn Navy Yard just across the way.

A West Side neighborhood, John claimed, had "the best collection of rooftop tanks in town."

These emanate from the days that fires swept across the wooden buildings of the old city. Along with prohibition of wood construction came the requirement for insulated water tanks atop each structure, set to fill stem pipes as an aid to fire fighting.

One squat brick building with white trim dates to 1796. Its completion gave the city its first structure taller than one story. What did they nickname it? The Cloudscraper.

Circle Line boats carry passengers on tours all year. My suspicion is that even though the route may be the same, each ride ends up being a bit different. I doubt the experienced narrators, like John, ever run out of stories they can tell along the way.

E-mail Richard Frost at: