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Flow On, East River: Brooklyn to Manhattan, Once Again Upon a Ferry

For two hundred years, crossing the East River by ferry was a commonplace activity although often unpredictable. Residents of Brooklyn routinely commuted to Manhattan by this variable way of water, subject to storms and tides, no doubt a stomach-churning experience during a fierce storm or frightening during the icy waters of winter. During the 18th century, in addition to weather hazards, commuters often complained about inebriated boatmen or boats overloaded with cattle. With its inaugural service in 1814, the steam-powered Fulton Ferry made the voyage not only safer and faster but much more pleasurable. Poets like Walt Whitman could then focus on the metaphors of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" as opposed to simply hoping to reach the other shore.

East River Ferry
Pier 11 at Wall Street

The decline of ferry service began with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, putting many East River ferry routes out of business. According to Manhattan's Lost Streetcars by Stephen L. Meyers (Arcadia Publishing, 2005), at the time of the bridge's opening, "there were at least 12 ferry routes in operation between Manhattan and Brooklyn, using 10 different ferry terminals in Brooklyn and 11 in Manhattan." Now, a hundred and twenty years later, give or take a few years, we're back on ferries on the East River. Like the first Fulton Ferry, they are wildly popular. As noted in The Wall Street Journal ("Ferry Is Well Afloat"), the city counted more than 109,000 people riding the new East River Ferry from its inaugural voyage on June 13 through this past Sunday.

Operated by NY Waterway, the East River Ferry's regular weekday service connects two stops in Manhattan, one on E. 34th St. in Midtown and the other downtown at Wall Street's Pier 11, with four resurgent waterfront communities in Brooklyn and one in Queens. An additional route for Fridays in the summer adds Pier 6 at Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue and Governors Island. The company made the ferry free for the first two weeks, but now the $4 one-way trip is in effect. Riders need to obtain a ticket at the vending machines at each stop, and the ticket is good for starting at any terminal and arriving at another. Please consult NY Waterway's East River Ferry official site.

East River Ferry
The East River Ferry at the midtown Manhattan pier near W. 35th Street.

Designed for the modern-day commuter seeking alternative modes of transportation on the East River, the ferry will also likely continue to be popular with pleasure-seeking sightseers. The boats provide the thrill of the skyline and the bridges but also afford easy access to the refashioned waterfront Brooklyn neighborhoods of DUMBO, South and North Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and to Queens's Hunters Point South in Long Island City. Each of these neighborhoods have long developed their own visual culture and rhythms, though their respective present-day youthful demographics and new high-rise waterfront construction sometimes makes it difficult to hear the languages of older immigrant voices.

East River Ferry
"Edge" condominium development. 22 North 6th Street. North Williamsburg

From the vantage point of the ferry, the sights of the Brooklyn waterfront present the eclectic spectacle of the city in historical layers, remnants of the manufacturing and industrial city alongside the modernist high-rise condominium developments. At times, especially on a warm and sunny day, the scene looks more Miami than New York. The old Domino Sugar Refinery is still there, however, symbolizing the waterfront's industrial history. The original building for the company, which once processed the bulk of the nation's sugar, was constructed in 1856. Interestingly, Whitman's poem known as "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," a meditation on how the soul of a singular person can relate to a great city of strangers, was published that same year under the title "Sun Down Poem." The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass includes the poem under its final title.

East River Ferry
In 2011 plans are underway to convert the closed Domino Sugar factory into residential units
 and four acres of the site into public spaces.

Whitman envisioned the day "ever so many hundred years hence" when others would see these same islands. In his imagination, he saw us standing with him on a boat and watching the summer sky, crossing the East River on a ferry.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from June 21, 2011.





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