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Exploring the East River

This week's subject is the East River. We won't call it mighty, but we can describe it as a complicated but lovable character straight out of a classic Hollywood movie. While the Hudson River on the west tends to play a leading role, as subject of romantic landscape paintings and historic river discoveries, the East River is handed the minor part of the tough smart-talking kid. In the past few years, however, as the city revamps itself as a recreational playground, direct access to the shoreline - meaning something beyond the always exceptional walk across the Brooklyn Bridge - has received more attention in the form of improved shoreline pathways along the east and west shores and the new ferry service. It's time for the East River to land that leading role.

The East River, looking north from Waterside Plaza

Explore the East River from many view points, north and south -

Tentative Steps along the East River Park Promenade (East Houston to E. 10th)
While the river is historically important, serving as a major shipping lane for centuries, teeming with sailors, markets, tenements, wharves, and industrial sites, the fast-flowing East River still carries a lot of baggage. Deep associations with the rough-and-tumble world of the Dead End Kids or gritty crime dramas - bodies tossed in the East River, don't you know - may keep some away. The glamorous Hudson River often gets the good press, upstaging its eastern counterpart. Brooklyn, over yonder, may have established better relations with the East River than Manhattan, as their creative new Brooklyn Bridge Park, with its repurposed piers, has already afforded new close-up views and access to the waterway. (Their view of Manhattan is kind of nice, too.) Yet venturing out on the new refurbished promenade of the East River Park on the Manhattan side should appeal to those best suited to strolling among the basic elements of river, bridge, sky, and smokestacks.

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.

A New Year, A New Place to Walk: Pier 15 on the East River Waterfront Esplanade (Lower Manhattan, east end of John Street)
This two-level pier is agreeably sleek and modern in appearance. Pier 15 affords yet new perspectives of the East River, the bridges, Brooklyn across the way, and the changing skyline of Lower Manhattan. It's also a great place to catch an exceptional sunset.

The Wow Factor: A Stroll in Brooklyn Bridge Park, and A Visit to Jane's Carousel (Brooklyn, between the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge)
While enjoying the views of the East River, the rocks along the shoreline, the skyline, the freshly renovated park areas, and the other obvious charms of such a familiar city scene, we might also want to take into consideration that much of what we're looking at here, like the carousel, is new. The skyline of Lower Manhattan on the other side of the water is also relatively new to us, as it now features 1WTC and the newly inhabited residential skyscraper, 8 Spruce Street, by Frank Gehry. The East River Ferry that docks nearby is new, and, for that matter, most of this whole park is new. That big bridge, however, looks familiar. The "wow" factor, then, can be also prompted by our chronic state of novelty.

Nocturne: A full moon rises over Brooklyn.
View from the Brooklyn Bridge

The East River & Roosevelt Island Walk: Guide and Map
The possibilities for the flâneur set here are best enjoyed along the western promenades for the excellent views of Manhattan. The best view of the United Nations complex may be discovered along the southern end of the island, and on the north, don't miss the massive shimmering white facade of New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Corner Medical Center across the way. Flâneurs from outside the island will want to make their way back to Main Street for a quaff of a favorite beverage before attempting the voyage home.

A Walk to Bellevue and Beyond
"Belle Vue" was named for an 18th century farm on this site, so to get a sense of the original "vue," a walk to the East River is necessary. This is the tricky part that may scare the out-of-town guests. Walk along the ramp at the back of the hospital to E. 26th Street and then back to 1st Avenue. Locate E. 25th Street a block south and walk back to the river. Then walk on the pedestrian bridge over FDR Drive to what's known as Waterside Plaza and its looming brown cubed rectangle apartment buildings. The plaza views of the East River are stunning. The United Nations complex and the Queensboro Bridge is to the north, and the changing skyline of Long Island City is across the way. If you squint, you can make out the construction on the south end of Roosevelt Island.

Images from the archives of Walking Off the Big Apple.

Comments

Hi Teri,

It's getting better all the time. I have already been drawn back several times this winter to Brooklyn Bridge Park, Roosevelt Island, Pier 15, and of course walks across the Brooklyn Bridge. Speaking of that, I have also fit in walks across the Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro Bridges. which for me are every bit as rewarding as walking the venerable BB. Next on my list is to start walking at the Battery, or perhaps Pier15/Pier17 and see how far north up the East River I can go.

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