Down by the Water’s Edge: A Meander Around Manhattan

Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan, by Phillip Lopate. Crown Publishers, 421 pages, $25.95

Acclaimed essayist Phillip Lopate, who grew up in the crowded slums of Williamsburg, has long marveled at the transformation of his native city over the last half-century. In Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan , he laces up his sneakers and sets out to explore Manhattan’s shoreline, the area he believes has changed the most, from “a working port, to an abandoned, seedy no-man’s-land, to a highly desirable zone of parks plus upscale retail/residential” developments. On these slivers of land abutting the Hudson and East rivers, Mr. Lopate discovers the inevitable New York dualities: grandeur and decay, diversity and insularity, possibility and self-destruction-evidence of the city’s great past and the promise of its future.

The book covers a massive time frame, beginning with the formation of Manhattan during the Ice Age 75,000 years ago and continuing beyond the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001. But the structure of Waterfront is geographical rather than chronological: In Part I, Mr. Lopate slowly proceeds up the island from the Battery to Washington Heights along the West Side; in Part II, he makes his way up the East Side from the South Street Seaport to Highbridge Park.

As he’s quick to point out, Mr. Lopate is neither a historian nor an expert in urban studies; he’s just a “bellettrist” who loves his native city and felt the urge to write an intimate pedestrian travelogue. His informal first-person approach allows him to include sources from a wide range of disciplines, as well as conversations with experts, encounters with friends and his own shoreline adventures. He scoops up whatever historical, scientific, ethnographic, architectural, literary, cinematic, biographical or otherwise enriching tidbits cross his path.

On his long afternoon rambles, Mr. Lopate interviews fellow shoreline fanatics: the nonprofit organizers at the River Project in Tribeca; the advocates-and opponents-of Westway, the infamous interstate highway once proposed as an alternative to the West Side Highway; visionary architects, and even the odd local ichthyologist. He revisits the ghosts of Manhattan’s outer banks, from the legendary pirate William Kidd, who lived on Pearl Street in the early 18th century, to the mid-20th-century writer, rake and heroin addict Alexander Trocchi, who worked as a scow captain off a pier in Chelsea. No aspect of waterfront lore escapes Mr. Lopate’s notice: the underside of his beloved Brooklyn Bridge; the fishmongers on Fulton Street; the Amazonian vegetation of East Harlem-the list is inexhaustible.

Mr. Lopate never withholds his opinion. He scorns the well-oiled robots trotting through Hudson River Park and laments the glossy emptiness of several “sterile and manicured” developments like Battery Park City and the South Street Seaport, while celebrating the neglected viaducts of Manhattanville and the forgotten splendors of Highbridge Park. He imagines several “outrageous” plans to enhance Manhattan’s waterfront real estate in the future: more parks, residences, cultural zones, markets.

Mr. Lopate is always chatty, never pedantic-but for such talkiness to succeed on the page, the author must exercise great restraint. In the first sentence of his introduction to Waterfront , Mr. Lopate explains his intention “to write a short, lighthearted book about wandering the watery perimeter of Manhattan.” Lighthearted it is-informative and fascinating, too … but Waterfront simply cannot be described as short. And length (421 pages, not counting the acknowledgments and the index) is the chief problem with this undertaking. If it were 100, or even 150, pages shorter, Waterfront would have been a far more powerful book. Mr. Lopate (or, ahem , his editor) could easily have shaved off this much without omitting a single neighborhood, sidebar or even riverside exchange. It’s the sentences that need trimming: Far too often, Mr. Lopate’s prose imitates the meandering of his feet.

Heintroduces himself as a “native” New Yorkeralmosta dozen times, and frequently prefacessentences withgratingdisclaimers like “to me at least” and “to my way of thinking.” His descriptions run on-take the “blond, slender, fit-looking woman in her forties, Danish or German, with sun-leathered skin” who disappears as soon as she’s introduced. Mr. Lopate also tends to supply one explanation too many (or in this case, in a passage about crossing the Major Deegan Expressway, two): “Given my preferences, I would rather not walk into traffic (should my foot slip, I would fall into a speeding car).” As if reluctant to let his readers draw their own conclusions, he pads lovely observations with deflating afterthoughts: “A plane flies by with a streamer attached: ANDREA I LOVE YOU WILL YOU MARRY ME LENNY. No one near me jumps up and down, so we have to assume Andrea is elsewhere.” It seems he can’t resist the unnecessary final clause: “Most waterfront housing in Manhattan is built on the island side of the highway, but Waterside rises on the river side, making it the exception.”

To one interviewee’s suggestion that he “check out the facts,” Mr. Lopate objects: “If I were an investigative reporter, I would certainly do so. But I’m too lazy. I’m a belletrist, for God’s sake!” Laziness, alas, surfaces far more often in Mr. Lopate’s prose than in his research. He occasionally uses SAT-class words like “espy” and “surmise” that jar with his strenuously offhand diction, as does corporatese like “underutilized” and its poor cousin, “second-most-utilized.” And even more annoying than the repeated misuse of “presently” is the rampant corruption of nouns into verbs: “impact on,” “site” (as in, “decided to site a sewage treatment plant in West Harlem”), “niched,” “foregrounds,” “decks” (“decks over the highway”) and “requester” (“Stefan would occasionally slip the requester another sandwich”). At times, Mr. Lopate lays out the skeletons of topic sentences with too heavy a hand, his transitions hinging on ponderous conjunctions like “consequently,” “anyway,” “on the other hand,” “in any case” and so forth. Redundancies, too, abound: “my second argument is that” (and, two paragraphs down, “my third argument is that”); “I have to say that”; “the sad fact is that”; “I might add that.” And he’s a belletrist, for God’s sake!

Mr. Lopate is a fluid thinker, and he can be an engaging companion. He’s at his best when analyzing books and dipping into private memories, as when he returns to the hilly mazes of Inwood and describes the long walks he and his pregnant first wife took through the Cloisters and Fort Tyron Park, their anguished debates about abortion. But for all these poignant interludes, Waterfront too often reminded this weary reader of driving through Connecticut on I-95: It just goes on and on and on.

Laura C. Moser is the author of a biography of Bette Davis and a young-adult novel, both of which will be published this year.

Down by the Water’s Edge: A Meander Around Manhattan