Volume 19 • Issue 4 | June 9 - 15, 2006

Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel

It wasn’t Opening Day for these Downtown Little Leaguers walking past historic Castle Williams toward Governors Island’s soggy baseball fields Saturday, but it was the first time in hundreds of years the fields were open to the public, and it was Opening Day for the island’s free ferries this season.

Rain on the island’s parade? Governors’ visitors say ‘no way on Opening Day’

By Jefferson Siegel

It seems like everyone has a New York-in-the-good-old-days story; the earthy East Village before gentrification, cast-iron Soho before the clothing stores, Downtown’s army-navy and radio stores on Cortlandt St. Another story is being written this summer and 20 years from now, if by some chance the “Trump Fantasy Island Condos and Resort” eventually covers Governors Island, you can tell your progeny of walks along silent streets and empty esplanade paths with spectacular views of the harbor back in the early days of ‘06.

Governors Island may call forth images of a military base, but “fixer-upper” or even ghost town would be more appropriate. The 172-acre islet, closed to all but the military for the past two centuries, made it all but invisible to the city’s denizens.

Three years ago, with the Coast Guard having decamped, ownership of the island was transferred to the city and state. Plans have been floated for development possibilities ranging from a college campus to a casino. In the meantime, save for support and maintenance staff, the island sits virtually deserted. Just minutes by ferry from the tip of Downtown, Governors Island is open to the public this summer.

Last Saturday, 500 early adopters boarded a free ferry at the Battery Maritime Building for the brief trip to the city’s last development frontier. No coffee houses, no shoe stores, no fast (or even slow) food. Just street after street of empty buildings; from public-housing-style red brick monoliths to several blocks of wooden-shingle, front-porch mansions that evoke a small New England town before the advent of the automobile.

Tribeca resident Jonathan Stinnett and his family sat in a ferry engulfed by fog as landfall on the island approached. “We’ve always been curious about it. You always go by it on the Staten Island ferry,” he said. “There’s been so much talk about what they may do with the island, we just thought we’d like to check it out for ourselves.” Like most Downtowners, Stinnett craves open spaces and playing fields, especially for his children. “With the amount of kids in the soccer league and the Downtown Little League, it’s wall-to-wall games over there in Battery Park City.” Stinnett thinks if Governors Island converted land into playing fields, “Probably all of New York City’s public schools could benefit.”

Public works projects don’t happen overnight, and plans for the island continue to evolve. But the organization in charge of this potential sixth borough has a vision. “We want to make it a resource for kids and for families,” said Peter Fleischer, senior vice president of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation. “We want to be a resource for the whole city, for people who want to enjoy the proximity to the water, for people interested in history.”

Already, City University of New York is holding a series of free Saturday lectures on environmental science all summer. Upcoming topics will include the environmental recovery of New York Harbor, climate change in the city and an examination of local aquaculture.

Last weekend’s opening day rain squalls were appropriate for the first lecture on the city’s vulnerability to hurricane damage. The weather was more “Pefect Storm” than island paradise, but the inaugural Family Festival activities went on, albeit mostly indoors. People lined up at the Downtown ferry terminal for the brief cross-harbor ride, and minutes later the island’s ferry slip materialized in the fog like some maritime mirage. As curious locals and hardy tourists disembarked, a clutch of volunteers stood waiting to offer guided tours. For the independent-minded, the guides were happy to point out a direction, sending couples and small groups towards historical neighborhoods or on waterside walks.

Walking past rows of large wooden single-family houses on deserted streets proved somewhat eerie. The incessant call of a plaintive foghorn back near the Battery added to the spooky atmosphere. But taking a moment to admire the well-maintained historical houses can make visitors forget Downtown is just 800 yards past the treetops.

Poor weather forced a day of children’s activities indoors, but the children didn’t seem to mind. There were rooms for arts, crafts and storytelling. One toddler had her face painted like a tiger, then wandered into the next room to hear folk music by singer/songwriter David Hershey-Webb. In another room Gus the Clown made balloon animals for other wide-eyed children who also donned face masks of wild animals.

A visit to the island was on the “to do” list of Chelsea resident Suzannah Kellner. “We enjoyed the kids programming and the face-painting and the fire engine and we took a tour from the National Park Service of the historic structures.” Kellner, her husband and two children plan on returning. “It’s part of New York but it feels like a five-minute getaway,” she said.

One special-interest group made the pilgrimage to survey the long-abandoned ballfields. Downtown Little League players and their families came to play ball, no matter the weather. Already one regulation game between the Blue Jays and White Sox played four innings before the skies opened. Calling the game, they were waiting for the ferry home when players from the Cubs and Astros arrived.

Cubs coach Robert Kolb compared notes with departing players. “I heard the fields were in terrible condition,” he said after speaking with other coaches. “They have to weed, they have to have somebody maintain the grass.” Still, players set out on a 15-minute jaunt along a pocked harborside path to the muddy diamonds, with Lower Manhattan receding into a fogbank and the Statue of Liberty growing in the distance.

Once the teams arrived at the rain and age-tarnished diamonds, 11-year-old Cubs player Joseph DeMarco was not happy. “It’s really muddy and they have to cut the grass.” He also bemoaned the lack of a pitcher’s mound and dugouts.

“I guess Mother Nature and the government didn’t cooperate,” Astros coach Jeff Shapiro concluded. “I haven’t been down here in about 10 years. Obviously they haven’t maintained the fields because of non-use. This can be a spectacular place for Downtown if the powers-that-be allow it to happen. The kids are so short of facilities in the Downtown area,” he added.

Shapiro sees a simple solution. “If you put Astroturf out here, it wouldn’t have to be maintained. The kids could use it all year ’round. It would be a real family destination.” He also understands priorities. “I think the government’s still determining what they want to use the island for.”

On this opening day, another special-interest group deferred a visit, choosing instead to gather near the ferry terminal Downtown. U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and members of the Governors Island Alliance called for a safe rehabilitation of the island’s aging infrastructure.

“Before we can open up Governors Island, they have to clean up the national monument properties of asbestos,” Nadler said. “They have pledged to do so, but the president hasn’t put any money in his budget to do it. Before we can make any intelligent use of Governors Island, we’ve got to clean it up properly so it’s not dangerous to be there.”

Several large apartment buildings previously used as enlisted personnel housing on the island are off-limits because of asbestos and structural hazards.

On the return ferry ride, Jonathan Stinnett, however, was upbeat. “We will definitely be going back again,” he said. “It’s bigger than I expected. Just a very unique vantage point to be able to look at the city from out on this island is a really cool experience.”

Despite the storm, GIPEC’s Fleischer was happy with the day’s turnout of about 500 people. “We can be many things to many people, in a good way,” he offered.

The free ferries will leave from the Battery Maritime Building hourly from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (for free guided tours) through September 2.


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