Volume 20 Issue 6 | June 22 - 28, 2007

Talking Point

The pier’s people made it ‘cool’

By Bob Townley

I had to smile when reading Downtown Express’s front page article “Park Prez: Tribeca ‘cool’ will return” (June 8 - 14). Over a period of 11 years our organization, Manhattan Youth, developed and nurtured the famously friendly and laid-back Pier 25 scene. And we do hope it does return.

It is true Connie Fishman, the Hudson River Park Trust’s president, is planning to put back many of the physical elements from the old pier — beach volleyball, mini-golf, snack shack and modified playground. Connie and her team are doing their best to put this effort on-line. Yet the success of the new Pier 25 remains uncertain.

Design and construction alone will not ensure a cool, friendly, community place. What is more important is how the place will be run and operated. Pier 25 was cool because of our programs, pricing, staffing, and a friendly, unpretentious attitude that made all people feel welcome. There are many reasons it was a place so beloved that many neighbors cried or were disappointed when it was closed for renovation:

• Pier 25 did not have an overabundance of rules and there were no “guards.” But there were many staff keeping an eye on things, including 24/7 residents on the historic Yankee ferry docked at the pier. Even though the pier was open all night, we seldom had a problem — not even graffiti! On occasions that people acted inappropriately, our staff and our artists-in-residence were always there to set things right. The new pier will probably not have stewards that live on boats. I would suggest a change in this policy.

• It was our intention to saturate the place with locals. We made sure children’s groups, local schools and visiting camps received a phone call and invitation to use the place. One hundred bucks rented a picnic with six tables, unlimited mini-golf and a jug of lemonade.
• Children could run free while their parents talked. The giant sandbox, without traditional playground equipment, allowed both parents and small children to relax together in a safe, yet endlessly amusing, environment. Old Pier 25’s sprawling open space and sandboxes were a different experience from traditional playgrounds. Will the new play area be cool as the old one was? I don’t know.
• We had wonderful artists-in-residence that conducted plein-air art classes and created sculpture. The Art Shack and the art garden were supervised and kept clean and friendly by Xavier Rivera, Luis Leite and others. The new design does not have a major element of cool that reflected Tribeca’s roots—a place for artists-in-residence.
• The Sweet Love Snack Bar staff were trained after-school counselors who created a welcoming atmosphere. While Bob Marley and Jimmy Buffett played, people enjoyed the veggies, burgers and lemonade for a few bucks.
• The beach volleyball court was built by a gentleman who loved the sport, lived on the pier and had a relaxed approach. Although the courts could easily have become solely for professional play, we brought the kids out and made the courts available to a wide variety of enthusiastic volleyball players. You didn’t have to wait on line.
• The beautiful plantings of roses, iris, fruit trees, grape vines and herbs established years ago by our wonderful contractor were lovingly cared for by Lisa Crafts and others. A community garden gives an atmosphere of nature that’s impossible to reproduce in the structured plantings that the Trust is planning.

As for cool returning, I am not 100 percent ready to say it will. The new Pier 25 will have some positive aspects, such as the synthetic surface field, an effort by Connie to encourage use despite less than perfect weather.

In the early years, the interplay between government and community group was so positive it was hard to say who worked for whom. The Trust organized events and staffing that Manhattan Youth could not afford, and Manhattan Youth brought the community to the pier in a fashion that made it feel like home.

One cannot measure the success of the park only by the number of people using it. What was cool was the variety of neighborhood types that would come and sit with their friends as well as the tons of people who would visit from other places. Little ones would see friends from their schools as their parents talked, stock brokers relaxed after work, kids from the community college had a burger after a hard day at their books and bicyclists and runners gulped gallons of our homemade lemonade. I guess the biggest compliments to the pier were when the Department of City Planning had their annual outing on the pier, and one year when Mayor Bloomberg showed up to chill and hang out.

Whether Manhattan Youth will return to run elements at the pier is not yet decided. We have yet to see the Trust’s game plan and we don’t know whether we will have the resources to comply. (None of the three community groups that operated on Piers 25 and 26 know their fate.)

The pier was open as much as it physically could be regardless of weather and economic conditions. Because we are a non-profit organization, we ran the pier as a resource for the community. We kept it open during “non-busy hours.”

Community Board 1 and its Waterfront Committee, led by Julie Menin and Julie Nadel, are working with the Trust to make sure community cool returns and that both Piers 25 and 26 have structures that are appropriate for an estuarium, boat house and the many activities on Pier 25. There has been some stress and the community board has demanded the new piers be as usable as the old ones. The process has caused some tension, but everyone is ready, willing and very able to make sure that needed dollars come to the Trust to build an appropriate pier. Noreen Doyle has spent much of her career at the Trust and I suspect she is already mapping out scenarios to make all this happen.

Large expenditures were not necessary to make things happen on the old Pier 25 and, in fact, things happened because there were no large expenditures.

Will the same feeling come back? Let’s hope so. The jury is still out. Let’s get to work!

Bob Townley is the executive director of Manhattan Youth and a member of Community Board 1.

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