Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ferry Tales

I have been commuting from Rockaway to Manhattan by ferry for the past few weeks, and between getting up early to catch the 7:45 in the morning and rushing downtown to get the 5:30 at night, lately I’ve been feeling as if I lived on this boat. My desk in Times Square sways back and forth like a ship's deck all day. The commute costs almost four times as much as the A train—the ferry is six dollars, plus another $2.25 for the subway from Wall Street to Times Square (not counting any celebratory beverages)—but to me it’s worth it, this twice-daily eyeful of New York Harbor.

Last week, the skipper of the American Princess announced two public meetings that might help New York Water Taxi get another boat put on the run—maybe one that left a little later in the morning and returned a little later at the end of the day. Last night, I went to the meeting at Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn. The college is at the eastern tip of a peninsula that forms the southern shore of Sheepshead Bay. Its major landmark, conspicuous from the water, is a rotunda, like an extra-thick silo, topped with a squat cone of green beams. It doubles as a lighthouse. The campus has its own tiny beach, Oriental Beach, an extension of Manhattan Beach, to the west. Manhattan Beach itself is a sweet little enclave, with a footbridge over Sheepshead Bay to Emmons Avenue, which is lined with restaurants and party boats for fishermen. I had been worried about where to park, but a guard at the campus gate told me I could park anywhere that wasn’t restricted.

The meeting was part of a Comprehensive Citywide Ferry Study to identify locations in Brooklyn that could be developed for ferry service. Although politicians from Rockaway were there to praise the ferry, and suggest that more runs be added and that passengers ought to be able to transfer for free to a bus or train, the agenda was soon hijacked by locals.

“Why would I pay six dollars on a freezing December morning when I can walk one block and get a train for two-twenty-five?” one woman said. (“You’re not riding a raft,” someone behind me muttered.) A woman from Coney Island seconded her, bragging that from Coney Island “we’ve got a one-seat ride.”

Mostly, locals were worried that a ferry landing in Manhattan Beach or Sheepshead Bay would mean more cars parked on their streets. “People who live in Manhattan Beach have a major problem with parking,” a well-groomed woman said. “This is a very small peninsula. . . . We have to preserve this wonderful community.”

Taking the other side, an administrator from Kingsborough said that his college is surrounded on three sides by water, and to get from Far Rockaway to Manhattan Beach by public transportation can take more than two hours. He joked that students not only get a diploma when they graduate but a certificate of survival. He would like a ferry landing at the college for students. The local ladies jumped all over him. “We have people with houses on the beach that need parking!” one woman exclaimed.

There were only a handful of people at the meeting who actually rode the ferry. A regular on the 5:30 Rockaway-bound who lives in Breezy Point had left his car that morning at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, where the ferry makes a stop, and driven from there to Manhattan Beach. “The schedule is always a problem,” he told the public. A ferry can’t run every fifteen minutes, like a subway. But he conceded that there does need to be “plenty of parking—that’s a key factor. If you don’t have it, you might as well forget it.” And he added, “If the trip is longer than an hour, it’s not worth it.”

The length of the trip was another hot-button issue. A young businessman acknowledged the need for alternatives to the Belt Parkway (which, incidentally, is sinking), but he said the ferry was too slow and that he was going to drive. A guy named Joe Hartigan, in cap, shorts, and sneakers, began his spiel by saying, “I’m not a big fan of Weiner,” meaning Anthony Weiner, the congressman who gets most of the credit for bringing ferry service to Rockaway (and who will never be mayor because of his funny name). Joe had hoped that a high-speed boat would be put on the route. He had made test runs in high-speed boats that got to Manhattan in twenty-eight minutes. He was outraged that New York Water Taxi had assigned a brand-new boat to the Yonkers run—Yonkers!—and given to Rockaway a boat that was used for whale-watching.

A well-spoken, well-prepared woman from Red Hook named Carolina Salguero was especially exercised about the fact that there was no ferry service between Red Hook and Governors Island. A ferry has been taking people from Manhattan to Governors Island for free, but they’ve done nothing for Red Hook, which is desperate for parks and ferry service and is right across Buttermilk Channel from Governors Island. When the moderator started to respond, Carolina said, “Enough already, Phoenicia, enough already.”

I found myself wanting to defend the ferry. The crew of the American Princess is friendly, and service has been remarkably reliable. Only once, in my experience, has it been late, and that was last Thursday, when Obama was in town to give his speech at the NAACP. In the afternoon, he flew from the downtown heliport to a fund-raiser for Governor Corzine in New Jersey, and the harbor was closed, so the boat could not come through. The man in front of me in line had a pinched nerve, and was extremely annoyed at Obama. But my feeling, as I waited, was that our lives were being touched by greatness—or at least delayed by greatness for twenty minutes.

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