Monday, March 31, 2008

Ralph Diaz's brief history of paddling access in NYC since the mid 80's

Ralph Diaz, author of The Complete Folding Kayaker is one of the paddling pioneers of NYC (with 9 years under my belt, I've been around for a while but I came into a scene that had really begun to take shape years before I first set backside in boat on the Hudson). He's retired now & has left NYC, but he does still follow the fun on the NYCKayaker list & every now & then we're lucky enough to see a post from him. I always find it interesting to be given an insight from the point of view of one of the folks who were around right from the start. When he heard about the watertrail, he responded with a quick timeline that goes back to when I was still in high school in Seattle, desperately wanting to be back in Hawaii and in blissful ignorance of my NY future. I loved the post, asked him if he'd mind if I posted it here, he said sure! It does include references to various groups & people & I don't have time to find links for those now - I'm just squeezing this in because I had to take a quick breather between projects & I'd wanted to post this anyways - but I think you can get a good idea of just how long this has been going on & how much patience with setbacks the paddling & rowing community has had to have (especially the early folks back in the 80's!)

I must say that this development is breathtaking. Here is some early history:

Around 1984 or '85 there was an initiative to create Parks launch sites spurred on by Chuck Sutherland but it languished. Then about 1988 Parks created the office of Waterfront Planning with Ann Buttenweiser as director and with an assistant (the office was located in one of the turrets atop the Arsenal HQ building in Central Park near the zoo). Joe Borker and I (both of the MCKC club) were approached to help identify potential sites, answer questions of what kayakers would want in the sites, etc. We even toured with Ann and her assistant to some potential spots.

In the Parks Dept each boro has its own head who is quite autonomous. Some were keen on the idea such as Brooklyn and the Bronx which improved sites with gravel paths to the water, bulkheading and even a kayak dock in one case. Others boros were lukewarm. Still, we had initial success in getting at least one in each boro (some cases we got 2).

Parks wanted to monitor usage and reduce liability. So, it started the permit program ($2) that included a waiver to make Parks feel happier about liability. I wrote a one page description sheet on particulars of each site (location, how to get there, parking, nearby amenities, possible paddle trips from location, local water hazards etc.) and there was also a good writeup on safety and equipment that Parks had (with information mainly from Chuck Sutherland, I believe) All this printed information was then photocopied and attached to each permit.

Then internal Park politics killed off sites. We lost the two in Staten Island for example and sites in Brooklyn and the Bronx, mainly because of local opposition. The one at the far end of Staten Island was scratched because the curator at the Conference House feared fleets of kayaks would be dragged across the lawns; the SI one at Alice Austen park was killed by the Sandy Hook Pilots Association (their office was within sight of the site) that maintained kayakers would roam into the nearby anchorage and be hit by a ship as it swung around with the change of current (did you ever see how slowly that process takes?). One in Brooklyn had its floating dock cut by locals and pushed out to sea and the wooden ramp to it set ablaze. In
Manhattan, 79th St was on and off again like a yo-yo. Then, the Waterfront Planning office was eliminated because of a severe budget crisis in the City under Dinkins.

Now, we have this enormous evidence of a new page being turned with the Parks Dept creating more sites and incorporating non-Park sites into the great interactive map on the Web and on waterproof paper.

Congratulations to all the kayakers and groups that have helped made this delirious development possible in New York City.

BTW, we have something positive happening in Highland NY where I now live. The town is located on the West shore of the Hudson across from Poughkeepsie. On this side of the river there has shamefully been no public access to the river for some 16 miles of shore line from Esopus down to Newburgh. Our town will now have the first such access in a new public park, the Bob Shepard Highland Landing Park. Closing on the property is April 11th and one of the first developments will be a simple kayak launch site with funding from Greenway.

ralph diaz

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