The following is an excerpt from The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, a personal and reported history of the Northside from 1988 to today, published yesterday by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In it, journalist Robert Anasi recounts his explorations of the waterfront in the 1990s, from the abandoned buildings and piers to the locals and artists who hung around there.
The Williamsburg waterfront was a gem. I had no particular justification for going there—it didn't make me smarter or richer, didn't give me a line on my CV or increase my chances of getting laid. My waterfront ran from the Bayside Fuel Oil tanks on North Twelfth all the way south to Domino Sugar. By year two in the neighborhood, where I'd moved in 1994, I had learned to navigate that corridor. You needed denim and long sleeves because you crawled under fences, vaulted razor wire and pushed through thorns—the shoreline had become second-growth forest. You climbed walls and edged out along broken docks that made a rusty trapeze. On most of the trail the loudest sound was wave- slap against shore, the only witness the gleaming metal face of Manhattan. What you saw made the thorn punctures and wire cuts worthwhile—seabirds, the broken factories of the old order, sweet views of skyscrapers. On the Fourth of July, I'd navigate the fences and trees to a rocky breakwater where I'd sit and watch the fireworks, my private show, so alone, so far from the cops and crowds on Kent Avenue that I felt rich.
To all the Brooklyn folks surprised to learn that you live on Long Island (I know you're out there), please consult a map: New York City is surrounded by water, four of the five boroughs on three islands. Water made the city, from its Dutch trading post days through the 1940s when it was the largest port in the world. As the Commissioners of Streets and Roads noted in 1807 by way of excusing the lack of parkland in their city plan: "those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan Island, render its situation, in regard to health and plea sure, as well as to convenience and commerce, peculiarly felicitous." Translation: who needs parks when you have an ocean?
A strange thing happened in the decades after World War II: New York turned its back on the water. No more ocean liner fleet at the West Side piers, no more freighters nestled up to Brooklyn docks, no more destroyers launching from the navy yard below Vinegar Hill. It became almost impossible to make your way to the shore. Expressways ringed it, cutting off the approaches like an asphalt moat stocked with mechanical crocodiles. Even in the places where you could get through, the water was fifteen feet down the side of a pier and opaque with filth. Joe Mitchell’s 1950s New Yorker pieces about paddling around the harbor talking to fishermen read like science fiction (my literary agency represented his estate and I’d swiped his complete works from the office). By 1995 the Brooklyn waterfront was a toxic wasteland from Newtown Creek and its oil spill to the ruined docks of Red Hook. The capital of the twentieth century stood knee-deep in a sewer. Yet the rot provided opportunity. There were holes in the fences. Mitchell had been stopped and grilled at the waterfront by cops infected with Cold War paranoia; we could reach the water without a second look.
The waterfront I navigated in jeans and boots was the waterfront for the daredevil, the urban Indiana Jones. It also contained a more sedentary stretch. Between Bayside Fuel and a "waste transfer station" on North Sixth the waterfront opened. Those five blocks contained three defunct factories, four abandoned warehouses, two concrete loading docks and three piers topped by meadow and forest. In the open spaces nature had returned, all high grass and bushes and marsh. You went there for the breezes and the open space and for the views. The views were as good as the one from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade except that on the Northside the freeway didn’t shake the ground and you could walk all the way to the river.
Beside one of the loading docks an antique fire hydrant leaked into an iron bathtub. Overflow from the tub fed a marshy pool bordered with long grass and cattails. Dragonflies hovered over the pool and flocks of small birds seamed the grass. You could hear wavelets break and gulls croak and traffic hum on the FDR Drive all the way across the East River. I’d walk to the end of the longest pier and step off the edge onto a narrow mooring that led to a piling. The guanoed posts shifted and rocked as I sat looking at tugs and seaplanes. Circle Line tour boats churned by and tourists waved. I waved back.
Williamsburg in the 90s
When I was nine or ten my friends and I made a trail that ran through backyards down our entire block. Parents couldn’t see us there. It was better than the world of school and television; there were newts and millipedes, slopes covered with pine needles and trees to climb. One section of the trail ran across a retaining wall behind a garage. The retaining wall rose fifteen feet above the yard below. A magnolia filled the yard and every spring it turned into a chandelier. I'd sit there and stare at the soundless explosion in purple and white. I didn’t know anything about trees or flowers but the magnolia held me.
The fact that the Williamsburg waterfront stayed open, well, that was a historical accident. Our playground had come within a couple of borough council votes of being a Wal-Mart or a garbage dump. The Manhattan skyline made you appreciate the waterfront even more: you were in a quiet place away from crowds and noise and struggle. Of course the waterfront belonged to somebody—somebody biding his time—and that somebody had put a fence around it. There were plenty of ways around the fence but we cut holes in it to make a point. And when the fences were repaired, we cut new holes. You never saw a cop down there. It wasn’t necessarily safe. If I went at night I’d carry a heavy stick.
All kinds of wannabes and freaks and romantics who’d been priced out of the East Village went to the waterfront. Impromptu sculptures made of paving stones rose over my head. I remember the word-of-mouth outdoor screenings, films projected against the back wall of a warehouse. One of the factories had a sculpture garden in front of it with welded metal and massive broken columns. The sculptor was a black cowboy—ten-gallon hat, boots and all. He told me that he lived in the factory and that the owner tolerated him because he deterred looters. An old truck sheltered under a tin awning next to the factory. The truck was at least thirty years old; you could tell by the antiquated grille. It looked like it had been parked there on the last day of work and forgotten. Brush grew over the cab windows.
I brought dates to the waterfront because there wasn’t a better place to drink a bottle of wine. It was a test for the women; they had to trust that this stranger wasn’t a psychopath. All of them said yes. Over the years, I broke into all the abandoned buildings. In one I found gigantic metal cylinders and chutes. The stairwell of another was so jammed with desks and chairs that you could only get through by climbing over them. In another building, neatly made cots lined the clean-swept second floor. It looked like a dormitory—a dormitory with broken windows and million-dollar views. For me the waterfront was the hinterland of the only neighborhood that I’d ever thought of as mine. Exploration turned me into an amateur archaeologist. I wondered what the metal cylinders were for—grain, cement, oil? I tried to understand the impulse that led to the chairs and desks cramming the stairwell—they must have been piled up to keep people out. I considered the cots, sitting there like a peasant camp on the floor of the Colosseum in the eighth century A.D.
The waterfront belonged to me, and to no one—which meant it was used for more than sun worship and band practice. Garbage got dumped in the thick brush, the mounds rising forty bags high. Some drivers from the waste transfer station on the next lot lightened their loads in the open space. Cars ended up there too, dumped and burned, the frames twisted by fire. The charred shells marked the end of joyrides, or so the arsonists wanted their insurance companies to think.
People lived on the waterfront: the "deinstitutionalized" insane, those prostitutes—and their pimps—who worked the truck stop near Kokie’s, migrant Mexicans who broke down old freight containers by hand and sold the aluminum scrap. An Albanian refugee built an elaborate wooden shanty on the edge of a loading dock and painted "Fuck the Serbs" on one plywood wall. Homeless men lived in the buildings or in tents or dumpsters or shanties made of plywood and debris. They bathed at the iron tub next to the hydrant. Shampoo bottles and soap slivers speckled the ground and soap scum rimed one shore of the pool. On the waterfront all these different groups shaded into one another: I knew art-school kids who crashed there because they were new to town and broke or losing their minds.
Sometimes you couldn’t tell if the odd formations were the work of man or chance. In the warehouses and on a loading dock, I started noticing arrangements of old tin cans, broken dolls, Polaroid snapshots and random auto parts. It wasn’t Joseph Cornell but the impulse was the same. One day I walked into a warehouse to find a Latino with a white cloud of hair arranging trash on the floor, then leaning back to contemplate his handiwork. I’d seen him pushing a bicycle around the neighborhood, sacks filled with bottles and cans tied to handlebars and frame. When he noticed me, he hurried away with his bike and bags and I walked to where he’d been messing around. When I saw the trash I realized that the old man was an artist. To highlight his creation, he’d swept the floor around the offerings.
Excerpted from THE LAST BOHEMIA: SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN by Robert Anasi, published in August 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2012 by Robert Anasi. All rights reserved.