At 7am on the morning of June 13th, the cul-de-sac at the end of North 6th Street between the waterfront towers in Williamsburg is clogged with news vans and SUVs with tinted windows. Emerging from one of the latter, Mayor Mike Bloomberg jokes that this ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new East River Ferry must be one of the earliest he’s ever attended, but a line has already formed for the first southbound ferry, with men and women in suits, some pushing bicycles, eager to reach their Lower Manhattan offices without going underground for once. After the actual cutting—an awkward group thing involving almost a dozen pairs of scissors, eight feet of ribbon and a swaying dock—the politicians, New York Waterway staff, press and more commuters shuffle aboard a northbound ferry.
As the boat reverses away from the dock, swinging around to head up to Greenpoint, officials, reporters and camera crews mill around on the lower level. Upstairs, Captain Michael Muia maneuvers the small vessel from the brand new North Williamsburg landing to one still under construction at the end of India Street, and another in-progress dock in Long Island City before making the straight shot across to 34th Street, where all the important people disembark. While we wait a passenger pokes her head into the control room, asking if this ferry goes Downtown, too. “With all the hoopla, I wasn’t even thinking about getting to work,” she says, “I just got on because it looked cool.” As we begin the 29-minute southbound run towards Wall Street, the ferry seems virtually empty compared to the frenzy of a few minutes ago. “I didn’t get to meet Bloomberg,” says Muia. “He woke up, cut the ribbon, and now he’s back in bed.”
Headed southward, with the Midtown skyline to our right and North Brooklyn’s post-industrial waterfront to our left, I tell the captain that this seems like a beautiful route to work. “Not if you’re driving it,” he says. “There’s no relaxation time. The mid-day run is very slow, dock to dock, if you’re a minute, two minutes late no big deal. But this is just constant.” New York Waterways hired eight new captains to help run the new daily service, with ferries every ten minutes at rush hour. I ask Muia, a 12-year vet of New York City ferries, if he had to train any of the newcomers. “The past two weeks I’ve been training guys,” he says. “If you get a guy that’s good it’s great because you get a little break, you can sit back and relax. But when you get a guy that’s bad, it’s bad.”
We pick up a handful of passengers in Long Island City and Greenpoint, a few more in North Williamsburg, but the ferry remains mostly empty. “This is our first day doing this weekday stuff,” Muia says, “so I think we’re not going to be carrying a lot of people. I know the Water Taxi used to do it and they didn’t carry a lot of people.” That company, New York Waterways’ closest competitor, served the isolated southside condo development Shaefer Landing and Long Island City sporadically for several years, but stopped over a year ago when the city withheld essential subsidies. That money now goes to New York Waterways. “You need that to keep the economy going,” Muia says. “Plus you know, it’s all for building construction.”
Disembarking back at the feet of the high-rise condos at North 6th Street, a woman in a business suit runs past me to catch the Midtown-bound ferry. A few paces behind, a thirty-something dad hurriedly pushes a stroller up the dock. Muia sees them both coming and waits.