Examining the merits and morals of NYC’s proposed Pier 55

by Donna Schaper

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Many people are concerned about Pier 55, the latest privately funded development of artificial land on the Hudson River in Manhattan. 

Those who are concerned should read Gotham Unbound by Ted Steinberg. It is an environmental history of New York City showing that we became who and what we are by selling the water and building land into it, year after year, decade after decade. As a near ode to the oyster, it succeeds in showing how the Dutch origins of Manhattan brought the Dutch ingenuity about water’s persistent relationship with land. 

While it is unsettling to accept yet another gift from yet more generous human beings, and even more unsettling that tax dollars will not yield support for public parks in the amount that recreational pursuits deserve, it is more unsettling to get into a swivet about such generosity and historical continuation.

In a famous 1970 The New York Times Magazine article, Milton Friedman announced:  “There is one and only one social responsibility of business -- to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

This corporate minimalism -- and corporate immorality -- implies that philanthropists can’t do any good with their money. Apparently, Friedman never had a Carnegie-funded library in his hometown. Or didn’t work at a church like Judson Memorial here in Greenwich Village, which John D. Rockefeller helped to build. Instead of discouraging public philanthropy, we might encourage it and be glad for it.

Of course, non-stop building into the Hudson River is not a good argument for Pier 55 (which would replace the deteriorating Pier 54). Just because it has such a long, historical pedigree doesn’t mean that we want Manhattan to end up linked to New Jersey. Still, the development into the river has rarely offered as much potential public good as the arts activities at Pier 55 will have. 

The arguments of historical precedent and how rich people should apply virtue to their money are not sufficient to excuse some of the concerns about Pier 55. They start the conversation; they don’t stop it. People of good will can surely question the environmental impacts and will be well advised to read the full environmental assessment.

Wise people who love the self-governing aspects of American democracy will not be pleased by the amount of control that follows the generosity of a few. New Yorkers should never stop arguing the need for public support and public control for recreational sites, which is 1 percent of the city budget.

When I balance the merits and the less meritorious aspects in this latest development, it seems to me, on balance, that there is more, rather than less, good. But that doesn’t mean it is perfect; rather, it means that we have to be very careful not to operate in political clichés. 

I remember the fight around the last renovation of Washington Square Park, outside my front door.

The poor people will be disappeared.” They are not.

The musicians will go.” They did not.

The park will be less open.” It is not.

There is a uniquely Greenwich Village nostalgia that imagines that the past will always be better than the present, and the future be damned. I may agree with some of our nostalgia. NYU has become too big not to fail. Gentrification is a massive problem, affecting not only the village but also the entire borough we call our island home. Many say that Hudson Yards is in a direct path of a 100-year flood plan. Maybe Milton Friedman would like to address that issue. 

Hurricane Sandy may have changed our point of view about advanced capitalism’s relentless development of land at the expense of sea. We can support the new greenery and the new arts in our neighborhood without adoring them. The main benefit in the current proposal has to do with free or low-cost tickets at least half of all tickets. 

Do read the 235-page environmental assessment if you think you can understand it. It will be reviewed soon by the Army Corps of Engineers and the state’s Environmental Protection Authority. There is even a table of “Finfish Species with the Potential to Occur in the Vicinity of Pier 54.” There are 84 by one account, including the “threespine stickleback.” This alone makes it worth the read.

Finally, you will hear some disappointment in my sense of the public. We really aren’t equipped to understand all the issues here. We are equipped to make the moral arguments and to think through the environmental considerations. Nothing that good or beautiful was ever designed by committee. I am all but exhausted by long public meetings in which everyone yells at everyone else about matters about which they/we know very little. I am not arguing against democracy so much as arguing for its improvement, educationally and in terms of courtesy.

On balance, I think a moral argument can be made for Pier 54 -- which fell in the river from neglect and had to be closed -- becoming a vibrant Pier 55.

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