In the ultimate urban landscape that is New York City, you might not expect to find beaches. But they are there, on the waterfront borders of every city borough – except Manhattan.
That might finally change, if the city decides to listen to Ira Gershenhorn, a software engineer, part-time recreational swimmer, and resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Last month, Gershenhorn presented his idea for a city beach, lining a natural bay on the Hudson River, to Community Board 12’s Parks and Culture Committee. The site lies in the Hudson River Greenway, west of Washington Heights between W. 169th and W. 171st Streets.
“I kind of stumbled on this place,” said Gershenhorn, who used to make the long drive to Rockaway Beach in Queens to swim until he lost his car.
Last year, while biking along the Hudson, “I noticed the path toward the sandy beach area,” said Gershenhorn. “This year I biked a little further and saw the area was cleaner and easier to access. That’s when I started swimming there.”
For many New Yorkers, Gershenhorn’s plan may seem shocking. The Hudson River is widely viewed as unsanitary and unfit for swimming. This may be why there are no official beaches in Manhattan listed on the Dept. of Parks and Recreation website. There are opinions that Manhattan has tiny sized beaches littered around the city, but nothing like the public facilities at, say, Coney Island.
Despite what many people think, the water in the Hudson is actually quite clean, said Gershenhorn, a volunteer with the New York City Water Trail Association, which promotes improvement and preservation of recreational uses of waterways throughout the city. That includes the area around the site of his proposed beach, Gershenhorn said.
“We don’t test right at that spot but we do test nearby, and based on those results I’d say the water is swimmable most days,” said Robert Buchanan of the Water Trail Association via e-mail correspondence.
Gershenhorn has “got some really cool ideas. These are some ideas that the city should start taking seriously,” said Buchanan. And from the standpoint of the Water Trail Association, he said, “the water is safe and suitable for recreational use.”
Riverkeeper, another environmental non-profit, which sampled and tested water along a 315-mile route of the Hudson River this summer, indicated in its study that the Hudson is clean enough for recreational use along the beach site.
Gershenhorn’s initial presentation of the beach idea at a September community meeting met with some nods of approval – and some resistance. Community Board 12 member Richard Lewis, for example, said the area has more pressing issues to resolve, such as crime.
“Yes, I would endorse further water activities whether a beach, [or] swimming pool,” said Lewis. But he dismissed Gershenhorn’s claim that his idea is unique. “There have been proposals for beaches in Manhattan,” said Lewis, including in northern Manhattan.
Despite Lewis’s skepticism, Gershenhorn said he was confident that “politicians will want to get behind it” because a new beach would be popular with voters throughout the community.
“It would be the only beach in Manhattan,” he said, and a rare beach on a big city riverfront. In Paris, for example, the city has created a kind of pop-up beach in recent summers, drawing crowds to the banks of the Seine River.
At the September hearing on Gershenhorn’s beach plan, much of the discussion focused on the possibility of drownings; some recalled the December drowning death of a college student whose body was found in the Hudson.
Gershenhorn dismissed the concerns as little more than speculation.
“They can say whatever the hell they like, but back it up with facts. Do people drown in these waters? Show me the info, back it up,” he said.
According to NYS Department of Health, there have been 35 drowning incidents in regulated swimming pools and beaches in New York City over the last 23 years, though the numbers have been dropping since the late 1980s. However, the Health Department also mentions in the same report that beaches have higher average drowning rates than swimming pools, mainly due to swift water currents.
In response, Gershenhorn says his proposal would create a shoreline that is not scoured by current, where sand can accumulate along with oysters and marsh grass. He suggests filling sand along the shoreline to start the accumulation process.
Under Gershenhorn’s plan, the swimming area along the beach would stretch some 20 feet out into the river, with a line of floats to define the boundary. The floats, tied to rocks on the bay sides, would keep people within the area and protected from the tides.
“I think that will do the most for the health of the Hudson, resiliency and also as a byproduct allow for the creation of current-less beaches,” Gershenhorn wrote in an email after the meeting on his plan.
Gershenhorn said he does not have a very precise cost estimate for the beach, but he believes it could be completed within two years, and could cost about $100,000, if the city’s Parks Department was in charge.
“I believe Parks will price it at 100K or higher,” he wrote in the email. “Sometimes they price things high because they really don’t want to do them and to cover their asses.”
The lack of a cost estimate was one reason why Community Board 12’s Parks and Culture Committee took no action on the beach idea when it met last week, according to committee chair Elizabeth Lorris-Ritter. It is hard to evaluate a project “when there’s no sense of scope or cost,” said Lorris-Ritter. “So, we thought the best thing is see how interest builds and wait until it is better defined.”
Meanwhile, Gershenhorn says he’s learned of another complication that’s made him withdraw the idea, at least for now. According to Gershenhorn, the Army Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over the river area that he’d like to see roped off at the beach. So to move forward, his proposal would need the support of both the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the federal Army Corps.
“At this point, I don’t want to push this idea as there are some big open issues,” said Gershenhorn.