|(Dan) 11 October 2009: Images now hosted in the Cyburbia Gallery. See http://www.cyburbia.org/gallery/showgallery.php?cat=6486|
A HERETOFORE LITTLE-KNOWN PART OF MANHATTAN
July 1, 2011
Without at first knowing it, on June 15 of this year I traveled through time. That was the day I visited a place I’d always intended to see: Governors Island. Some time during the ferry ride, there must have been a ripple in the space-time continuum, because when I arrived, though it was June 15, the year had fast-forwarded to 2010!
Alighting from the ferry I encountered first a park-like historic district with two old forts, inns and cafes lining a village green. That was pretty nice, but what came next really blew me away: on the other side of Division Street, it looked like I had stepped back three hundred years in time. Suddenly it was 1710!
Have you ever noticed how much Governors Island resembles Lower Manhattan on the map? Bounded by Broadway on the northwest, the Battery, the Harbor/East River and the Brooklyn Bridge approach, there’s an almost complete correspondence of footprint and orientation.
Opened Spring 2010, Governors Island’s southwest half is as nearly a dead ringer as archaeology could make it-- of New York City in 1710.
There you can find the familiar street pattern of Lower Manhattan with streets at early widths, lined with English and Dutch houses and storefronts. Except for a few municipal and wharf buildings, all structures are two or three stories and have tiny footprints, twenty feet or even less in width.
This remarkable place is at once a living community, a tourist attraction, and a demonstration of sound urban planning theory. This theory is simultaneously progressive and regressive; sometimes it’s back to the future.
172 acres in area, Governor’s Island was home in 2010 to 3,937 souls—a bit less than its population as a military base and by happy coincidence, exactly one thousand less than the number counted in all New York City by the census of 1698; this yields a population density of 14,636 persons per square mile for the entire island. Since the Historic District’s permanent population is zero, that makes the town’s density 26,073. This compares with 32,348 for Brooklyn Heights. Average household size is 2.7, reflecting the fairly high ratio of families with children in the population mix. There are 1829 housing units, mostly in town houses that often have ground-floor retail. There’s a mix of owner-occupied town houses, condominiums and rental units, including affordable units.
There’s not a conventional car in the town or on the island, as even the furthest point of Battery Park is barely ten minutes’ brisk walk to the Ferry at the northern end. Of 44 golf-cart-like electric vehicles on the island, sixteen are for National Park officials and the police and fire departments, while twenty-eight are evenly divided between a taxi company and an hourly car rental. There are plenty of bikes but no noise-making mopeds, scooters or any other internal combustion engines. Mercifully, there are no horse-drawn carriages or pedicabs.
In an orgy of construction, the town was built in four years by 106 contractors, among whom the town’s 965 small parcels were fairly evenly divided. Contractors were chosen not by size but by examination of the manifest quality of their best work. Construction methods and materials were faithful to those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the extent that was visible, though not to the point of requiring pegs in place of nails. The town was formally inaugurated by the Mayor of New York on July 4, 2010.
Here’s an inventory of the town of Governors Island:
3 churches. Actually, four church-like structures can be found on Governor’s Island; three are actual churches, while the fourth and largest functions as a town meeting hall, concert venue, and twice a week as a cinema, featuring the justly famous Governor’s Island Film Series.
1 town hall (rentable for meetings, rallies and concerts)
17 restaurants, some on Restaurant Row, some buried in the town, some on piers, quays and the Broadway Esplanade, one in Battery Park, and a Chinese floating restaurant in the Slip. The French restaurant and one of the seafood emporia have been awarded three stars by Michelin.
11 snack bars, pizzerias, burger joints, ice cream parlors and croissanteries, but none from chains having more than five branches. One is at the ferry terminal.
1 bumper car pavilion in the park.
3 liquor and wine stores
2 gourmet delicatessens
1 pharmacy/general store
3 bookstores catering to various interests
2 newsstands, one at ferry terminal
3 art galleries
1 bike and golf-cart rental, attached to another business
1 K-12 public schools. Swimming pool and gym facilities available to residents.
CUNY Community College
Doctors, lawyers and dentists.
Clothing stores and other establishments come and go.
There are no stores from chains with more than five branches. No shops specializing in T-shirts or souvenirs. No shoppes. No guided tours. No horses. No “trains.”
1 small beach for residents only
Saturday’s there’s a small fish and farmers’ market.
Located at the crossroads of New York Harbor, Governor’s Island is accessible by ferry from its own Lower Manhattan ferry slip. Smaller ferries serve it from Brooklyn, Jersey City and Liberty State Park. Liberty Ferries link Governor’s Island to Liberty and Ellis Islands. Combined with those two islands, Governor’s Island makes a pleasant day’s excursion. Visitors arrive evenings to attend the renowned chamber music and jazz series in Town Hall, the Shakespeare series and the cinema that specializes in unusual films.
Though in its present state Governors Island represents a faithful near-perfect replica of New York City in 1710 (complete with aesthetic regulations and a “colonial” sign ordinance), the intention from the beginning was to allow Governors Island to evolve over time, like all other communities. Thus six months after ribbon-cutting, all aesthetic and most zoning regulations evaporated.
There is no more than the most rudimentary zoning. If a building should be replaced for fire, greater profit or any other reason, it may be replaced in any style, and there’s no height limitation. The same is true of signs. Since scale is more a function of footprint than height, however, no more than two contiguous lots may be assembled for redevelopment.
A skyline of slender miniature skyscrapers may eventually result, like a micro-version of Lower Manhattan, ca. 1950. A small Miami Beach Deco hotel is already in the works and some building owners along the quay have incongruously stuccoed their Dutch gable fronts in gay Caribbean colors:
Governors Island is a vivid demonstration that freed from the automobile, 18th Century urban structure more than adequately caters to the needs of modern living. The reason: it isn’t really 18th Century at all-- it’s eternal, since the length of the human stride doesn’t vary with time. Residents of Beacon Hill and Charleston have known this for decades.