9:25 am Sep. 15, 20101
Tom Fox is persistent. The 63-year-old founder of New York Water Taxi has spent nearly a decade selling his vision for a system of transportation by boat, and nearly a lifetime pitching plans to, as he puts it, "bring the lungs back" into New York City by advocating for open space and waterfront access.
“I think you’re right at the beginning of the rebirth of waterborne transportation in the harbor," he said in a recent interview. “It’s only been, like, 25 years.”
Almost every year in recent memory there has been a moment of hope and a moment of darkness for the future of ferry transportation in the city. Less than a year ago, it looked as if the commuter ferry service would be canceled for “the third time in four years,” according to The New York Times. “Ferry service will work whenever they have the political will,” Fox told The Brooklyn Paper last November.
The problem, always, is money. Ferries, other than the ones that go to Staten Island, represent the only mass transportation system not subsidized by the city, so they can't operate at a loss. Without integration with the M.T.A., it's hard to attract a critical mass of regular commuters. And if there aren't enough regular riders, it becomes more expensive to operate, which in turn makes it more difficult to justify expanding the frequencies of ferry runs.
"If you really wanted to be successful then you have to run high frequencies—every 20 minutes," Fox said. "If you miss a boat and you have to wait 15 minutes, you’ll do that. If you’re running every 45 minutes, if you miss a boat, you’re not.”
Starting in May, that will change, Fox said: “There’ll be boats running from 6:30 in the morning till 9:30 at night, seven days a week, year-round.”
The money to do that will come from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which has allocated $9.6 million over the next three years, according to Jamie McShane, aide to Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who wrote in an email, “We are pleased to hear Mr. Fox is able to fulfill the speaker's vision of year-round ferry service."
The City Council and the Bloomberg administration have wanted a ferry system for some time—it's part of Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC—in part because it can be an incentive for further development; more than half the residents of Schaefer Landing, a development on South Eighth Street in Williamsburg, said in one survey that the water taxi service played a part in their decision to live there.
To expand the system the city needs to build more terminals, and until recently that was prohibitively expensive. But New York just won federal stimulus money to build infrastructure for waterborne transportation. Several sites on the East River may get docks; there's a R.F.P. out for North Sixth Street in Williamsburg, and the city is looking at rebuilding a pier at India Street in Greenpoint.
Naturally, it won't happen quickly—“It takes a lot to get anything built in the water because of environmental regulations," said Justin Garrett Moore, who works in the Department of City Planning.
FOX IS STUBBORN, AND USED TO LONG WAITS.
He spent 15 years fighting Westway before that grand plan for the West Side finally died. In 1988, he became a founding member of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition; the park is not yet completed. He directed the design of the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway, a project first introduced in 1987; today it is "nearly completed." Fox was the first president of the Hudson River Park Conservancy, founded in 1992, and now sits on the board of the Friends of Hudson River Park, an organization dedicated in part to "completing the plan."
Fox met me one morning at Pier 11, near Wall Street, wearing the same street-sign yellow polo shirt, embroidered with a black and white checkered flag, that his employees wear, with khaki pants and shoes of woven leather that were one step short of sandals. (He was not in his usual shorts and sneakers, he said later, because he had to “dress like a grownup” for Top Chef at the Long Island City Water Taxi Beach that evening.) He had a baseball cap with the same insignia, a fanny pack around his waist, and a Blackberry in his hand.
It was noon and nearly 95 degrees.
“There’s the Shark,” he said, pointing to a small vessel shaped like a cigarette boat that was pounding across the harbor at a remarkable speed. “It takes people out for a 35-minute thrill ride in the harbor, and they play loud music and spurt water at your butt.”
“Where do you pick that up?” asked a woman standing nearby. She had in tow three boys, roughly six to ten years old.
“Pier 17,” Fox said, and, having attracted an audience, proceeded to explain to the boys which boats did what in the harbor and how, as well as the rules of right-of-way and "the way oil gets to the power plants. The simplistic version.”
“And just for a real treat,” Fox continued, without any urging from the boys. “If you were here 10,000 years ago, there would be a sheet of ice bigger than the Empire State Building right here, right where you’re standing. And you see those mountains there? The hills of Staten Island?” He then pointed east, towards Long Island. (Selling either one as a mountain was a bit of an overstatement.) “And you see the hills of Greenwood Cemetery and all the way through Dix Hills, Long Island? That’s what the glacier pushed in front of it. It’s called terminal moraine.”
“This canyon was 1,000 feet deep. It’s a fjord. And there were mastodons being hunted by saber-toothed tigers. That blows my mind every time I think about it,” he said, looking east.
“I love that! I love that!” the mother said.
The ferry docked at IKEA after about 20 minutes.
“That second window is my desk,” he said, pointing to the end of a long, low brick building. “And I look at—unfortunately—look at this all day. Actually I face the other way
so I don’t get distracted by the lady.”
“The lady” is the Statue of Liberty. The helicopter tours that take off from Pier 11, Fox said, “go out, annoy the lady, and then come back again.”
Fox started New York Water Taxi in 2002 with the backing of his partner, Douglas Durst of The Durst Organization, Inc., a real estate development company that built, among many other buildings, 1 Bryant Park, the first LEED Platinum building in the world. (Durst's daughter Helena is now president of New York Water Taxi, and Fox is an adviser.)
“Douglas is, like me an environmentalist,” Fox said, “and believes in green. We were both green long before it was a color—in that capacity.”
WHATEVER MAY BE DESCRIBED AS A TYPICAL BACKGROUND FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST, FOX'S ISN'T IT. He grew up in Flatbush, did two tours of Vietnam as a gunner in the Navy, put himself through college working as a repo man, became a National Parks Service ranger and then a "Green Guerilla," and then a fellow at the Harvard School of Design. (“Yeah, not bad,” he said of winning the appointment. “I went to five high schools and didn’t graduate from college until I was 29.”) He also often rides a motorcycle to the office from his home “two blocks from the end of the world” in Breezy Point. (The bike is a BMW 1200LT, which Fox described as “a large old man’s motorcycle.”)
He uses the phrase “we the people” with half a wink.
“I got interested in the environment in 1966-68 when I was in Vietnam, and we were busy blowing the place apart, and I realized the impact that the war was having not only on the people, but on the trees and the birds and the parrots and the deer and the coconuts and bananas—everything,” he said at one point. “I came back wanting to make a difference. So I started as a Green Guerrilla back in the 1970s, tossing hand grenades—seed hand-grenades—into vacant lots on the Lower East Side.”
"I was always interested in the forgotten spaces, the vacant lots, the alleyways, the schoolyards, the rooftops," he said. "And then I looked out from the waterfront. And the largest underutilized resource in New York are these waterways.”
In addition to running New York Water Taxi, Fox is the president of Interferry, and the chair of the Passenger Vessel Subcommittee of the Harbor Safety, Navigation, and Operations Committee of the Port of New York.
He likes to talk about how New York, unlike, say, Hong Kong or Sidney or Istanbul, abandoned its waterfront, and there lies the blame for the boat-less East River. In 1870, ferries on the East River carried 50 million passengers a year but the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, followed by the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 and the Manhattan Bridge in 1909 rendered ferries unnecessary, and by 1925 there were no commercial ferry lines on the river at all. Fox reminds people, in a pitch I would hear more than once during the course of the afternoon, that despite the costs and delays and logistical complications, with transportation by boat "there’s never a pothole, there’s never a traffic jam, there’s never a delay due to an accident.” On the crossing to Brooklyn he gestured north to the wide, nearly empty East River. “It looks like Fifth Avenue at five o’clock in the morning on a Sunday.”
“We’ve had a great summer, we got runs like this run,” Fox said, referring to the partnership with the Red Hook IKEA, which has been a success in part because the revenue stream doesn’t rise and fall over politics. “Private-public is good, private-private is easy. It’s good for everyone: we have a steady, year-round job, IKEA customers are happy as a clam—a big proportion of them take the water taxi, as you’ve seen. And the local people, in Red Hook, who are terribly under-served by transportation, can use it as a ferry.”
Fox has lots of arguments he can make in favor of expanding ferry service, and his latest that his services can be useful in “homeland security.” In the post-9/11 world, that's a good way to get politicians to listen.
“I did two tours in ‘Nam when I was 19 and 20 years old, and I believe in preparedness. You know, when the shit hits the fan, you want to make sure you have what it takes,” he said.
Fox has petitioned the Office of Emergency Management regarding the role of boats in the event of an emergency like 9/11, the 2003 blackout, the 2005 transit strike, or Flight 1549, during all of which ferries belonging both to Fox and to his main competitor, NY Waterway, assisted.
“I think that is the carrot,” Fox said. "Having out fleet available for emergency evacuations is a homeland security issue.” ( “I got my first medal since Vietnam for flight 1549," he told me later.)
O.E.M.’s rewriting of the emergency evacuation plan is only of five projects underway that show, at the very least, that there are now a set of diverse groups interested in ferries.
The other four: “the Economic Development Corporation is working with the City Council to come out a comprehensive city-wide ferry plan.” The City Planning Commission is coming out with a study called Vision 2020, “waterfront zoning for the next century.” The Port Authority is doing a study on ferries in the region, and the National Parks Service is looking at all of its properties that exist on New York Harbor. "Chances are, there [will be] a lot of information to act on,” Fox said.
New York Water Taxi not the only nor the largest nor the oldest ferry operator in the harbor; that honor belongs to NY Waterway, which has been operating since 1986, and has a significantly bigger fleet—34 boats versus New York Water Taxi's 10. But NY Waterways' 21 commuter routes are all on the Hudson River, from New Jersey and Rockland and Dutchess Counties to Manhattan. East River commuter service, at least for now, is Fox's territory.
FOX'S OFFICE, WHERE HE ATE A LUNCH OF TUNA-MELT PANINI AND LIMONADA SODA from the 40,000 sqaure foot Fairway that opened nearby in 2006, is at the far of the converted factory that Greg O’Connell (“the mayor of Red Hook”) renovated and rents to “people that make stuff,” according to Fox, a group that includes a glassblower, carpenter, sign-maker, printer, auction company and the set shop for the Blue Man Group.
His desk sits at the far end in a large loft space with exposed brick, and arch-shaped windows frame bright, sharp images of the harbor and the docks.
Fox talks a great deal about the need for a "working waterfront," by which he seems to mean that it’s not just that the city has to be interested in a waterfront for “we the people” (wink), it’s that “we the people” have to understand that a waterfront can't be all parks condos and beaches. “People want to build on the waterfront. They want parks and they want buildings on the waterfront. But you can’t have boats without these things, you can’t have boats without the support services," he said.
Fox has a list he can call up on cue when asked what he needs to build this “working waterfront.”
“Where do we get the money for [the boats]? Are we going to deal with fuel prices? Is there any way we can hedge against them as a collective? What are we going to do about the loss of maritime property on the waterfront? What are we going to do about training programs—The Harbor School, the SUNY Maritime—we need to develop a new cadre of mariners. People from the Red Hook Houses used to walk right down the block and unload ships. Well, there are no ships here anymore. Well now they’re walking down the block and they’re working on water taxis.”
Fox is extremely practical when it comes to funding, logistics and bureaucracy, but he drifts in and out of poetic musings that make it clear that this is not just an environmental initiative; it’s a deeply held vision of a hard-nosed advocate.
“The payoff is riding on a boat, seeing a kid who’s never been on a boat before, holding on to the railing and laughing, wiggling back and forth. You know you got him for life. You know they understand what the waterfront is about. And it’s, you know, we’ve cleaned this tremendously in the last 40 years but we have a long way to go,” he said, gesturing towards the water that lapped against the concrete wall he was sitting on. “The more people that get educated about the value of this waterfront resource, the better off we’re all going to be as people, and the more we’re going to be able to laugh skip hop jump and sing because we’ll have a bigger playground to do it on.”
Fox is clearly invested in his employees, and they all—from the deckhands to the captains—seem to like to see him pacing along the docks or standing in the bow of a boat. “YO, SCOTT,” Fox shouted as we walked out to the dock where a television interview was going to take place. He was looking an employee precariously leaning over the windshield of the top deck of a ferry. “Watch yourself there! What about safety!? Something around your tender waist!”
“Good kid,” he said to me. “We lost him to Hawaii when he fell in love. And then he loved her and not Hawaii. She lives here now, which is nice, because he came back alone.”
Before I left, I asked Fox if he thought that after many years, both official planners and the public in general were coming around to something close to his vision—green spaces, waterfront access, environmental responsibility.
"The administration has embraced the waterfront, but it’s not quite there yet,” he said. “I ride a motorcycle. When you’re going into a turn you look into the turn, you don’t look in front of you, you look into the turn, and your bike follows your head. Well right now government is looking into the turn. And the ship of state, if you will, is slowly moving in that direction.”
He went on. "If you gave us—like the collective 'we,' the river rats that work on the water and the people who are in the halls of city and state and federal government—if you give us a decade and support a request for a billion dollars, we’ll be there. But it’s going to take money, it’s going to take time, it’s going to take cooperation between agencies.
“But I believe we’re on the way. We’ve taken a very strong step, and the longest journey begins with the first step. I’d say we’re on step, like, four.”
Of how many? I asked. Fox sort of smiled.
“That I can’t tell you. I’ll tell you when we get there.”
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