Leashing the Infinite
Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan by Phillip Lopate

Midway through Waterfront, Phillip Lopate ’64CC offers a riff on the physical gesture around which his book is organized: the walk. “For all but the disabled, walking is a basic human activity, just below eating and sleeping. Consequently, peripatetic literature is vast: rarely does a novel or poetry volume lack some walk. But it’s a strange sub-genre: a writer can’t help wondering how to put a leash on the infinite.”

One way is to choose a circumference and vow to keep one’s remarks within that given geography. Lopate chose the coast of Manhattan—though given the way he fell headlong into his subject, one is tempted to say Manhattan chose him. (But then almost everyone living in New York secretly harbors a sentiment that they have been somehow destined for this town, that it’s their fate.)

I first heard about the project when, about five years ago, I received a phone call from Lopate inviting me to join him for a stroll along the Hudson River. It was a nice spring day and we set off from the West Village and meandered down along the water, taking in the sites. Lopate is a former professor of mine from the writing program at Columbia. In the years since I graduated we’ve become friends. On this walk—what turned out to be the first of several such strolls—he told me about his new project.

There are few people more qualified to take on the coast of Manhattan. Lopate is probably one of our best known practitioners of the personal essay, collected in such books as Bachelorhood, Against Joie D’Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and the recent anthology of greatest hits, Getting Personal. He’s also one of the popularizers and canonizers of the form, having edited The Art of the Personal Essay. Beyond that he is a committed and curious urbanist, an architectural enthusiast, and connoisseur of New York’s literature (he edited the indispensable Writing New York). I told him that his walking project was something for which he was perfectly suited.

Privately though, I had vaguely articulated reservations. If there is anyone whose intelligent, amused, belletristic voice could encompass, literally, the island of Manhattan, it was Lopate. But that belletristic voice, however charming, is, to paraphrase Salinger, more of a sprinter than a miler. In Waterfront, however, Lopate does the whole marathon—figuratively and literally—and it is an exhilarating ride.

“New York’s waterfront has undergone a three-stage revaluation,” he writes in his introduction, “from working port, to an abandoned, seedy no-man’s land, to a highly desirable zone of parks plus upscale retail/residential, each new metamorphosis only incompletely shedding the earlier associations.”
Using the waterfront of the present—whether it be the newly gentrified piers of TriBeCa or the urban wilderness of the far Upper East Side—Lopate begins to unravel its past and make connections with its possible future.

Throughout the book, Lopate alternates between a variety of techniques and voices. At one moment he is talking to urban landscapers and architects about the ideas behind their designs. At another he is a political and literary historian, quoting extensively from writing about New York by author’s both famous and obscure, and drawing a picture of how, over decades and even centuries, a particular segment of the waterfront took shape. In some cases, narrative takes him into the territory of personal history, such as his reflection on his first marriage, which is the prism through which we see the topography of Washington Heights.

At every moment, Lopate is connecting the present to the past. In his fascinating set piece on Knickerbocker Village, a giant mass of drab public housing just north of the Brooklyn Bridge, he writes at length of the miserable “lung blocks” (those overcrowded slums of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) that used to exist on the site, and unravels the complicated process by which its developer, Fred C. French, was able to get the project built. His sensibility is one that is at once romantic and completely willing to engage the stark realities of money and politics that shape a city. “Developers can be harsh, exploitative, damaging to community values and aesthetics, ruthless to the poor, all true; but they can also build great cities,” he writes.

Lopate punctuates his linear travels up the coasts with an occasional excursus—an essay that steps back to take on a subject in greater length. His take on the Westway project is history, investigative journalism, and personal reflection all rolled into one. All the key players are revisited, a quarter century or so after the fight, and these set pieces are fascinating in and of themselves. In the end, Lopate decides that his own, anti-Westway, anti-development position at the time was misguided. Though, typically, he has sympathy for his and his compatriots’ earlier mistake.

Then there is the excursus on Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer whose beat was that of the waterfront, its atmosphere, locations, and denizens. Mitchell is famous, almost equally, for his work as a writer and for the 30 years he went to work at The New Yorker and produced not a single published word. Lopate starts his essay on a note of cranky disapproval, but what follows is a deeply felt grappling with Mitchell’s work, with all of its shortcomings and its strengths.

That a piece of literary criticism—though that is a bit formal sounding for Lopate’s enterprise—should fit so seamlessly with extended riffs on architecture, politics, development, and social class is, finally, the most impressive accomplishment of this book. Lopate is working with a form that is almost universally familiar—that vaguely lima-beanish contour of Manhattan Island. Yet his book following that shape has an entirely unique structure. Like its subject, it is formidable, at times exhilarating, many layered, and vitally alive.

Thomas Beller ’92SOA is the author of The Sleep-Over Artist and Seduction Theory. An adjunct professor in the Writing Division at the School of the Arts, Beller is a founder of Open City Magazine and Books. He also founded the Web site mrbellersneighborhood.com (see Mr. Beller's Neighborhood).