Twilight of the Liveaboards
On a recent evening in June, the sun was sinking over the Hudson River and the few dozen boats docked at the 79th Street Boat Basin bobbed in a light breeze. A handful of them are residential, with owners who have lived at the boat basin for upward of three decades. It was hard to imagine a more idyllic, if slightly raffish and odd, corner of New York City to call home. And then another boat passed by — nothing special, recreational, maybe 35-feet long — and the bobbing at the dock turned violent, the boats’ masts slanting precipitously. The wake had hit the marina’s seawall, something that happens countless times a day, and at any other marina might result in some gentle rocking. But at the 79th Street Boat Basin, the seawall is so dilapidated that “every time we get hit with a wake, 300 feet down the river, it’s like a snake,” said Captain Chris Williamson, a former concert promoter turned full-time mariner who moved to the boat basin in 1986 and lives aboard an antique boat, a 1911 Trumpy, at the end of one of the marina’s five docks. “The whole seawall is condemned — the wakes are coming through and killing us,” he continued. “C Dock has been sinking for 20 years. Every time we have a storm the gangways fly around — they had to be chained to the dock. And then the chains break. The deterioration is accelerating.”
The boat basin, a Robert Moses project that opened in 1938, has been in bad shape for years, decades even. The last time it was dredged was in 1958, according to Ed Bacon. (At 81, he is the longest-standing resident, having lived there for 51 years.) Because the area is silted up, boats can only leave or return within two hours of high tide. Bacon is one of about a dozen remaining “liveaboards” — full-time residents — left at the basin, almost all over 60, with a number of them in their 80s, like the marina itself. Although the boat-basin residents still walk nimbly along titling docks and leap up into their boats from little plastic staircases, the boat basin is now in such a state of deterioration that it can’t be counted on to withstand another winter, according to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Last month, boaters were told that they’d have to leave by November 1, when the marina will close completely, two years before a major reconstruction project is slated to begin, in 2023. Many worry that they won’t be able to come back.
No one disputes that the marina is in need of a big overhaul, but that’s been the case for as long as most of them have lived there. “The place is rundown, but it’s been that way for the last decade or two,” Bacon said. The boaters knew they would likely have to leave for the duration of the $90 million project, which will, among other things, replace the rickety wooden docks with concrete ones, double the number of slips — the boat basin currently has five docks, lettered A through E, with liveaboards on the C and D docks — and take at least two years to complete. The stone rotunda that once housed the Boat Basin Cafe and a parking garage will also be renovated, in a separate project. But some boaters had held out hope that the project might be handled in stages, allowing them to stay. And a time frame of some two years feels very different from four or more, especially given the age of the residents and the difficulty of docking a boat in New York City. For those who wish to stay afloat rather than selling or storing their boats and moving into an apartment, it will mean leaving not only the Upper West Side but Manhattan altogether. “Once the greatest seaport in the world,” as Bacon put it, does not have any other year-round full-service marinas. The greater New York area only has a few with year-round dockage and services, and all are several times the cost of the 79th Street Boat Basin.
So it seems that the vacate order may well wash away the last of the liveaboards, the remnants of an eccentric Upper West Side community that once numbered in the hundreds. At one time there were opera singers and artists, celebrities, skilled tradesmen, businessmen, teachers and maintenance workers, millionaires and people with hardly any money at all. There were also children and pets and houseboat gardens, cookouts, trick-or-treating, and parties. Lots and lots of parties. “All the Mad Magazine parties were on my boat. Back then, I had a houseboat, and my houseboat had a disco ball on it,” said Dick DeBartolo, a writer for Mad who has kept a boat at the 79th Street Boat Basin since the mid-1960s. “Richie Havens lived on our dock for a while. I met people from old-time movies. Frances Langford and Ralph Evinrude” — the actress and the the outboard-motor magnate — “would invite us aboard, and she’d talk about Bob Hope and the great stars she worked with.”
“It’s a diaspora,” said Bacon, who lives on a Sea Ray motor yacht with spotless white-and-brown leatherette interiors, with his wife, Regina Jordan, and their toy poodle, Gypsea. Jordan teaches fitness classes in Manhattan and the couple also runs a charter boat company, All NYC Yachts. “We’re looking at Brooklyn Bridge Park and New Jersey. There may be a few summer slips in Chelsea, there’s a marina in New Rochelle, and one of us is thinking of going to Mystic, Connecticut. Some boaters are thinking of selling their boats.”
Bacon was the boat basin’s chronicler for decades, writing a newsletter about the goings on there. He arrived in 1970 from the New Jersey suburbs. He’d just gone through a divorce and his wife and son had moved to Manhattan; he moved there, too, so he could have 50 percent custody. “I was a Sammy Suburbanite. At that time, there were a lot of guys who were divorced here,” Bacon said. “It was a divorcé’s heaven.”
Werner Buhrer, 85, a retired banquet captain who lives at the end of D dock in a green-trimmed Prairie boat, an Atlantic 47, with his second wife, Raquel, 84, also moved in after a divorce. It was 1978, and he was living in Queens when he saw a newspaper ad that spoke to him: “They were advertising a floating studio, hot and cold shower. It had free parking. I had a parrot. I figured that was for me.”
A number of liveaboards came in as renters; for years a concessionaire ran the boat basin, and rentals, many of them houseboats and decidedly not seaworthy, were allowed. The rent was cheap — it’s now $120 per linear foot for the summer season, or $800 a month for a 40-foot boat, and $105 per foot in the winter, meaning it would cost $10,000 a year to dock a boat of that size at 79th Street. (That does not, as boaters point out, include the considerable costs of buying and maintaining a boat.) By comparison, the marina in Chelsea charges $40 a week per linear foot for boats under 50 feet, so a month would run around $7,000). Every so often, a boat would start to sink and everyone would rally to pump it out. You didn’t have to even know boats to fit in—you just had to be able to swim in case you fell in, which people and pets did periodically. “It was a unique community. At one point we had 17 nationalities,” Bacon said. “I always say the further west you go in Manhattan, the weirder it gets. And we’re about as far west as you can get.”
“It was wild,” adds Williamson. “I came and visited a friend who was staying here in 1985. There were drugs, hookers, a hundred wild and crazy people, sheets hanging in the wind. So I bought a boat.”
But it wasn’t only a party scene; it was also a community. In the 1980s and ’90s, as people who’d moved in in their 20s got married and had children, the number of families grew. Gloria Weiss came to the boat basin as a renter when she was 27. It was 1985, the year Hurricane Gloria hit, a coincidence that felt auspicious. “I was teaching at P.S. 199 — one of my students lived on a boat. The mom said, ‘Come visit.’ I fell in love with the place. It was really vibrant, I had wonderful neighbors. But I didn’t know a thing about boats beyond kayaking and canoeing.”
Weiss, who is now 62 and teaches high-school equivalency for SEIU 1199, and her husband, Abdel Glavey, a retired maintenance worker for the New York City Housing Authority, raised two sons at the boat basin. They loved it so much that when the Parks Department mandated that all the boats be seaworthy — that is, operable — by 2009, she and Abdel gave away their houseboat and took out a mortgage to buy a 1974 Chris-Craft Commander, where they live now. It’s a cozy, pleasantly cluttered vessel with a hammock, a table made from wooden stumps, and white Christmas lights and cross-country skis and bicycle helmets hanging on the wall. They grow vegetables on deck. “When the running-boat rule came into effect, “I was like, ‘Maybe we should get an apartment. A boat is not a great investment,’ ” Weiss said. “But our sons were like, ‘Please, we don’t want to move!’ ”
The writer Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke, who grew up at the boat basin in the ’80s and ’90s and used to babysit for Weiss, said that she remembers it as an economically diverse place with a lot of interesting people, a microcosm of the old Upper West Side. “Some actually had money, some just hanging on. It was maybe a little like a trailer park, but it was also down the street from Zabar’s and some kids went to private schools. My dad used to say it was a great way to get out of New York, even if it was only a few feet.”
Although the residents had known they’d likely need to leave when construction started in a few years, the vacate order this June came as a shock. “We aren’t just tourists or transients, we’re Upper West Siders. This is my community,” Weiss said.
One of the owners of the Alicia, a 1975 Pacemaker that hosts the boat basin’s annual Christmas party, pointed out that the last negotiation they’d had with the city required owners to upgrade their boats so that they were running and seaworthy. “A lot of people couldn’t, so they left. Now they say, ‘Okay, you have a running boat. You can go anywhere,’ ” she said. “I don’t think the city sees this place as a community. I think they see as just boaters and they want us out.”
At first, most of the boaters wanted to fight the vacate order. (Williamson was an exception: “If I were a city official and I saw the way it was in the winter with waves breaking over everything and glare ice, I’d close it down. Do I love it, yeah? The idea of moving out of here is not something I relish.”) The Parks Department said that the decision to make boaters move in six months was the result of an inspection, done by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, that had revealed unsafe conditions. But few details were given, and residents were told that if they wanted to see the report, they would have to submit a Freedom of Information Law request, which struck many as strange.
There is, to put it mildly, a lack of trust between the boaters and the Parks Department, a reluctant landlord that describes longtime residents as “permit holders.” Parks tried to evict all the liveaboards in 1980, after a transient boat docked there caught fire. In 1994, the agency stopped issuing new permits for winter dockage in order to, as the New York Times put it in 2008, “gradually reduce the population of full-timers, who once occupied nearly all of the 116 slips.” As the Upper West Side gentrified, many boaters felt that the city saw them as bothersome relics and wanted them out.
Many left when the city instituted the running-boat requirement. Some couldn’t afford to stay: The boat basin’s dockage fees may be comparatively low, but maintaining a running boat is not. Over time, the community dwindled. Even though Parks started issuing new winter dockage permits again in 2007, it wasn’t enough to reinvigorate the community. “The last liveaboard to move in? Jesus, I couldn’t tell you,” said Williamson. Bacon could name one since 2007, “but now his boat is on the hard” — that is, out of the water. The liveaboards like and appreciate the recreational boaters — they want the slips to be full of all different types of boats — but they lament the dramatic decline of their community, and they note that the marina’s many empty slips make the boat basin feel forlorn in the winter. Last winter, only 24 boats were docked at the basin, according to Bacon, ten of them liveaboard boats. The deserted café, which closed in 2019, looks a little like a haunted house.
The Parks Department says that there are 93 summer-dockage permits active, and of those, 32 maintain winter dockage permits as well. The current wait to get one is 15 years. It’s unclear why there are so few boats at the marina, but Parks say that some of that is by design: They need to reserve slips for the hundreds of seasonal and transient boaters who come through each year. Others are unsafe because the wooden pilings that hold the floating docks in place are rotten.
Seasonal and recreational boaters do become part of the community. There’s an Italian artist who spends part of the year in Rome and part of the year at the boat basin, and who may, according to boat-basin lore, have a castle in Italy. There’s also Laura Friedman, who is in her 50s and jokes that she and her partner, Claudia Rosen, brought the average age way down when they arrived eight years ago. “The community here is part of the attraction,” she said. “We were immediately welcomed by people generations older than us. They are so generous with teaching.” She recalled a time when they tried to come in too close to low tide; they’d miscalculated by about 20 minutes. “All these experienced people were waving their arms saying, ‘Not enough water, not enough water!’ But the harbor guy says, ‘It’s fine,’ so we start coming in, and we’re churning up sand. They basically had to lift us onto the dock. It was so embarrassing but they were all like, ‘Don’t worry about it. That’s how everyone learns.’ ”
In the past few weeks, as more information about the boat basin’s deterioration has emerged, the liveaboards have decided not to fight the eviction, at least not if the inspection report, when they finally see it, backs up the Parks Department’s claims. They’re focusing their efforts now on influencing the design of the new marina. Among other things, they want to get the slips situated perpendicular to the wakes, rather than parallel, to help reduce motion. Parks isn’t showing anyone the report, but said that the pilings below C dock and the staff dock house on the main dock were failing; three of the seven have completely broken down and a fourth is nearing that point. Earlier this month, Parks padlocked and barricaded the gate to C dock. Residents of C dock can no longer walk over to D dock, where the other half of the community is located, which felt like a symbolic sundering as well as a physical one.
The Parks Department says that all current permittees will be given priority to return to the boat basin after the reconstruction, although it’s almost guaranteed that the dockage rates will be much higher. All the boaters I spoke to say they want to come back, but continuing to live aboard will mean leaving friends, doctors, grocery stores, and, most likely, each other behind for the next few years. The closest marina with year-round dockage, in Brooklyn Bridge Park, turned out not to have running water in the winter. Some may rent, but Weiss said that storing a boat out of the water is almost as expensive as storing it in water; she and Glavey, at least, can’t afford to keep their boat and an apartment. “I think everybody is going to a different place,” said DeBartolo, who’s planning to donate the small work boat he has now when the basin closes. “For me, I’m a native New Yorker — I have never owned a car. I live on the Upper West Side. It was just a great place to go down to. When I got bored in my office, I could go down with my laptop, or a yellow pad in the old days.” Besides, it can be hard to imagine living on land after so long on the river, amid the elements, the unobstructed sky, the tides, and the wildlife. The boat basin was of Manhattan, but not really in Manhattan, and that was part of its charm.
Leslie Day moved into the boat basin in 1975 when she was 30 and single. She fell in love with the man in the boat next door, married, and raised a son there. “When I first moved there, I loved the rocking. It was like being in an amusement park every day,” said Day. But in 2011, when she was in her mid-60s, she realized she had to leave. They’d moved the Hudson River shipping channel closer to the Manhattan side of the river, which, in combination with the deteriorated seawall, meant that their boat was getting rocked a lot more and she’d started to fall.
“I moved to terra firma, a two-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights,” Day said. “It felt like we were moving into a palace, but the thing is, on the boat, you have 360-degree exposure, you can see the stars at night, the beauty of the water and the sky. I never minded the size. At night when I’m falling to sleep, I still feel the rocking. Not every night, but occasionally.”
“Although it is necessary to rebuild this place it is quite hard to face the idea that we have to go, it is just heartbreaking, especially when we do not know for sure if the Parks Department really will invite us back,” said Raquel Buhrer. “That is what made us really upset.” “To old people, time is important,” she added. She and Werner sat quietly for a moment, in their plastic deck chairs, staring at a full moon over Riverside Park. “This is a beautiful moon,” she said.#thevillagesmortgage #thevillagesfl #thevillagesflorida