IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK

She Covers the Waterfront

by Paul Hond
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Photo: Sarah ShatzWith a blast of its horn, the ferry departs from the Battery Maritime Building on South Street and churns into the East River. It’s a balmy Friday morning in mid-October, and the decks of the boat are packed with bicyclists, raucous high schoolers, tourists with cameras and clip-on cell phones, sketch artists, daydreamers, young lovers, history buffs, and couples with and without small children. People on deck watch eagerly as the destination comes closer: a loaf of land at the confluence of the Hudson and East rivers, a small island marked by fluffs of trees, stately brick buildings, and, at the water’s edge, what appears to be an ancient, rounded fortress or coliseum.

Minutes later, the ferry docks beside a sandy, man-made beach with a volleyball net and plastic palm trees bearing coconuts of red, yellow, and blue. Straight ahead, and higher up, beyond the emerald green turf and stone-wall tiers of Fort Jay, is the mast of a lone flagpole, rising from the island’s star-shaped heart. For over 200 years, this locale served as a military post for the Army and, more recently, the Coast Guard, which left in 1996. In 2003, the U.S. government sold most of the island’s 172 acres to New York State. Now it belongs to everyone.

The crowd disembarks. On the gangplank, one of the passengers, Ann Buttenwieser ’84GSAPP, observes the scene with satisfaction. This is what it’s all about: New Yorkers taking a free ferry ride to enjoy their waterfront, descending, on this final weekend of the season, upon the cannon-studded, mansion-dotted, elm tree–shaded, water-bound pastures of Governors Island.

Buttenwieser’s career — as a waterfront planner, urban historian, parks advocate, and writer — reaches its apotheosis here. Her new coffee-table book, Governors Island: The Jewel of New York Harbor, fittingly monumental in size and scholarship, covers three centuries of military history, while her work on the board of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, which operates 150 acres (the rest is run by the National Park Service as the Governors Island National Monument), looks to the island’s future as a public space.

Ashore, Buttenwieser, who is an adjunct associate professor of urban planning at Columbia, strides along a paved walkway leading to some of the treasures of this abandoned installation. She is petite and brisk, with blond hair and wide, clear eyes that might best be described as swimming-pool blue. She speaks in a soft but authoritative voice that brings a listener’s ear closer. “That’s Castle Williams,” she says, nodding at the rounded sandstone fortress. “It was completed in 1811, for the war with the British. During the Civil War, it served as a prison for Confederate soldiers.” New York’s very own Alcatraz.

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