A few New Yorkers ride the swells
Gloria Weiss was living in a small SoHo apartment in the 1980s when one of her young students told her that he lived on a boat.
The teacher wasn’t quite sure whether to believe him, so she accepted an invitation to check it out for herself. “I went to their boat and said, ‘This is amazing, I could live here,’ ” Weiss recalled.
And for the last 20 years, she has -- as part of a tiny community of boaters who make their homes winter, spring, summer and fall on the Hudson River off Manhattan’s west side, at the 79th Street Boat Basin.
The boat basin has been around for decades, built under the auspices of urban planner Robert Moses. Though there are other marinas in the city, the boat basin is the only one that allows for year-round residential living, said Keith Kerman, chief of operations for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
Even in the famously out-there Big Apple and its eclectic collection of neighborhoods, this community is unique. But life on the water isn’t all idyllic summer sunshine. The same place that seems like a dream location in summer can be much harsher in winter, when frigid temperatures, snow and ice make life there more difficult.
The boat basin also has come under some criticism. This year, city Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. said an audit of the site found questions about the financial management and oversight of internal operations that raised the question of fraud. The Parks Department rebutted the fraud contention, and said better management and financial controls had been put in place.
The Parks Department has also had to deal with the history of how the basin should be used. For years, most of the slips in the basin were taken up by people who used them year-round, either to store their boats or live there, some on boats that were never taken out of dock and weren’t even completely seaworthy.
That didn’t sit well for some, who questioned whether that was how a city public space should be used.
In the 1990s, the city stopped issuing new year-round permits in an effort to make the space more available to seasonal and transient boaters and city residents.
After years of discussion with the city, a compromise was reached. The city agreed to increase the number of year-round permits to 52 slips out of the 116 at the basin, allowing the possibility of new residents, while getting an agreement from the boaters that by next May, every resident will have a boat that is seaworthy and capable of being sailed.
“We appreciate the community of year-round boaters, it’s an unusual thing to live on the water,” Kerman said. “But we also want to make sure it’s open. Now we have what we think is a good balance.”
It’s a popular place, no matter the rules -- the waiting list to get a slip is several hundred names long. Of course, residents such as Weiss and Leslie Day -- the mother of the student who introduced Weiss to the place -- acknowledge that living on a boat on the Hudson River is not always quite as quaint as it sounds -- or as cheap as one might think. The Parks Department charges a fee for the slip based on the size of the boat, which is at minimum close to $5,000 a year.
And a boat that’s big enough to live in isn’t cheap either -- Day and her husband have a mortgage on theirs. Weiss doesn’t have a mortgage on her current home, but will need one to buy a new boat that can meet the seaworthiness requirement and be big enough for her, her husband, and two sons, both of whom have been raised at the boat basin. Oh, and the dog.
“It’s somewhat distressful for me only because I need the money for my kids’ college,” she said.
And of course, it’s a little difficult to be a hoarding pack rat when you only have a few hundred square feet of space. Weiss and her husband sleep on a mattress in a loft-like space on their boat, while her younger son’s desk shares space with the dining table and the boys have to climb into their own small loft space to sleep.
Residents do have access to the amenities of modern life, though.
The city provides water and a pumping station for sewage, as it does for any boat that uses the marina. And just like apartment dwellers, boaters pay their bills for electricity, Internet and cable.
But there’s no escaping the weather out there on the water. On the warm, sunny days, it’s lovely.
But winter is tough -- icy, slippery docks, freezing temperatures.
“We’ve been out here in the winter and life is tough on the Hudson,” Kerman said.
Despite that, Day says, it’s worth it. It was through living in the basin that she met her husband, a fellow resident, and decided to become a science teacher.
“I found everything here,” she said.