Mary Poppins, Miss America, Union Dry Dock, and Donald Trump

It’s easy not to like a ship repair facility, but if you stop to think about it, it is also easy to understand why we need them. (1367 words)

Being Water Dependent is a Good Thing

We are a water-dependent region and world, moving everything we consume from food to fuel via the marine highways that criss-cross the world.

Here in Hoboken we are also water-dependent, in that our vitality as a city is largely dependent on our close proximity to jobs, schools, shows, and hospitals in New York. It is not just NJ Transit and the PATH train that help us get there, it’s the ferries we fall back on when our public transportation system is in shock or distress. That is often.

It is just as easy not to like New York Waterway’s plan to turn Union Dry Dock into a ferry hub. Idling boats spew soot. Ship repair means grinding metal, spraying solvents, and oozing epoxies. If it ain’t the diesel it’s the offgasing. Then there’s the employees who, like other employees with free parking, leave their car just about anywhere it can fit. The whole ferry operation runs on a rigid schedule even more than most people’s lives.

We don’t have to like it, but as a city, region, and nation, we need more water transit.

In addition to emergencies, like 9/11, the 2003 Blackout, or 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, we need more water transit in order to give us, the commuting public, more good choices. NYC is The Bandwagon right now when it comes to embracing the waterways. We need more water transit so that we can get more freight moving by water and get more trucks off our bridges and out of our tunnels. We need water transit because we have made, collectively, such a mess of our land-based system of transit that sometimes ferries are the only things moving.

The Sum of Different Parts

It is important to remember that the ferry hub proposal, like many plans, is made up of different activities: parking, fueling, repairs, and crew-change. Boats need a place to sleep at night; boats need a place to fuel up; boats need a place to get repaired, and they need a place for their crew to board and get going on their shift and hand off to the next. These uses are not all messy or obtrusive.  Sometimes boats just need a place to lay over for a few hours doing nothing.


Union Dry Dock makes a lot of sense as a ferry hub. It is centrally located amidst NY Waterway’s many routes crossing the Hudson. Less time moving empty boats to the first or from the last stop helps to keep operating costs low. The Union Dry Dock land is already an industrial site, where ship repair has been happening since at least 1907. At the foot of Castle Point, the site is geographically and topographically separate from most residential areas on the west bank of the Hudson (save one).


Of course there are reasons not to like the idea. Fuel spills. Ship repair is loud and can be messy. Parking runs amok. Yes there is a reason Union Dry Dock wrapped most of the site in evergreen pines. But to see the working waterfront is also to understand and appreciate it. And to do this we have to leave our Victorian aesthetics at the gate. Working waterfront is the Dick van Dyke to everyone’s Mary Poppins. She’s clean, fragrant, and proper to the point of perfection. He is dusty, artistic, interesting, and genuine too.


For some, the larger question is the very identity of Hoboken. For example, if our riverfront is the face we show to Manhattan and the world, then a working waterfront is not the beautiful, picture-postcard image we want to sell. Hoboken is blow bar and nail salon territory now. These vain preferences are instilled in us. For generations, all the way back to Queen Victoria, we have been trained to want only things that we consider “beautiful.”  Today, much of Hoboken wants a waterfront that is to residential real estate what Miss America is to beauty contests. We want it because we have been trained to want it. But by grabbing at such a choice based mostly on superficial thinking I think we are setting ourselves up for a Donald Trump version of a land-use decision.

Nobody wants diesel boats or buses idling across from a kiddie playground. Go tell that to families in Hunts Point, Sunset Park, or Red Hook. They might be jealous – after all they get all the diesel soot but usually none of the playgrounds. Here in Hoboken we can and should be able to have it all. It’s why choose to be here, right?

Yes. We. Can.


I do like having a ferry option for my commute. I cannot afford it most of the time but sometimes I really, really need it. However, I also do not believe we should just give in to a private property owner who has enlisted a public agency to make a deal that works for them. If this transaction is being done for the improvement of public transport it really needs a more transparent and public process. The proposal needs to work for Hoboken. Here’s how it could:


  1. Park the boats at the train station and put any buses there too. Who says that companies working in the transportation field are entitled to free parking on the waterfront? The new garage at Newport is already an outdated eyesore on the river. We should not follow their lead. On the south side of the Terminal and on the north side, there is plenty of room to park most of NY Waterway’s fleet of boats.


  1. Provide a fueling station at the Terminal. After Sandy, NJT allowed for a fuel barge to be placed in the space north of the terminal as many re-fueling locations around the harbor had been washed out. The could keep a large fuel barge at/ near te Terminal every day without spoiling anyone’s view. (Even if the Army Corps would need another place to park during lunch.) If ever there is a spill there would be hundreds of people walking by every hour who could report it. The Terminal is also 4 blocks from where people touch the water (at 4th street) as opposed to 100 feet (as at Maxwell Place).


  1. Minimize the foot print of the Ferry service yard. Currently the whole NY Waterway operation gets by with two lifts that can haul out these relatively small boats quickly. Here in Hoboken, the State could also require that all metal, painting, and fiberglass work happen in an enclosed building. They can require negative air pressure that would bring air IN to the building, and filter our particulates and noxious fumes before venting the air. Liberty Landing Marina has a basic version of this “shed,” that is situated inside Liberty State Park. It helps make sure the park environment does not suffer due to these industrial activities taking place inside. It’s fine.


  1. Invest in healthy public use of the waterfront not just now but in the future. At the very least, this could be done by including a real promenade and multi-use path along Sinatra Drive. But this isn’t nearly enough. They could make one of the piers publicly accessible. They could expand the skate park (which worked very well next to Union Dry Dock). They could convert all boats to Tier 4 air quality engines. They could develop a recreational marina here instead of just a static ferry (and employee) parking lot. They could connect Elysian Park with the waterfront via a footbridge over Sinatra Drive. They could create an education and training program about Water Safety and Marine Careers at Hoboken High School. If the State intends to force this on Hoboken, they should help us cultivate the next generation of workers for this industry – starting with those who can walk to work. If the State is taking this property off the local tax rolls, they should expect and be able to afford to pay Hoboken something far, far more than just a one-time payment.

It’s not an easy choice, but it is important that people understand that the future of Union Dry Dock is not as easy as Yes or No. We cannot let ourselves be seduced by what just looks good or sounds good. That’s how we got Donald Trump. As citizens we cannot walk around with a bouquet of lilacs shoved up under our noses thinking that if everything is ok for us then it’s fine for everybody.  We are too interdependent now to think that way any longer. The old Victorian aesthetics we cling too don’t make sense any more. (note: they probably never did.) So, No, we cannot just ship these undesirables off to Bayonne any more than we can ship convicts off to Australia. These ferries are not our problem any more than they are our blessing. This is our challenge. Let’s scratch the surface and figure it out.

April 2 2018




One Response to Mary Poppins, Miss America, Union Dry Dock, and Donald Trump

  1. Outside New York says:

    Thanks Barry J Grossman and Anthony Townsend for the motivation to write this out!

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