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What If You Could Dive into the River Whenever, Wherever You Wanted?

Our Town downtown
June 11, 2007

This guy says you can.

“Let’s see if we can get in. Stay on your bike; we have to escape fast.” I pedal after The Swimmer onto property that belongs to the Sanitation Department. It also happens to be the Gansevoort Peninsula, which juts out into the Hudson just south of 14th Street.
“This place used to be totally abandoned,” says The Swimmer when we come to a fence that separates us from the river. “Nobody cared at all.”
I take out my notebook and begin to write.
“Wait a sec,” says The Swimmer, suddenly nervous. “Before you write anything, what’s your piece going to be about?”
Two city workers pull up in their city car. “What’s going on here?” they ask.
The Swimmer says something about how we’re just looking around.
“This is city property.”
We bike off.
The Swimmer wasn’t always this skittish. His name and photo have appeared in print before, but the heat has gotten more intense as the piers have been turned into manicured, fenced-off Hudson River Park.
“The park cops are really zealous. They’re out of control. They’re really a bunch of assholes. That’s the reason I want to remain sort of invisible. It’s just a legal monster, the Parks Department. It should be the opposite. You go to the river, dive in, be relaxed. Instead, you’re always looking over your neck.”
Ten years ago, The Swimmer, who was not yet The Swimmer, was dangling his feet off the end of a Chelsea Piers pier. No one was paying him any mind. No one gave a shit. It was high tide, so the water was pretty clear. Suddenly he was overcome by the urge to dive in. The water was just fine: he didn’t get any horrible skin diseases or grow extra digits.
Once he’d been in, he couldn’t stay away. He found all sorts of spots, like an old restored lightship called the Frying Pan at Pier 63 Maritime, where he’d use a pile of tires to climb out of the water. He swam every day when it was hot out.
“Our protection was neglect. You could go where you want.” The only rules: “Make sure you don’t hurt yourself and stay out of the way of boats.”
Then 9/11 happened, and afterward, the river “was filled with boats: police boats, coast guard boats.”
Then planning began for the ambitious Hudson River Park, which was to run along the river from Chambers Street to 59th Street. The Swimmer and his friend, who had formed a sort of swimming lobby group, went to meetings with the Parks Department, showed pictures of themselves and others swimming, and proposed ways of making the water accessible.
They had obvious ideas, like cutting a hole in the railing on a pier and building a ramp down to the water, and ingenious ones, like enclosing the area between two piers to create a safe swimming area protected from the current. (Swimmers would still be affected by the current at high tide, but they would just be pushed from one pier to the other, which The Swimmer points out might be fun.)
Not only would swimming make living in the city more fun, but it would draw awareness to the water itself, the Swimmer argued. “The more people get in the water, the more attention they’d pay to it. Environmentally, it would get cleaner and cleaner.”
It seemed like they were being heard. Like something might happen.
Then…it didn’t.
“When it came to designing it, [swimming] was excluded totally.” In fact, one of the first things included in the park’s bylaws was a ban on swimming. According to the Park’s website, “Swimming in the Hudson River along the park is only permitted with a Coast Guard-registered swim race.”
After we’ve visited a few of The Swimmer’s old swimming haunts (now he recommends the East River downtown and the Hudson in the 90s), we stop our bikes in front of a sign that displays the architectural plans for the park.
“It’s such bullshit,” says The Swimmer—but he seems baffled rather than angry. “You can see they design things to look good in a model. They love the way models look. It’s so anal, so over-controlled…Oooh, granite paving stones.”
Annoyed though he is, The Swimmer is far from beaten. He still swims, of course, although he won’t say exactly where, and he is a veritable font of ideas, from a guerilla cleanup and photo shoot of what is currently a garbage-strewn beach to a map of the “New York archipelago,” which would point out all the little islands and beaches so that people could swim and beach-hop or kayak their way around the island.
“If this idea caught on, New York would have this new identity. It’d be like water town,” says The Swimmer.
In the meantime, happy trespassing.