When I travel I like to fix the start and end points but leave the bits in between to chance but sometimes you don’t have to go very far from home to put this philosophy into action.
At the weekend, I was honoured to be asked again to be one of the judges at the annual AMS Pi5NY Math Tournament which this year was at West 169th Street. I have never been to Washington Heights so thought it would be fun to walk home and as a result I came across beautiful Riverside Drive.
As you can tell from the name, the drive meanders alongside the Hudson River. It was lined with trees and you could hear very little traffic so didn’t feel at all like being in the city. In fact, when I got to the end at 72nd Street the bustle knocked me for six and made me question how I usually manage to tune out the New York noise.
When I got home I looked up Riverside Drive and found that, like a lot of modern New York, it was the creation of Robert Moses,who has been dubbed the city’s master builder. New York, by Ric Burns and James Sanders, my go-to history book for the city, describes how Riverside Park used to be six and a half of miles of muddy wasteland, populated by hobos, where even the police were afraid to go. The park was bordered by railway tracks and the coal-burning and oil-burning trains caused so much pollution that nearby residents couldn’t open their windows.
In 1914, when Moses was in his early 20s, he was on a ferry crossing the river and according to the book, he turned to one of his friends, Frances Perkins, who later became secretary of labour, and commented on the smog:
” ‘Frances, couldn’t this waterfront be the most beautiful waterfront in the world?’ He started to talk to her about this great highway that could run up along the water and this beautiful park that could be beside the highway and the park would cover the railroad tracks. And the thing that astonished Frances Perkins was that, in her words, ‘he had it all figured out.’ He said you would have to bring the highway round a curve at 72nd Street and knock down some buildings there. He saw a marina – it’s now the 79th St Marina and Boat Basin – where people could have their sailboats. He wanted tennis courts and bike paths and knew exactly where they should be.”
From what I saw on Saturday, Moses certainly achieved what he wanted.