Sculler’s Row


Inwood: Rowing on the River
Community Gazette
March 10, 2004
By Jennifer Sabella

In the early 1900s, boathouses belonging to various clubs lined a stretch of the Harlem River popularly known as Sculler’s Row. They attracted hundreds of rowers including high school students, trolley workers, people from Wall Street and one of the first female rowing crews. Eventually, though, rowing’s popularity faded, and the boathouses closed.

But Sculler’s Row may rise again. It has been restored as part of Swindler Cove Park, five acres of land at the northern tip of Manhattan along the Harlem River. For years, the area was neglected and underutilized. It was a boat graveyard, complete with litter and trash, said Jane Jackson, director of programming at the New York Restoration Project. That changed because a public-private partnership provided the funding to beautify and restore the cove. Work was completed last summer.

While such partnerships have become common, they usually occur with parks that are either large or in affluent areas such as Central Park or Bryant Park. How did such an arrangement come to rescue a small piece of land far from midtown in a relatively low and middle-income area?

In the mid 1990s, Billie Swindler, after whom the park is named, brought the neglected area to the attention of Bette Midler, founder of the New York Restoration Project. Midler and project president Joseph Pupello became interested in the site because it went along with the group’s mission to “reclaim and restore neglected open space in under-served communities,” said Jane Jackson, director of programming for the project.

At that time, Midler wrote recently, “It may well have been the saddest place in Manhattan. It was littered with all kinds of garbage, tires, cars and other refuse. The Harlem River shoreline was a dumping ground for household waste and abandoned boats. It was a blight on our city.”

During the course of researching the site, the project found that Swindler Cove had been targeted for improvement a number of years ago, but nothing had ever been done. The area had been designated “a wetland mitigation site,” meaning that if someone developed a wetland, Swindler Cove could be improve upon to compensate for the loss of the other area. As Restoration Project executive senior vice president Amy Gavaris explains it, in the early 1990s, the state Department of Transportation did work along the FDR Drive that affected wetland there. Because of that, one acre of wetland had to be created or improved, and Swindler Cove was selected. However, the transportation department’s consultant for the project died, and Swindler Cove was forgotten.

When the restoration project notified the state of it inaction, Albany decided to revive the project. The transportation department was appointed to oversee the construction of a five-acre park around a three-acre salt marsh at Swindler Cove. The state expanded its initial contribution of $8 million to $10 million.

But now that construction is complete, the state no longer contributes funds for the park. Instead, the city owns the parkland, and the restoration project maintains the park and supplies the staff needed to run it. The group acquires money for this through donations and other fundraising activities.

The restoration project sought out other private funding for the construction of a boathouse to restore rowing in the area. The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation provided more than two thirds of the $3 million for the project. Speedo, the swimsuit maker, donated the rest.

The Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse is being constructed im Norwalk, Connecticut. The completed boathouse will then be transported by barge to Swindler Cove, where it will remain floating, so as not to disturb the environment. The New York Rowing Association will manage the facility, which will be the site of athletic and competitive rowing programs that will be open to the community and largely free.

For those who prefer to stay on land, the restoration project has established the 18-plot Riley Levin Children’s Garden in the park. This garden, which is maintained by the project, was created with a $1 million donation from Barbara Riley Levin.

The restoration project is working to provide environmental education programs to students at nearby P.S. 5. It also hopes to offer instruction on such themes as gardening and water quality to members of the community.

This is part of the project’s focus on bringing people from the surrounding area into the public space. The goal, says Jackson, is to instill in community members “a sense of stewardship and responsibility” for Swindler Cove, onetime urban blight that is now a park.

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