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New York Times
Date: 10-30-2003

On the Harlem River, Hope Floats

THE Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse, soon to set sail from a marina in Norwalk, Conn., is not the type of vessel normally seen in those waters. Neither is Bette Midler the usual sort of captain. But when the green and yellow boathouse, flying three colorful pennants from its hipped roof and looking like a modest but proud Victorian train station, is ceremonially towed around the Battery late next month en route to its Harlem River home at Dyckman Street, Ms. Midler will be very much in command, if only symbolically.

It would be too much to give Ms. Midler, 57, sole credit for the boathouse, or for the new city park where it will be moored, or for the sculling programs designed to awaken the Harlem River's dormant reputation as a center of competitive rowing. Nonetheless, her star power drove the seven-year process, harnessing bureaucracies and big donors alike.

"I saw pictures of the number of people engaged in sport on the Harlem River in its former incarnation," she said, "and then I saw the ghost town it had become. If it existed once, why not again?"

Last night her annual Hulaween Ball at the Marriott Marquis raised more than $1 million for the New York Restoration Project, the group she founded in 1995 to restore neglected parks.

After its overnight trip through Long Island Sound and Hell Gate, the boathouse will be moored at the new five-acre Swindler Cove Park, on the Harlem River's west shore in northern Manhattan.

Seven years ago, the unused city-owned site, in the shadow of a public housing project, was littered with discarded toilets, an upended one-ton safe and piles of shoreline debris. Wearing overalls and work gloves, Ms. Midler started the cleanup one Saturday in 1996 by leading a few dozen volunteers in bagging refuse among the slimy rocks.

It wasn't the first Saturday that Ms. Midler had done uptown cleanup, usually unrecognized. "Picking up the garbage with Bette is a very insider club," said Bernadette Castro, the state parks commissioner.

After Ms. Midler initiated the cleanup, $10 million most of it state money was spent on the reconstruction of the site. Ms. Midler raised another $2.3 million for the boathouse. Swindler Cove was opened as a city park in August.

Though small, the park is rich in natural features. At its north end, behind Public School 5, is a garden where students planted flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits. A curving path bordered by steel railings in the shape of cattails leads to a modest pond and waterfall whose burblings hush the rumble of traffic on Harlem River Drive. At water's edge, a bridge passes over a mini wetland of wavy spartina grass, one of more than 100 species planted in the park. Just beyond the wetland is what Ms. Midler calls "my beach," a 30-foot strand of sand.

An imposing double gate with aluminum oars leads to a 325-foot walkway, partly floating to accommodate tides, where the boathouse will be moored. Like the boathouse, the gate was designed by Armand LeGardeur, 47, who began the project in 1998 as an architect in the office of Robert A. M. Stern, and continued it when he opened his own office two years later.

As late as the 1930's, this narrow and unusually calm stretch of river was known as Scullers Row. More than a dozen boathouses lined its banks, many of them floated on old barges used to dredge oysters. Boisterous weekend crowds gathered on the riverbanks and aboard steamers to watch regattas.

Ms. Midler wasn't thinking of rowing when she founded her parks group in 1995, shortly after moving back to New York from Los Angeles. Rather, her aim was to help neglected uptown parks. "There were already enough rich stupid white women like me who could save their own parks," Ms. Midler said.

In 1995, the group sent a squad of eight volunteers and four hired workers into Fort Tryon Park, home of the Cloisters, to pick up trash seven days a week. Two years ago, the group turned a neglected snack bar near the Cloisters into a lively restaurant, the New Leaf Café. The group also helped remove the stripped remains of more than 60 stolen cars from Highbridge Park, which rises sharply over Harlem River Drive.

Rather than merely clean another park, the group set out to create a new one at Swindler Cove. In doing so, it happened to benefit from an obligation incurred by the State Department of Transportation in the early 1990's: the department was required to create a new acre of wetland to replace one filled in along Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive near Sutton Place.

"Once we learned about this requirement," said Joseph Pupello, the New York Restoration Project president, "we suggested that the wetlands mitigation be done at Swindler Cove, which is one of the few places on the river which still has a natural shoreline." The department eventually provided $10 million for the wetlands, walkways and other features.

Ms. Midler and Mr. Pupello first visited the site at the urging of Billy Swindler, a city garden advocate who was helping students from P.S. 5 plant in the as-yet-unborn park. "We went through the gate of a chain-link fence, which the kids had stuffed with cafeteria milk cartons," Mr. Pupello said. "Underneath all the abuse, you could see the promise." Mr. Swindler died of AIDS at age 39 in 1997, and the park was named for him.

The idea of adding a boat-building program for local teenagers came to Ms. Midler seven years ago as she walked past the McGraw-Hill building on West 42nd Street.

"I saw this enormous wooden boat under construction in a street-level window, and I walked in," she said. The boat was a 25-foot-long Whitehall Gig, a common craft in New York's nautical heyday. It was being built by Floating the Apple, a group trying to renew waterfront recreation.

Floating the Apple helped Ms. Midler's group start a boat-building program for middle school students now run by a full-time instructor in a former gas station on 10th Avenue just north of the park. "The kids learn tool safety and measuring and team cooperation," Ms. Midler said.

Three boats have been built so far, including one named "Nonpareil" after a boathouse that once stood at Swindler Cove. "When we'd have our launchings, these kids would put on their life vests and go out there and row and they were absolutely enchanted," Ms. Midler said. "It was the first time they realized that the river was theirs."

Soon the river will also be theirs to race on. Ms. Midler and Mr. Pupello were standing on the Harlem River promenade in the fall of 1997 when a crew from Columbia University stroked down the river. "A group of kids from the projects were glued to the balustrade fence watching the rowers with total intensity," Mr. Pupello said. He and Ms. Midler started a rowing program, paid for by the New York Restoration Project, so that the best neighborhood rowers might win college scholarships.

The rowing program will get serious this spring under the tutelage of the New York Rowing Association, an amateur group.

Of course, a proper racing program needs a proper boathouse. Ms. Midler's group first considered building a simple storage shed. But it was feared that the structure would cause environmental damage to the restored waterfront. The solution was to build a floating boathouse a short distance from shore. Ms. Midler broached the subject with Mr. Stern, the architect, at a party in 1998. "He agreed to help us," she said. "And when he said `pro bono,' I went, `Aah. . .' "

Mr. Stern assigned the job to Mr. LeGardeur, an amateur sailor. "Bette wanted a design that would be appropriate to city park tradition," Mr. LeGardeur said. "She particularly had in mind the Dairy in Central Park." Mr. LeGardeur also studied collegiate boathouses at Harvard and Yale, and Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia. "I never tried to assign a style to my boathouse," he said. "It is a distillation of a lot of floating buildings."

By the time Mr. LeGardeur opened his own office in 2000, the boathouse project was stalled for lack of funds. Ms. Midler eventually raised $2 million from the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, endowed by the late developer whose holdings included the Carlyle hotel, and the Transportation Department contributed $300,000 for the barge on which the boathouse would float. The barge, built of Styrofoam modules sheathed in concrete, was built in Vancouver, British Columbia, and shipped to the Norwalk marina. Woodwork for the boathouse, including board-and-batten siding and elegantly curved brackets for the broad overhang of zinc-shingled roof, was precut in Maine and trucked to Norwalk. While the boathouse work has gone smoothly, there have been delays in rigging the utilities. "All the cables have to go through a single tube that is strung under the walkway," said Amy Gavaris, the group's executive director. "The tube has to be flexible but resist the elements, including freezing underwater. It's not standard stuff that engineers do."

As the boathouse was nearing completion, Ms. Midler was stoking her performing career, completing an album of songs in homage to Rosemary Clooney. She is now acting in a remake of the 1975 film "The Stepford Wives," filmed coincidentally in Norwalk.

Last week, at the boathouse's destination, a pair of nattering hawks wheeled overhead. In the children's garden, all that remained on the vine were bright-red hot peppers. A riot of purple and white asters grew amid a sweep of goldenrod in a meadow near the river. A pair of sculls rowed by Columbia University's crew team knifed downstream, urged on by their coach in an accompanying launch.

Until now, the neighborhood has only watched from the sidelines. Next spring, it will have rowers of its own. "The Olympics may be coming to the New York in 2012," Ms. Midler said. "I told Joe Pupello that Washington Heights should have a championship rowing team. Once you say that out loud, it's a goal. We've got spirit. We've got pluck. Why not us?"