- Associated Press - Thursday, July 19, 2012

In the past decade, the decrepit piers and industrial zones along five miles of the Hudson River on Manhattan’s West Side have been transformed. Hudson River Park is now a destination that gets 17 million visits annually, with a bike path, green spaces, playgrounds and recreation ranging from minigolf and skateboarding to kayaking and even stand-up paddleboarding.

Melissa Lopez rented a bike a few weeks ago from Bike and Roll at Pier 84, near 44th Street and 12th Avenue, and was amazed at what she saw as she rode downtown through the park.

“It was gorgeous, like a little nature haven — beautiful flowers, trees, and only when you looked over to your left [at the buildings], did you realize you were in between a concrete jungle and this beautiful river,” said Ms. Lopez, 29, who came in from her home in suburban Westchester for the day. “Everyone was doing something active — sunbathing, Rollerblading, bike riding. There was one pier with a volleyball court with sand. I kept telling my boyfriend, ‘Are we really in New York City?’ “

Ms. Lopez’s reaction is proof of just how much things have changed along the river. For much of New York City’s history, “the waterfront was where the industrial areas were,” said Madelyn Wils, president and CEO of the Hudson River Park Trust. “Then in the 1960s, the port business went away and the waterfront areas became so derelict they were an embarrassment. If you saw pictures of what this looked like even 10 years ago, you’d say, ‘How could anyone let that happen?’”

Looking at the ribbon of spotless walkways, plantings and creative play areas along the river today between Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan and 59th Street, it’s hard to imagine what Ms. Wils is describing. But when she and other New Yorkers began working to create the park in the late 1990s, one of her goals as a mother of three living in Lower Manhattan was simply to make more places where children could play. In 1998, the city and state provided land for the park, and construction began in 2001. Last year’s opening of Pier 25 in Tribeca was a crowning achievement. It has become one of the park’s most popular areas, with minigolf and volleyball,

A water taxi is seen from the Hudson River Park in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
A water taxi is seen from the Hudson River Park in New ... more >

There still are small sections along the water awaiting redevelopment — a pound for towed cars, a facility for Sanitation Department trucks — but the walkways and bike paths are uninterrupted. (Ms. Wils said the park has “more bikes on the bike paths than anywhere else in the country — 6 million a year.”) Counting playgrounds, lawns, sports facilities, boating options and other amenities, the park’s attractions number in the dozens.

“There are so many different boating opportunities in the park now,” said Nancy Brous, vice president of the Hudson River Watertrail Association. Many of the programs are run by volunteers to educate New Yorkers who may never have been in a kayak or out on the river before, Ms. Brous said, but the walk-up kayaking programs also get “a lot of out-of-town visitors. This is something that’s really going to be driving the tourist trade as time goes on and more people seek it out.”

Another aspect of the recreational boating programs is teaching the public about the river. It’s a tidal estuary, so the currents are strong, and the water can be murky as the tidal flow stirs up silt. “It’s not crystal-clear, and you can’t see that deep into it, but it’s not pollution,” Ms. Brous said. “People are very surprised when they learn about the water quality. Just by the birds you can tell it’s clean — they’re out there, and they’re catching fish.”

Hudson River Park also is home to historic vessels that can be toured; public art, including the AIDS memorial at 11th Street; yoga and other fitness programs; and concerts, walks and talks, including a Sunday-morning nature tour where participants learn about the park’s 85 species of birds. Little wonder the park has started turning up in travel guides to New York City as an option for visitors looking for something to do besides shopping, theater and museums.

The park also is near several of New York’s biggest attractions: the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, at 46th Street, where the NASA Space Shuttle Enterprise is on view, and the High Line, the stunning urban park built atop an old elevated freight rail line between Gansevoort Street and 30th Street, slightly east of the river along 10th and 11th avenues.

Another busy spot within the park is Chelsea Piers, a sports and recreation center with a bowling alley, indoor skating rink, golf driving range and other things to do between 17th and 23rd streets. The Frying Pan is a bustling bar and restaurant on a salvaged boat docked at Pier 66, 26th Street.

Ms. Lopez later raved about her day of biking in the park on her blog, called FunFitChic, as the “best day ever,” and she’s recommending the experience to out-of-towners. “We have a cousin here from Puerto Rico, and I said, ‘Let’s get on a bike and go there.’ It’s definitely the way to go.”