Ferry Culture

WHO ARE THE FRIENDS OF THE EAST RIVER ESPLANADE? AND WHAT DO THEY WANT?

A community-minded, art-loving conservancy group works to reinvent the waterfront (and lament the fate of its Kenny Scharf murals)

By AMY LENNARD GOEHNER
jennifer ratner The Friends of the East River Esplanade

The Friends of the East River Esplanade are typically a pretty low profile group. Founded by pediatrician, art lover and mom Jennifer Ratner, the conservancy normally goes about its business beautifying the waterfront between 60th Street and 120th Street without a lot of hooha. This summer, though, the group made headlines, twice.The first time was mid-June, when a Kenny Scharf artwork the group commissioned for a park at 116th Street and the FDR Drive disappeared just days after being installed.The banner, which was paired with a mural painted on a pillar, was supposed to start a conversation about fixing up East Harlem’s stretch of the Esplanade. Instead, it was removed with wire cutters, then stolen. Ratner’s group rallied and commissioned a replacement. That one disappeared too, on August 21. The good news is the pillar-mural remains, and Ratner is as devoted as ever to her Esplanade mission. She talked to us about the banner, the East River Esplanade, and just who the conservancy group is.

The conservancy’s backstory: Around eight or so years ago, Ratner was biking along the esplanade with her son and noticed massive holes on the East Harlem waterfront. She was thinking, “Why is this not cared for?” when she saw a sign for the East River Esplanade Task Force — a group of community members and elected officials already on the case. Ratner attended a meeting, suggested a conservancy, and eventually spearheaded the effort herself. “My family said, “Now mommy can complain somewhere else,” laughs Ratner.

What are the group’s role models?
“The west side — with areas where you can eat, do a yoga class and routine programming,” says Ratner. “We have programming, but not like there.” And, of course, the Brooklyn Bridge Park. “That’s an example of, ‘If you build it they will come.’”

Accomplishments:
They’ve gotten sinkholes fixed by the City; secured grants to display public art like a 60-foot-long and 7-foot-tall banner that showed beams of light flowing through the esplanade. They’ve also hosted bulb-plantings days for the community and sponsored concerts and dance performances. Crowd pleaser: when Friends gave away free ice cream sandwiches from Meltbakery to the first 100 guests who showed up for a party at the 103rd Street footbridge.

What’s the story with the disappearing Kenny Scharf banners? Will you reprint a third time?
The group was dismayed when the first mural went missing and truly shocked by the second theft, she says. Her theory: “Someone who appreciates art and its value stole them. But how sad that they have robbed the waterfront of this small attempt at brightening people’s runs/walks/bike rides.” And no, no plans to reprint.

The Giver
The group’s biggest booster, financially speaking, has been the biomedical research center and grad school, Rockefeller University, on York Avenue. Starting next year, Rockefeller will be renovating the Esplanade from East 64th Street to East 68th Street (pedestrian and bike path, landscaping and seating), the stretch of Esplanade near the school. Rockefeller is also is establishing a $1 million endowment to maintain the upgrades, and has given Friends $150,000.

On Ratner’s Wish List?
The Esplanade “needs better care and places where people can buy food and water, areas that surprise and delight people!” she says. “And we’d love to see Pier 107 — which has been deteriorating for 10 years and now has some money committed — get shade for the fisherman, someplace for kids to play, or even see a movie.”

What’s Your Dream for the East River?  
My dream for the river would be that The Esplanade in our community serve as a vibrant gateway for people to access the East River water — for fishing (perhaps even straight from the shore) and for boating (on East River CREW’s boats and on kayaks and sailboats). And maybe someday there will be swimming piers in safe, protected areas where the current is not too strong. My grandfather (long gone) told me that as a child (I’m guessing the early 1900s) he used to swim in this area of the river!

Look for upcoming events sponsored by the Friends of the East River Esplanade.

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Looking for more things to do around the East River? UrbanCoast.nyc

Kenny Sharf The Friends of the East River Esplanade

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