"Surely the ferryboat was one of the great inventions of the nineteenth century: that great turtlelike creature plodding through waters often iridescent with scum near the ferry slips, doggedly meeting the hazards of time and weather, sometimes serving as a summer excursion boat to Staten Island, sometimes bumping and cracking through the ice floes in the surly black water, so that the salt spray would tingle in one's nostrils.

"What endless variations on the simple theme of 'passage' by water! Even the short trips to Jersey City from downtown New York provided a touch of uncertainty and adventure, allowing for the tide, dodging other boats and ships, all with a closeness to the sea and sky and the wide sweep of the city itself that no other form of locomotion could boast.

"Ferryboats would have been worthwhile for their value of a source of recreation alone: no, I would go further, they were worth running if only to give sustenance to poets and lovers and lonely young people, from Walt Whitman to Edna St. Vincent Millay, from Alfred Stieglitz and John Sloan to myself. Ferries had uses beyond the ordinary needs for transportation, and their relative slowness was not the least part of their merit – though as to speed, it has often taken far more time to cross by motorcar from Manhattan to Brooklyn or from San Francisco to Oakland during the rush hour, amid poisonous fumes and irritating tensions, than it once did by ferry. Those who put speed above all other values are often cheated even of speed by their dedication to a single mode of mass locomotion.

"No poet, hurtling by plane even as far as Cathay, has yet written a poem comparable to 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry'; no painter has come back with a picture comparable to John Sloan's Ferryboat Ride, which, for me, in its dun colors, recalls one of the moments I liked best on the North River: a lowery sky, a smoke-hung skyline, and the turbid waters of the river....

“Those wonderful long ferry rides!  Alas for a later generation that cannot guess how they opened the city up, or how the change of pace, from swift to slow, from land to water, had a specially stimulating effect upon the mind.”

 – Sketches from Life: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford: The Early Years (Dial Press, 1982), pages 120-130

 When Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) was twenty, he began to treat the sights and sounds of New York City, his hometown, as his outdoor university, one part of an effort, as he later wrote, “to be fully alive, alive in every pore, in every moment, in every dimension.”  (See The Lewis Mumford Reader, an excellent and thoughtfully annotation collection of some of his best work, edited by Donald H. Miller [Pantheon, 1986.])  He later poured what he began learning back then into dozens of groundbreaking books.

 Steered toward Mumford’s writings for the first time in the early 1980s, and then eagerly going through book after book, cover to cover in each case, while underlining almost every third word, was for me a revelation.  Mumford was by then a famous old man with a towering reputation as a historian, philosopher, and urban critic, but what struck me about his writing even more than his wide-ranging and authoritative erudition, which was formidable, was his fearlessness: he always used his whole mind, every aspect of his intelligence, and would constantly tap into his own most memorable experiences when writing about any subject that had caught his interest.  Any subject at all!  But this was necessary because at heart there was for Mumford only one subject.  Humanity’s coming of age, and, more specifically, the arc of the human mind – how it has grown over time and how it will continue to evolve in ways we cannot yet imagine – was his fundamental fascination and deepest concern: cities, he said, had come into being primarily in order to accelerate human understanding.

 This celebration of the ferryboats that knit New York City together before World War I is typical of Mumford’s approach – the question he always asked of any object in the world was: What can it do to delight us, to extend our perceptions, to open us up in unexpected ways, to enrich our innermost selves?