December 13, 2012.
December 11, 2012.
New York City is one of the most diverse and complex urban dwellings in our modern society- a diversity only made richer by the cultural traits constantly being brought by the growing number of people. Along with these cultural characteristics, new forms of living and shelter have also been introduced and incorporated over the years. Among these differing types of shelter, there was a growing adaptation and popularization of houseboat living- an interesting new way of life perfect for the various rivers and canals infamous throughout the city of New York. By researching the history of the houseboat and applying what we have learned to an analysis of life at sea, we have discovered challenges that the owner of a houseboat is confronted with on a day to day basis through their nomadic existence- including choices that must be made considering home location(s), fueling, docking and waste removal, amongst many others.
The history of houseboats is an interesting one that has relied on humankind’s consistent fascination with the idea of living a life afloat. They first originiated from the region of Kashmir during the nineteenth century and were made mostly from cedar. Since tourists or foreigners were not allowed to enter or build homes in this region, they were somewhat forced to live on the outskirts of the area in houseboats. At first even houseboats were forbidden, but when Maharaja Ranbir Singh was ruling, he began allowing them to improve trade relations, specifically with British countries. Ironically, an aspect which we deem so nomadic in today’s society, stemmed from something quite the opposite. It is surprising that one can find houseboats in almost every waterway in the United States, including those in major metropolitan areas such as New York City. But no matter the location of a houseboat- be it a vintage dingy or a three story floating dream- there are common challenges that live-a-boards are always confronted with. One of the most important things to mention before diving into what a day to day scenario of living on the water presents to us, is that houseboating is not meant for those who need to call a plumber or electrician to fix every minor problem. A popular boater’s proverb warns us that, “a boat is a hole in the water in which you throw money,” but more endearingly a houseboat is a handyman’s hobby.
The houseboat can really be considered a watery version of any American Trailer or Roma Caravan- however, unlike its Roma sibling, most houseboats are not built by a skilled craftsman or even the future owners themselves (with the exception of a few unique cases, which will be mentioned later). Houseboats can be purchased from boat manufacturers at boat shows as there are quite a few popular annual boat shows all over the United States with the most local being the New York Boat Show at the Javits Center which usually takes place in July. It can also be acquired second hand, with a large community of houseboat brokers servicing the used market. You must take into account all the necessary considerations as you would take normally when it comes to purchasing a new home and a used car combined into one: location, size, bedrooms, size of living space, appliances, engine size, gas or diesel, etc. Obviously a future houseboat owner must consider what type of body of water they would like to reside on; The Gowanus Canal is a very different environment than Sheepshead Bay or the 79th Street Boat Basin. As will be mentioned later- and as we have seen through recent events- weather will effect various locations differently, and the difference between fresh water and salt water is very important when including the upkeep of engines or the exterior of a boat. Naturally, the salty ocean water with its rising and ebbing tides will erode the hull of a Steel structured boat much quicker than the quiet waters of the Harlem River.
This then moves into the structural makeup of a houseboat. Historically and traditionally houseboats were originally made of wood with intricately carved wood paneling, but advancements in technology allow the introduction of fiberglass, more reliable wood, steel and aluminum boat bodies. Each has its advantages and disadvantages such as susceptibility to erosion and punctures which would affect the houseboat’s ability to float. When a future houseboat buyer has figured out where they would like to live and the appropriate type of boat structure for their location they must then think about whether they would prefer to be mobile or moored. Obviously all houseboats are inherently mobile but whether one plans on biannually traversing the Hudson River or staying afloat contently on the Gowanus will be greatly affected by whether or not one has an engine, and a powerful one enough at that.
This is what makes houseboats so interesting- the existence of an engine is what throws it into another category than typical housing altogether and produces such mixed reactions. When mobile home / trailer culture took off on land in the 1950s, most people were wary of these homes on wheels, and an unfortunate amount of disapproval from sedentary homeowners resulted in zoning laws and permit restrictions (Wallis 71) and very similar resentment towards houseboat property tax evaders is felt when marinas are held to laws.
A few more day-to-day challenges of houseboats are included within the design of these floating homes. Generally and understandably those who live in houseboats are not supplied with electricity, such as a sedentary home would be through grounded cables, especially when they are on the move. Generators are necessities for those who feel as if they cannot live without electricity and they are left to run on diesel or gas much like their boat’s engine would. This is another element of houseboat ownership to consider where one must weigh the environmental impact of both as well as the cost- especially when generators can consume a significant amount of gas or diesel depending on how often they are used and what model they are, not to mention if you are traveling in your houseboat you are using more fuel.
The heating and cooling of your home is something to reflect upon: do you let the cool breeze of the bay comfort you on hot days or do you install heaters for cold winters that consume more energy than if you were to just wrap yourself in blankets? Also, the biological waste you generate after eating (do you cook that dinner on a kerosene stove or in an electric microwave?) is a very important aspect of your life at sea, lake or river. Designed into a houseboat along with your galley (kitchen) and berths (areas designated for sleeping) is the head, also known as a bathroom with a toilet. And it is a law that either a boat holds the human waste onboard in something called a holding tank (think about the possibilities for disaster there!) which will be emptied by the live-a-boards next time the house comes to dock, or a houseboat owner invests in an expensive but environmentally safe (which is always up for debate) waste sanitation device that will treat the human waste and deposit it into the water.
Aside from all these small yet problematic issues that fellow houseboaters encounter, there is also the previously mentioned concern of weather- the hurricane which just passed being the perfect example. The wrath of Hurricane Sandy hit houseboats pretty hard- docks all over the city where destroyed leaving few places for surviving boats to get access to land and supplies. Over by the Gowanus Canal, they had feared that the hundred-year-old toxic sludge and human waste at the bottom of the canal would become a life-threatening wave of pollutants. The New York news feature states, “the 50-odd blocks that surround the canal — known lately for open-air dance parties and hipster houseboats — are in Zone A and are subject to mandatory evacuation.” Most of the people in houseboats were put through a mandatory evacuation process. Over at the 79th street Boat Basin, which we previously visited, all of its fourteen permanent residents and forty-one boat owners were forced to evacuate their homes for the duration of the storm. In the case of the 79th street Boat Basin, none of the boats suffered any real damage- however one of the two docks was ripped to shreds and they are now in the slow process of rebuilding it. The dock manager with whom we spoke said that his entire office was under water during the height of the storm but luckily none of the boats went under themselves.
The four houseboat residences on the Gowanus Canal may not have permission to legally be there, since people who own house boats are not only escaping property taxes, but they must also own proper docking permits and must pass the city’s Buildings and Fire code violations. Adam Katzman, for an example, is an environmentalist who’s been living in the 350 square foot “Jerko” for about two years now. Katzman bought the boat for $1, according to Back to Nature NYC, and then equipped it with a homemade rain harvesting and filtration system, solar panels and a “humanure” composting toilet- all in an attempt and experiment to live autonomously and without the aide of most modern technologies.” (www.huffingtonpost.com) It is a mystery whether or not Katzman still resides on the Gowanus Canal or how he weathered the storm with no help from the modern world of technology, but it is a pleasant thought that there are people aware of their carbon footprint and are trying not to be the cause of having a serious impact on our environment. It is almost comical however that he is doing so on one of the city’s most polluted canals in history.
Wallis, Allan D. Wheel Estate: The Rise and Decline of Mobile Homes. New York City,
NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Morris, Jan. The World: Life and Travel 1950-2000. New York City, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2003.
Shaffer, Kathy. Houseboats: Aquatic Architecture of Sausalito. Pennsylvania: Schiffer Pub Limited, 2007.
Flanagan, Barbara. Garn, Andrew. The Houseboat Book. Universe Pub., 2003.
Dennis, Ben. Case, Betsy. Houseboat: Reflections of North America’s floating homes … history, architecture, and lifestyles. Pennsylvania State University: Smugglers Cove Pub., 1977.
Nicholas, Mark. The Essentials Of Living Aboard A Boat: The Definitive Guide for Liveaboards. Arcata, CA: Paradise Cay Publications, 2010.
Liveaboard Living. http://liveaboardliving.com/boat-lingo.htm.
Houseboat Magazine. http://www.houseboatmagazine.com/
December 10, 2012.
November 20, 2012.
While doing research, I decided to begin looking into the history of houseboats in NYC and found this article written about the Inwood section of Manhattan. Apparently, there have been houseboats moored in the Harlem River since the 1920’s! Within this article, the author also accounts for a time he met a man who lived in one of the historic Inwood Houseboats, and lucky for us, includes some firsthand anecdotes from the Houseboat Man himself!
Interestingly enough, Mr Isecke (the subject of the author’s page) includes the reason why he and his family originally moved into the Houseboat (because his father was becoming increasingly worried about the prospect of another World War in 1948), where and how his family found their houseboat (the Ne-Wi-Ma) and how the family adapted to living in the boat as a family of 6 (four children on a little houseboat, imagine that!)
- Ryan: Hey, I'm a student at Parsons and we're doing a project on nomadic design specific to houseboats- would it be possible to ask you or a few of the residents some questions?
- Steve: Actually, I'm the boat basin supervisor but I'm afraid I can't have you interviewing any of the residents without a city permit.
- Ryan: Then would you mind if I asked you a few questions?
- Steve: Well what do you want to know?
- Ryan: Oh, can I let her in?
- Steve: Yeah sure.
- Joanna: Hi!
- Ryan: Hey so this is the supervisor of the boat basin- he said he'd answer a few questions for us.
- Steve: Hey.
- Ryan: So how have the people here weathered the storm?
- Steve: Well the dock itself was hit pretty hard- if you walk down that way you'll see Dock A has been destroyed, sunk completely under the water...
- Ryan and Joanna: Yeah, we noticed that.
- Steve: ...and people were all required to leave. None of the boats suffered any damage but the water level reached up to that garage. Now people are just starting to get things back in order.
- Joanna: So they're all back now?
- Steve: Oh yeah, most of them were back around three days after the storm.
- Ryan: How many people live here?
- Steve: Around forty-two people rent out a space for their boats.
- Ryan: Do you any of them actually live on the boats?
- Steve: Oh around twelve of them.
- Ryan: Wow, is it expensive to rent a spot here?
- Steve: Not really, it's $106 per foot during the summer- that's May to October- and $88 a foot during the winter.
- Ryan: Oh, so you're paying by boat?
- Steve: Yeah, the bigger your boat, the more you'd be paying.
- Joanna: Do you know how long there have been houseboats docked here?
- Steve: Well one couple has been here for thiry years now- this place was originally owned by the parks then it was conceded and now it's owned by the city again. It was in 2001 that all the houseboats got kicked out- although I don't know if my definition of a houseboat is what you're referring to. These boats had been docked here for years, discarded and uncared for- they were falling apart, filled with junk.
- Joanna: Oh wow, I see. Well I don't know if you know the answer to this, but as far as you're concerned, how do the people living on the houseboats get along? Are they neighborly?
- Steve: Oh yeah, they are very neighborly- there is a huge sense of community, especially with the storm that just happened, everyone was helping on another out. Or holidays too- they always have these fourth of July dock parties.
- Ryan: Wow that's amazing.
- Steve: Yeah, fourth of July is a great time to be here.
- Joanna: Have you ever noticed any hostility towards people living on the boats from those on the outside?
- Steve: Well, like I said, no one is allowed in here- for safety reasons- but no not really. I mean sometimes there'll be people riding their bikes too quickly and closely to the gate and when someone comes out they almost get clipped- and the bikers yell 'get out of the way,' but they were going too fast and it's not really directed towards people specifically from the boats-
- Ryan: Yeah that's just the normal NY attitude. Do you have any pamphlets about the boat basin or any information like that?
- Steve: Sorry guys, everything got ruined from the flooding- I have nothing right nbw.
- Ryan and Joanna: It's alright, we understand. Thank you for your time.
- Steve: No problem guys, have a nice day!
- 79th street boat basin- houseboat hunting !
November 18, 2012.
- - just a few options to consider as an underlay for our mapping project?
- - just a few options to consider as an underlay for our mapping project?
November 15, 2012.
- sad pug is sad about houseboat damage from hurricane sandy. :’(