Boatman adds life to city's forgotten waters

With his faded Greek sailor's cap and greying beard, John Boldt has received no medals for what he has done. His reward is around him: the lazy activity of anglers, boaters and revellers seeking relief from the New York sun. His "docks of dreams", as he calls them, have come alive.

It has taken Mr Boldt, a boat builder from the Bronx, 10 years. His new domain, where he lives part-time in a converted boat-building shed, is Dyckman Marina. There are 25 boat slips on a floating pontoon, a small canteen with a deck dotted with umbrellas and a new fishing pier jutting out into the Hudson River.

On this sultry afternoon, fishermen are wandering down to the pier to try their luck with the bass and fluke lurking below. Others, just off work, are tinkering with their boats. The clientele on the deck includes, Christine Maloney, a tourist from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. "Is there any other place in New York City like this? I don't think so."

It was in 1985 that Mr Boldt decided to find a spot on Manhattan to build a boating marina, not for fat cats but for working people who had small craft but nowhere to put them. He settled on the only piece of land for four miles on the Hudson in northern Manhattan where access to the water was not blocked by roads and rail tracks. At the end of Dyckman Street, in Inwood, it was little more than a rubbish tip.

The first break in an odyssey through the reefs of government bureaucracy - that took him even to the White House for lunch with George Bush - followed the discovery of a little-known federal fund for the development of inland water facilities for boaters and anglers. Known as the Wallop-Breaux Trust Fund, it offered 75 per cent of the funding for any new projects considered suitable.

"Frankly, if I'd known everything I was going to have to go through, I don't know that I'd have started," he admits. "If the choice was 10 years of going through this or 10 years in federal prison, I might have chosen the 10 years in prison."

The provisions of the fund covered 100 pages of text. "Who was going to read it all except a lunatic like myself?"

When a conference was convened in Washington in 1990 to consider new projects for the Trust, New York City refused to send anyone, saying it was too expensive. Finally, it allowed Mr Boldt to go as honorary representative. Finding himself "one of the boys", he attended meetings with senators, cabinet secretaries and eventually President Bush himself.

It took Mr Boldt four years to negotiate the development permits - with 27 city, state and federal agencies - before he could qualify for the $342,000 (pounds 213,000) he requested to begin building the fishing pier. With the remainder of the money from private investors, work began in February and was completed last month.

What he has created is a charming, scruffy oasis on the edge of one of the the city's toughest neighbourhoods. He is proudest that here is a place for locals to enjoy the resource all around New York: the water. "For decades we have made damn little use of Manhattan's waterfront and to my way of thinking that is criminal".

Nor will he stop here. An ancient crane is occupied crane is clearing more space along the water's edge for an expansion of the docks, and next year Mr Boldt hopes to build a restaurant.

He is getting some help from his customers. Sipping beer in the small barbecue area is a nurse, Virginia O'Rourke, and her husband, Jerome. They have spent $100 planting a flower bed. "We consider this place to be ours now," says Mrs O'Rourke, who with her husband has a small sailing boat at the docks. "We knew this place when we were kids and it was a boating club then. It went to ruin. And now look."