The LILAC steamship, listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the only extant steam-powered lighthouse tender, is berthed at Pier 25 in Hudson River Park. I visited the ship during its month-long transformation into The Floating Library, a temporary public gathering space and reading room, instigated by artist Beatrice Glow.
The Floating Library’s organizers describe it as a public space “conducive to fearless dreaming.” As we “navigate uncertain times and shifting currents,” the project hosts readings, art installations, and public programming, a decisive act of placemaking that “intends to catalyze cultural momentum and foment future coalitions between artists, visionaries, cultural activists, and scholars that will outlive the temporary library structure.”
The library may be temporary and floating, but the LILAC has been around for decades. The ship was built in 1933, commissioned to maintain the network of lighthouses along the Delaware River and Bay that served as vital navigation aids and responded to maritime disasters. The ship was decommissioned in 1972 (today most lighthouses are automated and serviced by helicopter), purchased for preservation in 2003, and moved to Pier 25 in 2011. The LILAC Preservation Project directs the restoration and opens the ship to the public between May and October, also hosting community activities onboard.
The historic ship and its current surroundings evoked the stark contrast between Manhattan’s former waterfront, ringed with piers almost all in service to the shipping of goods, and today’s waterfront, with few remnants of that past but many opportunities for public recreation. Stepping onto the metal gangway, the immediate smell of the sea was strong and the rocking of the boat unsteadied me. The Tribeca section of Hudson River Park is only a few years old, and just next to the LILAC is the park’s miniature golf course, loudly playing palatable pop hits such as The Supremes’ “Baby Love” with the occasional cheer of families erupting. Behind me, a Marine boot camp instructor was barking orders at a group of teenagers while parents with strollers and joggers passed by.
Once on the boat, I was greeted by a volunteer, a woman who told me that she wanted to get involved because of her attraction to “libraries in unexpected places.” She gave me a brief description of the project and sent me off to explore. The Floating Library is exactly that: an organized but informal space for personal exploration. The experience is as much about the ship and how each visitor chooses to experience it as any of the programmed activities or curated spaces. The programming focuses on themes of DIY maker culture, sustainability, and community engagement, with events including a modular construction workshop, a climate convergence teach-in, and a multimedia performance with interactive musical instruments.
I walked about, moving in and out of different rooms and encountering the occasional pile of books but no other people. Moving from the upper deck to the main deck, I passed into the engine room, which looked as though it could still be in operation, save for the National Trust for Historic Preservation sign declaring “THIS PLACE MATTERS.” Exiting, I heard voices and made my way to the large open space dubbed the “reading lounge.” A group of eight women and two men were sitting in loosely arrayed chairs around a folding table for a discussion billed as “Tea Time: A Conversation about Changing Times Amidst Shifting Currents with Nicolas Dumit Estevez, Beatrice Glow and May Ting.”
I hesitated a moment, feeling like I was intruding on an intimate discussion, even though I knew that the spirit of The Floating Library was to invite strangers to engage with one another. On the table was a collection of items, including glass jars with handwritten labels reading “Monarda flowers and leaves” and “Organic orange rinds” and plastic baskets with cookies. Closest to me was a copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, whose exploration of race and religion felt fitting during Banned Books Week. I rummaged through my bag, looking for a pen, and by the time I looked up, the woman next to me was already offering a cup of tea, made with the ingredients sitting before me.
The discussion was wide-ranging and deeply personal: who has the right to call herself an artist, how do we as a society engage with one another, how are individuals able to affect their cities and communities? One woman who grew up on the West Side looked around and over to the pier with a look of bewilderment, describing the West Side she remembers as a place for “prostitutes, bums, and garbage.” Another woman, now retired, described volunteering to direct traffic in her neighborhood in Mexico City, as the choked streets felt unsafe: “If you want wider sidewalks, you have to lose part of the automobile.”
Beatrice Glow explained the genesis of The Floating Library to the group as a conversation over dinner with a friend 18 months, “or two babies,” ago about how to survive in the city. A multilingual artist, Glow “merges socially engaged art and autoethnography” primarily through installations and performance. Ultimately, the project was born to celebrate the generosity of sharing and to create space for meaningful interactions. Having completed a site-specific installation piece, Aquarium from Austronesia, aboard the LILAC in 2012, she was drawn to use the space again. Her happiest moment this month was when she saw two strangers in heated debate over whether or not we need to take a systems approach to climate change; watching that impassioned interaction brought her to tears.
For a city as diverse, in so many senses of the word, as New York, I deeply appreciated being a part of a rare genuine dialogue between strangers of so many different generations, languages, and neighborhoods. This conversation felt like the summation of the project itself — public assembly in service to socio-political transformation, questioning what spaces exist in our city and how we take ownership of them.
On my way out, I picked up a handout from a group called Partizaning with a board game featuring DIY strategies: “Micro Activism: An urban tactics game to save the city!” The Floating Library’s spirit of grassroots action toward recapturing spaces for intellectual and civic engagement follows trends of testing ideas that produce social change and redefine the city through pop-ups or installations. Like many do-it-yourself urban interventions, the question is: what next?
Visit The Floating Library in its final days, October 1-3, for “The Artist Book as Manifesto,” the Closing Ceremony with “Collective Pirate Journaling,” or to relax with a book on the water (click here for the activities calendar). The LILAC is also regularly open to the public (click here for hours and events).
Emily Schmidt is an assistant editor at The Architectural League. Chicago born and bred, she now lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
All photos by the author.