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Little Island makes a big splash on the Hudson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Along with the city’s reopening from the waning pandemic, the Little Island opened for the first time to the public last Friday.

One thing is for sure: It’s definitely nothing like any other pier you’ve ever seen in the Hudson River Park — or probably anywhere on earth for that matter.

Initially, the new 2.7-acre pier was open to anyone to walk right onto from 6 a.m. to noon, followed by reservations with timed entry from noon to 8 p.m., and then open entry again till 1 a.m. But on Monday evening a local woman reported that she was miffed to be told when she arrived at 10 p.m. that timed entry was now being extended to all the evening hours.

A spokesperson told The Village Sun, “Yes, the decision to extend timed entry was due to the overwhelming and positive response of visitors wanting to come and visit.”

Little Island, seen from its southern footbridge, is supported by more than 250 concrete piles that are topped by soil-filled “pots,” in which the pier’s foliage is planted. (Photo by The Village Sun)

For now, with COVID still not fully vanquished, capacity at any one time is being limited to 800. It’s thought, however, that the pier’s normal capacity might be around 2,000. Little Island cannot enforce any rules on masks or vaccinations for visitors to the park, in general, since there is no governor’s executive order for that. But safety precautions will be enforced for performances in the park’s Amphitheater, known as the Amph, for short.

Dubbed “an immersive experience with nature and art,” Little Island, also known as Pier 55, off of W. 14th St., was a collaboration by U.K.-based designer Thomas Heatherwick and New York-based landscape architecture firm MNLA, and led by the Signe Nielsen firm.

Making it all possible was Barry Diller and his Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, which — in one of the largest gifts ever to a public park — paid for most of the project’s $260 million cost. Diller’s foundation will fund the pier’s ongoing operation and maintenance and its signature feature — its performing-arts programming. Performances, though, will not be starting until mid-June.

Michael Wiggins, the pier’s director of engagement and education, in the Glade with Little Island’s art cart. (Photo by The Village Sun)

The media magnate is familiarly known as “BD” among the pier’s staff.

Little Island is connected to shore by two wide footbridges. It sits on 267 precast concrete piles that support its unique rolling deck atop special dirt-filled “pots.” The lushly planted structure is covered with scores of evergreen trees, which will continue to mature — some eventually growing up to 60 feet tall — plus grass, flowers and shrubs.

Free colored pencils from the art cart to sketch the pier’s foliage. (Photo by The Village Sun)

The pier sports several overlooks, including the highest one, rising 62 feet above the Hudson River, at its southwest corner. As Donielle Lee, Little Island’s director of external relations, noted, this is expected to be popular spot for “taking photos or to get engaged.”

There are three main performance spaces. At the pier’s northwestern corner, the Amph for short boasts 815 wooden-bench-style seats and overlooks the old pile field of the former Pier 56. The Glade, a sort of “secret garden” on the pier’s southern side, is smaller, sporting three long rough-hewn wooden benches and a rolling grass lawn-covered hill that can also be used for seating. Finally, there is the Play Ground, as the pier’s flat central paved plaza area is known.

The Glade features benches and a grassy hill that people can sit on. All performances in this smaller-sized venue will be free. (Photo by The Village Sun)

Another major feature of Little Island is a massive rolling hill right at its center that can be used for seating for shows in the Play Ground. However, kids — of all ages — are already finding another use for  it.

“Kids have been rolling down this hill — they love it,” Lee said. “I saw a 78-year-old woman do it on Monday, all the way down, and she was fine.”

As to whether the hill will become Downtown’s winter snow sledding go-to spot, it remains to be seen.

Paralleling the paths that wind up the hills, and another feature proving popular with kids, are “boulder scrambles” that can be clambered on or used as seating. There will be “visitor guides” on the island to make sure that people behave safely.

Trish Santini, Little Island’s executive director, sitting on part of a boulder scramble on the pier’s lawn-covered central hill. (Photo by The Village Sun)

Continuing the theme of threes, there are three food kiosks, which offer affordable fare, mostly under $10, plus wine and beer. There are also “cocktails,” but they are made only with wine and beer, and the pier has no hard liquor.

Food includes a main menu, plus small bites, and features things like hot dogs, spicy chicken sandwiches, salads, breakfast sandwiches and fruit and granola cups. The menu’s priciest item is a cheese plate that runs around $15. There are also plans for pushcarts with ice cream and popsicles.

The pier opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 1 a.m. The food kiosks open at 7 a.m. and close at 11 p.m.

Alcohol will be served from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. There is a two-drink-per-person limit when making purchases.

One of Little Island’s three kiosks for food and beverages. There are wine and beer and wine-and-beer-based “cocktails.” (Photo by The Village Sun)

At a “park warming” for the press the day before the big opening, The Village Sun got a chance to check out the sun-splashed pier before the Instagram-crazed crowds and YouTube bloggers descended. It’s definitely impressive and everything looks very high quality, from the plantings to the structure itself. Walking up the weathered-wood stairway to the island’s highest overlook, you feel the cooling breezes off the Hudson and can easily imagine yourself walking on a boardwalk out on Fire Island.

The island’s staff are all poised and professional. Michael Wiggins is the director of engagement and education and was showing off the pier’s “art cart.” Kids of all ages can get free colored pencils here and page handouts giving ideas for flora to find and sketch or photograph on the pier.

Wiggins explained that there will be 28 ticketed shows at the Amph over the course of the season. Thirty percent of those tickets will be free, distributed to the pier’s “community partners.” Forty percent of ducats will be reduced cost, $25. The other 30 percent, the top-bracket tickets, will be $25 to $65. Performances in the Amph will start in June. While COVID regulations are in flux, as of now, attendees for shows in the Amph will have to show they are vaccinated or have been recently tested.

A gardener waters some of the pier’s extensive foliage near the southwest overlook. (Photo by The Village Sun)

Wiggins has been coordinating with local community groups, schools and city agencies on the free tickets. Some that he and others mentioned included Westbeth, The Door, Hudson Guild, Greenwich House, P.S. 33/Chelsea Prep and the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development. Meanwhile, the low-cost $25 tickets will be available through the Theater Development Fund (TDF).

There will be hundreds performances on the pier this first season, most of them free. Everything in the Glade will be gratis.

“The bulk of the performances on the pier will be free,” Wiggins said.

Little Island will have four performers in residence, including PigPen, a theater group that will put on a storytelling festival, which residents from Westbeth will be a part of. The artist residencies last for three years.

Donielle Lee, Little Island’s director of external relations, stands at a wooden railing that encircles the Amphitheater, known for short as the Amph. People without tickets can stand here and watch performances and rehearsals for free. Seventy percent of the Amph’s tickets will be free or low-cost, $25.

There will also be pop-up performances happening all over the pier. There is an extensive list of around 75 “Perform in the Park” artists, local artists selected through an open-submission program. These range from clowns, jugglers and electric cello to mime and zydeco, to name a few. Also making the cut was the Saw Lady, who some might have seen performing at the Union Square subway station.

In a program dubbed Free Music in the Amph, there will be three hours of concerts, with an intermission, on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., though sometimes it might be on a Friday, the staffers said.

A camera crew treks up the pier’s big hill during a press preview day. Will this become Downtown’s sledding destination in the winter? (Photo by The Village Sun)

Last but not least, there will be a bingo night led by Linda Loves Bingo, a drag queen who hosts bingo in the East Village.

For a list of performers and events, check littleisland.org.

In general, programming will occur on the pier six days a week. Tuesday will be the so-called dark day.

All the artists performing on Little Island, from the Amph to the pop-uppers, are being paid.

The performances for this first season will run from mid-June to mid-September. The idea is to let people get used to the park first, then add in the entertainment.

“We wanted to make sure they had a handful of weeks just as a park,” said Trish Santini, Little Island’s executive director. “So programming is starting a little later this year to let people know the park.”

The pier’s first performance will be a concert in the Amph on Sun., June 13.

Alverneq Lindsay, a programming associate, was impressed by how interactive the performances were at the Amph during a pre-opening event. (Photo by The Village Sun)

Alverneq Lindsay, the programming associate, works closely with Julia Kraus, Little Island’s producer. She said performances in the Amph the previous night before the last press preview day had all featured a lot of audience interaction, which the pier seems to naturally encourage.

A sort of soft opening with Diller and others, the Amph had hosted dance and poetry performances, wordless comedy by the Acrobuffos and a fashion show by the High School of Fashion Industries. Diller personally thanked everyone involved in the project. There were pop-up performers, including a trumpet player. For the Acrobuffos, for one, Lindsay said, the chance finally to perform again meant a lot: Due to COVID’s impact on the arts, it was their first time onstage in a year and a half.

It can get pretty hot out on Little Island under the sun. One spot with shade is in the Play Ground, the central plaza area, where some tarps are set up. (Photo by The Village Sun)

Lindsay and Lee said that music and performances going on all over the pier simultaneously on Wednesday evening was not a problem; Somehow Little Island’s hilly landscape and all of its foliage help confine the sounds to their own areas. And yet, at the same time, they said, the pier is “porous,” so that parkgoers can see and hear, to a certain extent, though perhaps a bit muffled, things going on in other sections.

What is unique about the Amph is that, as an outdoor, as opposed to an enclosed, theater, what goes on in it at any moment is visible to people outside the actual theater space. There’s a wide wooden railing that rings the top of the theater, and anyone can lean an elbow on it and watch a show for free. Or you might wander by and find yourself watching a band doing a sound check or a theater troupe blocking a scene and running lines. The overlooks also offer views of the performance spaces, albeit it from a bit farther away.

Stepping on this feature near the park’s southern entrance plays chime-like notes. The piece was intentionally designed to look inconspicuous. (Photo by The Village Sun)

The creation of Little Island, however, was not without controversy. Given that the pier is being largely privately funded, given its size and river view-blocking height, plus the fact that it’s an Instagram selfie-magnet destination that could well rival the High Line in terms of sheer number of visitors, the project definitely has had its fair share of naysayers. “Vanity project” is a term more than a few fling at it.

At one point, after an environmental lawsuit had the project on the rocks, Diller, concerned that the pier would be sunk, actually threw in the towel and had walked away.

But Governor Cuomo intervened and brokered a deal, including a pledge to finish the construction of the full 4.5-mile-long Hudson River Park during his third term, which satisfied the plaintiffs. According to the plaintiffs, which included the City Club of New York, the settlement has resulted in $146 million for Hudson River Park.

A sloping pathway on the pier’s northern side near the Amph. (Photo by The Village Sun)

But there’s no denying the pier’s beauty, the sheer feat of its construction and the unprecedented amount of performing arts that will be offered, again, most of it free. Little Island’s community outreach effort, to engage local groups in the pier, both as performers and spectators, also is laudable.

As for specific community complaints about Little Island so far, Lee, the external relations director, said she has been fielding them and that it’s part of her job. Executive Director Santini said some neighbors, for example, had griped that lights from the Amph were shining in their windows, but the problem appears to have been easily solved.

“I think we were only getting those calls when we hadn’t focused all the lights yet,” she said.

Also, clearly, the sparsely populated pier seen on the “park warming” press day will not be the norm going forward — though maybe early morning or late evening hours will be times when the pier is more contemplative.

Apart from the critics, though, others will see the pier as a unique and special addition to the waterfront. And, again, “BD” is footing most of the bill in an extraordinary gift to the city. Hopefully, between a grassy hill to roll on, spicy chicken sandwiches, pop-up trumpeters and mimes, refreshing river breezes, pro productions in the Amph, butterflies, bees and drag bingo, Little Island will offer at least a little something for everyone.

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