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New York Times – July 11, 2011

Check In, Swim Out: A Floating Hotel as Art
July 11, 2011
Read the original here.

As boat christenings go, this one was rollicking. In lieu of a Champagne bottle smashed against a hull, there was late-night bourbon and diving off the roof of the Queen Zenobia into dark waters lighted with natural phosphorescence. Nine strangers in bathing suits floated on an overwhelmed inflatable raft; a couple held hands on a pair of deck chairs; a moose head in a houseboat was decorated with a headlamp and a bra. Though the official ceremony would come later, on Friday night the Boggsville Boatel and Boat-In Theater, New York City’s newest and perhaps loopiest tourist outpost, was open for business.

Toting overnight bags and beer through a pounding rainstorm, guests arrived by A train or car at Marina 59, a working-class pier used by fishermen and pleasure boaters in an inlet off Jamaica Bay in Far Rockaway, Queens. Their home for the night was a floating hotel, a motley assortment of decades-old watercraft — four refurbished pleasure boats and a houseboat — moored around a jury-rigged floating platform. In calmer weather it will be the site of movies and lectures; for now it served as a midnight party space.

“It’s kind of a post-apocalyptic adventure,” said Katie McKay, 34, a designer from Brooklyn who was staying aboard the houseboat with four friends. “It doesn’t feel like you’re in New York at all.”

The Boatel is the work of an artist, Constance Hockaday, who said she hopes to attract the romantic and the adventurous — and amid them, the marina’s neighbors — to this unlikely getaway. Under the auspices of Flux Factory, a Queens gallery, it will be open for reservations Thursday through Saturday all summer long, an experiment in urban vacationing and D.I.Y. ingenuity. July is nearly sold out already.

“When you think about it, the water is the last remaining open public space,” said Jean Barberis, the artistic director of Flux Factory. “As artists and creative people venture more and more into the outer boroughs, there’s less and less unclaimed territory on land. But the water is still completely open.” Mr. Barberis said he sees the Boatel as part of a recent movement of artists exploring New York’s waterways, like Duke Riley, who staged a naval battle in a reflecting pool in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and Swoon, the street artist behind the wide-ranging flotilla of paddle- and steam-powered junk rafts known as Swimming Cities.

For Ms. Hockaday, 29, the project is the fulfillment of a longtime desire to exist on the water in a way that is creative and financially self-sustaining. “My friend and I always argue about whether or not living on the water is like living at the end of something or living at the beginning of something,” she said in an interview on a houseboat the weekend before the Boatel opened. “It’s just always sort of felt like the leaping place.”

The project is not licensed as a business, and the nightly rental fee, which ranges from $50 to $100 depending on the boat, is billed as a donation. “Let’s first get one thing straight,” reads a welcome letter sent to its guests. “We are not a real hotel. This is an adventure at best and an art project at worst.”

And it’s not exactly an escape from New York. The placid, even lush water view is offset by the encroaching realities of city. The rumble of the elevated subway line nearby is outdone only by the roar of jets; Marina 59 sits directly beneath a flight path for Kennedy Airport. Housing projects with a population of nearly 4,500 — including factions of the Crips and the Bloods, according to the city authorities — overlook one bank of the inlet; a school bus depot sits on another. Boatel guests share space in the marina with civil-servant boat owners like Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Sanitation Department workers.

Ari Zablozki, the owner of Marina 59, inherited it a decade ago and began actively managing it in 2009. He knew nothing about the job; he owns a bar, Zablozki’s, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. At first, he said, “we’re like, oh, maybe we should build a yoga studio.” But Mr. Zablozki, 42, saw potential in the marina as it was.

Having recently taken up classical painting and sculpture, he thought it could be an artists’ enclave, imagining a Storm King on the waterfront. He donated berths to artists including Ms. Hockaday and gave her the boats she used for the project, which would have been junked otherwise. For now Marina 59 is a money-losing venture, but Mr. Zablozki said he hopes that growing interest in the Rockaways — recently discovered by the Brooklyn-bohemian set as a cheap vacation destination — will keep visitors coming. “If I can figure out how to pay my real estate taxes with art, I will,” he said.

Mr. Zablozki said he had not investigated licensing for the Boatel. Calls to the Coast Guard, the Port Authority, the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs and the Finance Department (which oversees hotel taxes) to determine who might have jurisdiction over it produced a lot of quizzical reactions. A representative for the Hotel Association of New York City would not comment, except to say that it sounded like a city issue. Flux Factory requires Boatel guests to sign a liability waiver, and it is clear about risks like falling in the water. “I think if we do our job right, it should feel kind of illegal,” Mr. Barberis said.

Ms. Hockaday, who grew up on the water, in Port Isabel, Tex. — her father was a marine biologist, her mother a librarian — has been involved in outside-the-mainstream maritime projects for a decade. At 19 she was working renting beach umbrellas when she encountered the Floating Neutrinos, a family of wanderers who sailed around in a junk boat, and she dropped everything to help them build a 50-foot catamaran. Later she joined Swoon for two legs of her Swimming Cities project. She moved to Portland, Ore., completed an M.F.A. degree and began building a boat by hand as an art project.

In Portland she discovered the legend of Nancy Boggs, a 19th-century madam who flouted the authorities by running a floating brothel in the Willamette River, and who served as inspiration for the Boggsville Boatel. (“She’s like a female gangster,” Ms. Hockaday marveled.)

Even for an experienced artist-sailor, though, the Boatel proved overwhelming. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” Ms. Hockaday said the weekend before opening. The Boatel has no outside financing; it was built largely with found materials, donations and volunteers. (During an overnight visit, this reporter served as one of a half-dozen volunteers, cleaning cushions and anchoring boats.) So far Ms. Hockaday, who began working on site in early June, has sunk $2,000 of her own money into it, mostly for food and insect repellent for volunteers and a $200 neon “Boatel” sign. She hopes to recoup her investment, she said, but is not looking to make a profit.

Living on the Boatel is a bit like camping. The boats have no electricity and no functioning kitchens or bathrooms (though the marina has a spiffy new bathroom, complete with shower, and there are grills on the platform). And there is a concierge, T J Hospodar — or, as he bills himself, “the director of the office of local tourism” — to take guests on guided tours of the area.

Though Ms. Hockaday had never set foot in the Rockaways before she began her project, her fondest wish is to engage people in the community; she is planning to offer films and talks for the neighborhood children, in addition to documentaries and art lectures. “The boats and the hotel, at the end of the day, it’s like this elaborate scheme to have an audience,” she said.

Already life at Marina 59 is making for only-in-New-York juxtapositions. Over dinner with a bunch of the marina’s fishermen one night Ms. Hockaday said, a question arose: “What the hell is a hipster?” Ms. Hockaday offered that she was one, probably, and a younger fisherman added that they could be identified by their tight pants. Another night Ms. Hockaday and her volunteers were queried about their sexual orientation, in a conversation that was friendly but pointed.

Beth Perkins, a photographer who, with her husband, Keone Singlehurst, an art handler, took over the tackle and bait shop, Mr. Bait, in 2010, said the shift toward artists may initially irk some of her regular customers, mostly shore casters who live in the projects or nearby. “I think there’s going to be tension,” she said. “a little bit of a fear factor, because it’s change.”

But Richard Hunter, 68, a retired diesel truck mechanic and fisherman, was typical of many marina regulars who said they felt generally positive about the project. “I still don’t understand it,” he said. “But I thought it was a good thing” to introduce new people to seaside life.

If the Boatel succeeds, he added from aboard his boat, the Fishunter, “I’m going to put a vacancy sign up.”

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