East River Walk
Bobby Wagner Walk
Robert F. “Bobby” Wagner Jr. (1944-1993), son of a three-term mayor and grandson of a United States Senator, earned distinction in his own right for his thoughtful dedication to public service. Although his life was short, he worked to formulate long-term solutions to the problems and challenges of running New York City.
Politics infused Bobby Wagner’s life from before its start. His grandfather, Senator Robert F. Wagner (1877-1953), was beloved as a reform politician, first in the New York State Assembly and Senate, and later in the United States Senate, where he lead the fight for New Deal reforms, including labor rights and public housing. Senator Wagner’s son was Mayor Robert F. Wagner (1910-1991), mayor of New York from 1954-1966 and considered by many to be the city’s first modern mayor. The future mayor was overseas fighting World War II when his son Bobby was born, and they did not meet until Bobby was 1½ years old. Bobby performed his first official function at age 7, when he cut a ribbon opening a tunnel under Battery Park. At age 9, he moved into Gracie Mansion, which was the family residence for the next 12 years. This set the tone for what many were convinced would be a political career. However, Bobby was less certain. At Harvard, he wrote editorials for the Harvard Crimson and was class orator at graduation. He later worked for The New York Post, and wavered for some time between journalism and politics. His interest in public service eventually won out, and in 1973 he was elected Councilman at Large from Manhattan.
Beginning in 1977, Mayor Ed Koch (b. 1924) appointed Wagner to a series of important city posts, including deputy mayor, president of the board of education, and chairman of the city planning commission, his favorite position. Wagner fought hard to allocate more funds for capital infrastructure, rebuild mass transit, and revise the public school system, leaving a legacy that, while unnoticed to all but the keenest observers, has had a lasting effect on the city’s development. Although many saw him as a rising political star, he never showed any interest in running for mayor, saying, “After all, I’ve already lived in Gracie Mansion for 12 years.”
In 1993, he agreed to co-write a book on the future of American cities. Sadly, in November of that year, while on a research trip in San Antonio, Texas, he passed away at the age of 49. His personal library was donated to the Parks Library in the Arsenal, Parks headquarters in Central Park, where it remains available to the public. The library demonstrates Wagner’s breadth and depth of interest, including subjects such as architecture, political history, sports, gardening and writing.
Bobby Wagner Walk is the part of the East River Esplanade that extends from 90th to 125th Street, in honor of Bobby’s home on 89th Street between York and East End Avenues. The East River Esplanade was acquired in 1939 as part of the construction of East River Drive (now the FDR Drive). The only highway in New York City not built entirely under the direction of Robert Moses, construction of the East River Drive was overseen by Stanley Isaacs (1882-1962), the Manhattan Borough President from 1938-41. When portions of the highway needed to be built over landfill, the landfill used was masonry rubble from buildings in London destroyed by German bombs during World War II. The rubble was carried across the ocean by convoy ships as ballast. The esplanade is bordered on the left with the endless traffic of the FDR Drive and on the right by the serene, rippling expanse of the East River. The walk features wide-open views of Roosevelt Island and the Triborough and Hell Gate Bridges, and passes the estate of Gracie Mansion, the abode of the mayor of New York. The path is often serpentine, with garden-lined sections. All this honors one of New York’s most distinguished public servants, who helped to guide the city along the path to success.