Another Chapter in the History of the Boat Basin

Nearly one year ago, during November of 2018, New York’s Upper West Side lost one of its most beloved people with the passing of Michael (Mike) O’Neal, co-founder with his wife Chris of The West 79th Strret Boat Basin Café.

O’Neal ran fourteen restaurants during his sixty-year career and founded The West 79th Street Boat Basin Café. In his LinkedIN profile, he wrote that he had “Transformed a previously derelict space within Riverside Park into a weather-dependent seasonal restaurant with a 500 person capacity that averages between 20 and 1,500 patrons per day for casual dining or private events.

Now as the anniversary of Mike O’Neal’s death approaches, NYC is faced with another death of sorts. News of the closing of the Boat Basin Café has made enormous headlines, and rightly so, for it has been much more than a watering hole ever since it opened in 1997.

This fact is evidenced by the number of remarks people have made about the special experiences they’ve had there.

Not to diminish the heartfelt memories of those who recall their times at the Boat Basin Café, but the closing of this spot isn’t necessarily the end of the story.

Rather, it can be seen as another chapter in the colorful history of the Boat Basin.

The late photographer Roy DeCarava captured a moment at the Rotunda in his 1956 photograph (79th Street Boat Basin) which was recently included in an exhibition at David Zwirner.

Nearly thirty years after DeCarava’s rendition of the Rotunda, the space which was also known as Turtle Fountain (though the turtles had long since gone) continued to remain empty before becoming The Boat Basin Theater in 1981.

The stone-clad circle with its unused fountain basin at the center provided the space for a theater in the round. A stage filled the empty pool; chairs and bleachers were put in place it to accommodate an audience of 500.

In July of 1981, John Sayles’s plays, Turnbuckle and New Hope for the Dead, were performed at the space. Sayles directed both performances.

The Boat Basin Theater was the idea of Kathy Fehl, an actress and cafe owner turned producer. She also directed plays there, including Romeo and Juliet and Waiting for Godot.

During those years, Fehl convinced the city Parks Department as well as a group of enthusiastic theater people to help mount a full-scale season of plays and musical performances.

When Michael O’Neal “Transformed a previously derelict space within Riverside Park” into what ultimately became a beloved dining spot on the Upper West Side, he did so with controversy. These were similar to the controversies that are with us now. And this will likely continue until new ownership takes possession of the space (by presumably the highest bidder).

Hopefully when he or she does take over the space, it will ultimately add another cherished chapter in the long history of the Boat Basin – just as the photographic work of Roy DeCarava, Kathy Fehl’s Boat Basin Theater and the beloved Micheal O’Neal have done.

More for history buffs & fans of old New York:

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