New parks! New restaurants! The future of Manhattanville organizing! Bwogger-about-town Lydia DePillis reports (with apologies for the sub-par cell phone photos).

gholsonIt’s taken 20 years and $20 million, and the Harlem Piers waterfront park still isn’t quite open. But a troupe of students got a surprise sneak peek today, as part of a tour featuring expansion from a north-of-125th-St. perspective.

Those who skidded through the rain to the shore near Fairway got through the chain-link fence with the help of Savona Bailey-McClain, chair of Community Board 9‘s Waterfront Economic Development committee, who fielded questions about what exactly people will be able to do there.

“This is really not a park. It’s a wharf,” she said, explaining the absence of typical park features, like stages and athletic fields. “It will feel like a park, it will look like a park, but it’s not.”

The wharf-park is a slender 1000 feet by 80 feet, part of an extension of the circum-Manhattan bike path that now stops at 125th and picks up again about 10 blocks later. There’s a fishing pier, a revenue-generating “excursion boat”, a small squirty fountain, and plenty of benches for meditating on the distant Jersey shores.

Bailey-McClain, a short woman gazing out from behind gray Versace glasses — and still wearing stickers from campaigning for Obama in south Philadelphia — is one of a corps of organizers who have been working to gain access to the waterfront for normal people. One reminder of dogged neighborhood involvement loomed in the background as she spoke: Riverbank State Park, built in the late 1980s on top of a sewage treatment plant on the insistence of community activists.

The rest of the tour was led by an activist on the slightly less politic, more rhetorical end of things. CB9 member Vicky Gholson — Dr. G., as she introduced herself — made it clear that she would be telling it like it is.

“We keep it as real as possible,” she said, cutting a distinctive figure in her oversized Nickelodeon polo shirt and unlaced white tennis shoes. Gholson theorized that the city had gotten Columbia to serve as its development agent for West Harlem, rather than doing the dirty work itself, while reminding the assembled students to follow the money, remember the children, and don’t trust the Man.

parkDespite the sermonizing, the tour was a useful counterpoint to Columbis’s chipper PR gloss. Gholson told us about the thousands of tenants being forced out of large low-income housing complexes, as landlords work to flip rent-stabilized units, and the sky-high asthma rates brought on by a disproportionate number of bus storage facilities sited in the area.

“The area was desolate. Nothing was going on here,” Gholson said of the 12th st. corridor, echoing one of the Columbia administration’s lines about the larger development area. But the new “restaurant row,” including a brick-oven pizzeria and the Thai-Latin Talay, keeps jobs and business lunches in the area.

The tour was organized by the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, in the process of reinventing itself now that its original leaders have graduated and the community board’s planning blueprint — the group’s main vehicle for activism — is no more. CCSC VP Policy Adil Ahmed has been enthusiastic about working with the SCEG, and the College Dems say they’ll be getting involved post-election. Meanwhile, they tour, and send emails.