The foamy chop on a windy day. Water peeling against the boat’s edges as it skirts along Manhattan’s eastern edge—up and up towards the northern tip of the island, nose pointed for the Bronx. The boat slows to take that bowed, left-handed curl around the far reaches of the borough. The water is still, the canal narrow. Not too far in the distance is the Hudson—a brutish chug-along of muscled rapids, whooshing the current downstream, all the way back to the other end of the city.

The creation of this small connection between the East and Hudson rivers was one of the most culturally significant days in the history of New York City, yet it is rarely remembered. On June 17, 1895, the opening of the Harlem Ship Canal cut the Bronx off from the city center and Manhattan officially became an island. A parade of floats drawn by horses chugged north through Harlem. People got drunk and pickpockets were arrested. The rich and poor mingled as one. Coming just three decades after Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs were legally unified as one city, it was a celebration for all of New York.

In the 120 years since, Manhattan has emerged as a hub for culture measured by what goes on within its topographical limits: the suffragist parades of 1915 and 1917 that took over Fifth Avenue, Wall Street’s collapse in 1929, the burgeoning beat movement of the 1950s, the gay-rights riots at Stonewall Inn, the pop-art boom led by Andy Warhol in the 70s and 80s, the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, and the pantheon of public institutions that were born here: The New York Times, The Museum of Modern Art, The New York City Public Library.

But still: Manhattan wouldn’t be what it is without the rivers that encase it. It is a city of enduring isolation: get on a boat, circle the island in its entirety, and you may begin to understand this place in a new way—as if its history and purpose could be squeezed into the frame of a single photograph.

If you start at Chelsea Piers, the current will take you south, drifting counter-clockwise towards TriBeCa and the Financial District. Before you get that far, the Meatpacking District stacks itself along the island’s western edge. Now a hub for high-end shopping and exclusive clubs, much of the waterfront of lower Manhattan was underused and, on its west side in the 1970s and 80s, territory reserved for gay men and women who sought a place to call their own. During the same years on the east side, you’d find drug users living in abandoned buildings. Now you see nothing but redevelopments and fresh structures. The river, today, is a prize.

Further down, Battery Park City is actually built from trash: a landfill, part of which is built from the World Trade Center, that marks the southern tip of Manhattan. Most maps of the city have not yet been updated to show it, but sections of this part of the island were erased during Hurricane Sandy. Rising sea levels and storms are a natural push-back against man’s expansion into nature. Despite the city’s power, the water always wins.

Up the east side, the expanse of the city comes into view. An army of buildings march into the distance, all unique in their design and purpose. The spire of the Chrysler building pokes up in the distance. Copper cornices of hundred-year-old residential buildings catch the slanting sun. The daunting expanse of the World Trade Center pushes up into the sky, its tapered facade fading into the blue. A lone gold koppala sticks up in the middle of it all.

Brooklyn flanks your right, with its bridges stretching overhead as the main connectors between the city’s largest borough and Manhattan. Parts of Brooklyn have emerged, in recent years, as a secondary epicenter of the city, with rapid change their most noticeable characteristic. The views from the borough’s western edge, facing the jagged Midtown skyline, wouldn't exist in all their majesty without the water separating it from Manhattan. Looking out in the evening, with the rusty ball of sun falling behind the city, it’s easy to forget about the river that makes it all possible.

Up towards Harlem, rows of public housing butt against the water’s edge, co-ops and Section 8 buildings that still stand as a landmark of segregation in the residential sector. From the water, they are massive – on the boat, it takes nearly ten minutes to push past them. The Bronx comes into view to the north, with Yankee Stadium off in the distance. 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, slightly set back from the water and where DJ Kool lived in the 1970s, can be seen in full view.

At the northern tip of Manhattan, buildings are sparse. Clusters of oak and pine run inland from the rocks that outline its coast. The 207th Street train yard is a repair station for all of New York’s subways. Its staff are the doctors of the city’s guts and organs and lifelines. The last careening arc through the Harlem Ship Canal, commonly known today as Spuyten Duyvil Creek, is the place where people hooted and hollered over a century ago when Manhattan became for the first time an island.

And it’s from the water that you can still see much of the city at once: the bridges, the views, the buildings and the cars, and even, on a cool fall day, New York City marathon runners on mile 21, crossing over the Madison Avenue Bridge into the Bronx and circling back for the last drive, down to the finish.