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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Raw Sewage by Gabriel Brownstein

Photograph by Nate Dorr

Photograph by Nate Dorr

 

This is how I remember it:  From the park, you could see the sewage flowing out to the Hudson.  The seagulls swooped all around the brown discharge.  That’s the image:  a cloud of gulls, rejoicing in our waste.

I’m not sure the images from my memory are historically accurate.  I exaggerate, even when I don’t mean to.  But I can picture those big pipes spewing straight out into the river.  It seems unbelievable that it happened on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the apartments now cost like three million dollars a piece.  I wonder:  Was it true in 1976, about the time of the bicentennial?  Did the tall ships, when they sailed under the great span of George Washington Bridge and down past Ellis Island and into the Hudson Bay, did they pass through the accumulated shit of all my neighbors and classmates?   Imagine!  Those schooners and frigates with their starchy white sails, their keels raking through whatever had been flushed by the kids in my fourth grade class, Richie Gaskin and Ernesto Olivieri, and scary Fritz who had been held back six times—that’s what we told each other—and kept a weird kind of shiv in his little grade-school desk, a half a scissor with a wad of masking tape around the handle.  His piss too went into the great river.  And Mr. Jungerman, the crazy retired Spanish teacher who lived upstairs:  he wiped, he flushed, and out it went, to join the celebration of our nation’s big birthday.

I was always proud of it—our river.  I felt it never got respect among the great rivers of the world: the Nile, the Amazon, the Mississippi, the Yangtzee, and the Blue Danube. At the end of winter the dead bodies rose to the surface, supposedly, one of the crude city’s rites of spring: the floaters.

You’d look out at it from the park, and nothing could be more broad and mighty.  There it was, gleaming like the cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades.  But it wasn’t so much the kind of river you would ride a bicycle beside or kayak in or sentimentalize.   It wasn’t a recreational river.  It was a dumping ground.  The tugboats pushed the barges mounded with garbage through the white caps.  The sunsets were toxic and spectacular.   What does E. B. White say about the East River? “A dirty but useful river.”  Puerto Rican fishermen hooked red meat on their lines, and I was struck by the sight of that—the meat on the hook, the lined-up bate drying in little strips on the wooden balustrade, the wet spot when they picked the meat off the dry wood to bate another hook.  The river stank in the summer time.  All that shit flowing out into it.  When they pulled out a fish, struggling on the line, it was instructional—yes, something could live in there!  But it was also revolting, kind of like someone hooked a live turd.

I have no nostalgia for filth.  And I have kayaked in the river recently.  The sewage plant up on 125th Street keeps it clean.  I have let my children when they were small dabble their little feet in the water under the Brooklyn Bridge. 

The city in its bright shiny parts now has a beautiful bike path that runs up the Hudson, and beautiful people run it and bike it.  The path, especially down above Battery Park City, looks like an architect’s model, like it came fresh out of a box.  The river itself is for viewing now, not for dumping.  Its purpose has become decorative—no port, no sewage, keep it clean.  The border between city and river is maintained.  It is a beautiful, useless thing, a prospect to buck up real estate values.  CLASSIC SIX, PREWAR, DOORMAN, RIVER VIEW.  Money makes a boundary makes a frame.  The old docks are long gone—there’s Chelsea Piers, and that one big dock where the Carnival Cruise ships go, again turning the great river into a toy.   

“Yes,” says Ishmael in Moby-Dick, “meditation and water are wedded forever.”

So what can we say about Newtown Creek, that open sore of filth between Brooklyn and Queens, tucked away more obscurely than the Gowanus Canal, and without any of the maritime joy of Sheepshead Bay?  The raw sewage and raw oil still seeps in, and the motorscooter lies half buried in the mud by a shoe and a tire.  No clean up, no property values, no river view. The ground gets rusty and the grass grows green through the shattered window frames, and the human and mechanical blend with the water to make an ugly stew. 

Maybe that’s the best place to meditate on our water, because there the story becomes visible.  The water is coming in toward us.  It is coming in inexorably because of the shit we put into the air.  Even when we don’t use the oceans, the oceans are crammed with our discharge, and they are coming to get us.

I love riding my bike along the waterfront.  I particularly like to scoot through Red Hook, and down by the Rockaways, places so recently swallowed up by the storm and the tide, but since the storm has receded the ground has been cleared and we can play there again—for a while, until the next storm hits.  So nice that so much is so clean and fresh and spanking new!  I rarely pass by Newtown Creek.  Sometimes I head near it when I go to work.  When I go that way, I don’t bicycle.  I drive on the BQE.  I’m stuck in traffic, burning fuel, ignoring the water.  The water is invisible to me.  I’m looking toward the car in front of me, and toward the that car in front of that car, and in front of that car, and in front of that car, the exhaust pipes and exhaust pipes and exhaust pipes, all of them spewing waste into air, into rainclouds, into water, into air.

    


Gabriel Brownstein is the author of two books, both published by W.W. Norton.  His collection of stories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt 3W, won the PEN/Hemingway Award.  His novel, The Man from Beyond, was a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice.  He's an Associate Professor of English at St. John's, and he spends a lot of time biking along the New York City waterfront.