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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.

Hog Island by James McCloskey

OBJECTHog Island

BODY OF WATERThe Rockaways

 

In 1893 they were already hurting. Boss Tweed had died of pneumonia down in a jail cell on Ludlow Street fifteen years earlier, and even though the Tammany Machine still had plenty of juice to it you could feel them losing their grip: Charles Parkhurst was making noise from the pulpit and the Lexow Committee was gearing up, and they weren’t fucking around. Not to mention a new Grand Jury investigation and all the so-called “reform candidates” making a fuss.

The island wasn’t even really an island, nothing more than a glorified sandbar really. A barrier island, sandy, low to the water and flat, like poured gold. Some said it was shaped like a pig and that’s how it got the name. Other said that way back when the Poospatuck had raised hogs there and farmed. Either way the Indians were long gone and the name had stuck by the time the War Between the States was over, and then some of the boys came home and took it into their heads to turn that little useless spit of sand into a resort – the same idea was working over in Coney Island, so why not Hog Island too? Wasn’t the city full enough of people looking for a quick close getaway? Even the most average of average men could afford the train fare and ferry ride.

The sea grass glinted green and white when the wind blew, and you could pick up dry, pristine sand and let it run through your fingers while you looked back at the coal soot hanging over the city. The smoke from the Sag Harbor Branch. The Central Railroad of Long Island.

One restaurant opened up, then another. Then a bathing house. Then a casino, and another restaurant. Just the average Joes taking the ride out at first, but then, who knows how these things happen, the pols starting arriving. They’d touch their fingers to their bowlers or straw boaters, flip their nickels to the ferry captains and wink and ride on over for the day.

Women tiptoed daintily into the water in their bathing gowns, weights sown into the hems to prevent lifting. They’d shiver in the cold Atlantic while on the beach the men smoked cigars, itchy and hot in their long wool swim trunks, talking about the next election. About graft. About politics.

Patrick Craig’s place was the one they all ate at. The Irish Saratoga, they called it, though that wasn’t its name. At night when paraffin lamps were mounted on drops hanging from the ceiling and the oysters and steaks were eaten and the bellies full, as the last of the liquor was sipped and calmly made its way down the men’s gullets and back up their spinal columns, you could meet just about everyone you had to, if you were so inclined to a career in that direction. Robert Van Wyck, Lewis Nixon, a young Charles Francis Murphy. Even Richard Crocker, heir to John Kelly and Boss Tweed’s throne, though not half the leader of either if you asked some, privately. They talked politics. They murmured, they muttered, they grumbled. Susurrations low and quiet and steady as a heartbeat.

“Look, Roswell Flower is up in Albany, and while that ungrateful Presbyterian pussy certainly isn’t going to do anything to stop the Machine he sure as shit isn’t going to stand up to the troublemakers down here, either. Can’t count on his support if the shit really starts to fly. No, no, it’s up to us city boys, up to Crocker, and he is a tough old Mick. You can count on him. Keeps his finger thoroughly on the pulse of the city, that one does. Knows who gambles, knows who visits whores. Hell, the man owns the owners of half the brothels south of Central Park! He knows every secret you need to know to run the big town and that is what is important. Once the Panic is over and the Democrats have an edge again, Tammany will be right back where it ought to be: in control.”

The men of the machine leaned back in their chairs and stuck their thumbs under their suspenders. They blew smoke in powerful, languorous clouds. In their hearts they knew Crocker wasn’t up to the job, not really. But the Machine had been through tough patches before and they believed this one could be rode out, too. Out in the dark of the night, just beyond the reach of the lamp light, the waves shushed-shushed on the smooth sand.

News started coming up that morning, the wires humming hot with cables from Norfolk, D.C, Baltimore. They called it a Class Two hurricane, a gale, a cyclone. It was a Wednesday and lucky for that: most everyone was back in the city.

At two in the afternoon the clouds came in dark and low from the south. Lighting  silhouetted the Statue of Liberty. At eight that night the storm hit. It hit hard. In parts of Brooklyn and Queens surges of up to thirty-feet were recorded, covering homes and apartment buildings. Dead police horses floated through the streets. Dozens of boats along the banks of the Hudson sank, and hundreds of sailors with them. The East River crested its seawall for the first time in memory. One newspaper dubbed the storm “The West Indian Monster.”

On the Hog, whitecaps hit the shore and you could almost see the beach disappearing, getting pulled back under, grains of sand dispersed in the ocean like dandelion spores on a stiff wind. Scattered and insignificant. When the rain hit Caffery’s Cosmopolitan the roof sprung a thousand leaks. Water came through as if it was nothing more than a sieve. Nearly everyone abandoned the island.  Packed themselves into small rowboats, tiny rafts not meant for those waves, but they fought their way through the surf to the dunes of Rockaway, then stood and turned back and looked. Watched as flashes of lightning revealed the crumbling casino and restaurants. The Irish Saratoga washing away. The Atlantic gorging itself. They watched. The rain stung their faces. The politicians were in the city. Crocker himself huddled by a fireplace in his townhouse just north of Hell’s Kitchen and, after the storm, sent a pittance to Patrick Craig to “help him get back on his feet.” A fucking joke, really. A sum of money so small it might as well have been an insult for all the good it did.

Generally speaking, in life things are here and then they’re gone, and any attempt at transcendent meaning is nothing but a lie. Still and all, it makes you wonder.

Within a year Tammany Hall’s chosen man Tommy Gilroy would lose the mayoral race to that hick on the Fusion Party ticket William L. Strong. Seth Low, a Republican of all things, would win after that. Crocker retired and went back to Ireland to raise thoroughbreds and nothing was the same, or so it seemed.

The New York Times said that the chimneys of the businesses and handful of homes on Hog Island “were tossed down like playthings,” that the telegraph wires “fell like cotton strings.” After the storm you could hardly call the island an island: it was more of a spit, something children could walk to over sandbars at low tide. By 1902 the island had disappeared entirely. Boats might get caught up in the shallows where it used to be but from the looks of the surface it might as well have never existed.

And every now and then someone will find an old, cheap porcelain plate, or a bottle with a stamp on it – “Trenton Glassworks, 1884” – embedded in the sand on Edgemere, and maybe they’ll think about it for a moment. Maybe they’ll turn it over in their hands. Run their fingers over the date. And then forget about it entirely.


Bio forthcoming.