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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.

Water by Elizabeth Bradley

Elizabeth L. Bradley has contributed to Underwater New York, Salon, Smithsonian.com, and Gothamist. "Water" is excerpted from her new history, "New York," by permission of Reaktion Books, London, England (please note Anglicized spelling throughout). "New York" is available for purchase here


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.

It is tempting to suggest that circumnavigating the island is the best way to enjoy its coasts. How else can a visitor be sure to see the fabled ‘Little Red Lighthouse’ perched on Jeffrey’s Hook just under the George Washington Bridge? Or catch a glimpse of the mysterious and deadly East River strait of Hell Gate, made famous by the stories of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper and by HMS Hussar, a British frigate that sank there in 1780, supposedly with a cargo of gold that has never been recovered? For the intrepid, the non-profit group Shorewalkers hosts an annual ‘Great Saunter’ around the island every spring: 32 miles, rain or shine, extra socks encouraged. But Manhattan’s shores are easier than ever to discover in smaller increments, thanks to Hudson River Park, a 550-acre park that runs from 59th Street south to Battery Park and includes every possible amenity from batting cages and a carousel to rock climbing and a trapeze school. It also includes the busiest bike path in the United States, which pedestrians cross at their peril. Brooklyn Bridge Park, on the other side of the East River, compresses some of the same programmes into a much smaller footprint: 85 acres in the shadow of the bridge, including public boating, a restored 1922 carousel in a Jean Nouvel-designed acrylic-and-steel hangar and artisanal lobster rolls. Unlike Hudson River Park, on the Brooklyn side visitors can actually dip their fingers (and their feet) in the salty estuarial water of the East River, thanks to several pebbly bays scattered throughout the park, and when a passing barge or ‘booze cruise’ sends a wake towards the shore, the gentle waves breaking on the shore might briefly be mistaken for an oceanfront beach – briefly.

If circumnavigation still appeals, there is a smaller, more verdant island that can satisfy the most ardent shorewalker without risk of blisters. That is Governors Island, the former military base, now partly open as a public park and easily covered on foot or by bike (after a quick ferry ride to the island from Brooklyn or Manhattan). But for visitors hoping for a chance to do their best On the Waterfront, New York’s coastline offers plenty of challenges, minus the longshoremen. Begin by canoeing with the Gowanus Dredgers on the Gowanus Canal, a nearly 2-mile-long waterway that has just been designated a Superfund site by the u.s. Environmental Protection Agency. The canal, which still serves as a shipping channel for deliveries of gravel and scrap metal to industries located on its banks,is noteworthy for the opaque, grey-green colour of its water, its noxious odour (stronger in warm weather) and its near- complete lack of animal life. No birds float on the surface of the Gowanus, and the only animals that have been spotted swimming in it are those that have made a wrong turn from New York Harbor into Gowanus Bay. Still, the canal intrigues residents and visitors as much as it alarms them. Despite its peculiar hue and stink, the Gowanus suggests something romantic and vigorous in Brooklyn’s past – and it looks quite beautiful in the moonlight. The canal’s Superfund cousin, the Newtown Creek, divides Brooklyn and Queens and has a more noble purpose: it is home to New York’s Wastewater Treatment Plant and the plant’s spellbinding, stainless-steel ‘Digester Eggs’, which look as though they were taken straight from an MGM lot to the plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The Digester Eggs are open for public tours once a month, but reservations are required, and the waiting list is long. Closed-toed shoes are a must.

In lieu of a Superfund site or two, true devotees of New York’s coasts take to the beach – in particular Coney Island, in Brooklyn, which is more famous today for its amusements (including the shiny new rides of Luna Park) than its narrow seashore, and Rockaway Beach, in Queens. The Rockaways, as the skinny Rockaway peninsula is known, comprise a diverse set of communities, from public housing projects to single- storey beach bungalows to private, gated communities, surrounded on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by the calmer waters of Jamaica Bay. The Rockaways, and their neighbouring island of Broad Channel, were all but obliterated by Hurricane Sandy in the autumn of 2012, and the turn-of-the-century character of some of the older neighbourhoods may never be fully restored. But the A-train subway service has been restored, and with it comes one of the most peculiar of New York summer traditions: surfing the Rockaways. It is not unusual to see Manhattanites board the A-train to Far Rockaway with a longboard tucked under their arm, prepared to take public transit to the only legal ‘surfing beach’ in the five boroughs. For boarders, or those who wish to rub (wetsuited) shoulders with them, the ideal place to end a day at the beach is Rockaway Taco, a brightly-painted tin shack just off Beach 90, famous for its surfer cool, even in the face of hurricanes. The boardwalks may not yet be completely replaced, but the fish tacos are definitely back.

 

Hypos in the Upper Bay by Elizabeth Bradley

This piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.


OBJECT: Currents

BODY OF WATER: Upper New York Bay


 

"A distant glimpse of navigation lights, the remote passing of a liner from an office window, perhaps a Sunday excursion around Manhattan or across the Bay to Staten Island—such is the sum of the average New Yorker’s acquaintance with his port.” - Jan Morris, The Great Port

 

Paddlers called it "The Soup." From a distance, it didn’t seem to be anything special: just the green expanse where the Hudson and East Rivers come together in the Upper Bay, en route to the Atlantic Ocean. For the experienced kayakers on my trip this was just what open water looks like. But from the cockpit of my little yellow loaner, it looked like a good time for prayer. The Hudson, which a minute before had been manageable, if not exactly glassy, suddenly boiled over with whitecapped waves that surged sideways across the hulls of our boats, smacking taller people in the chest—and me in the face. I wiped the salt water from my eyes in time to see a Staten Island Ferry bearing down on us, orange and inexorable. It was not my first attempt to paddle to Governor's Island, but I was now fairly certain it was going to be my last.

I first tried kayaking at summer camp, skimming like a Jesus bug over the surface of the water. I liked how paddling made me feel nimble and self-sufficient. After that, I kayaked—alone, preferably—through college and grad school, wherever I could— roughed-up rental boats on weedy rivers and choppy bays, sit-on-tops through mandrake groves and in quiet lagoons. After I moved to Manhattan, New York seemed the obvious next place to put in. I was born in a hospital overlooking the East River, after all—surely the city's waterways were my birthright? "You'll need a tetanus shot, and maybe a rabies shot, too," my father warned. Friends mentioned the Toxic Avenger, looking more worried than impressed by my romantic notions. I started volunteering with the Downtown Boathouse's free summer kayaking program, and told no one that I was slinging boats and practicing water rescues until the bruises on my arms, legs and ribs became too Technicolor to escape notice.

It was at the Downtown Boathouse's old shed on the Tribeca waterfront that I first learned what a real kayaker looks like. They look like New Yorkers. Some of them smoke without ceasing. Some talk without ceasing. Some take their coffee light and sweet. But all place a higher value on street smarts than on style—especially when the street is the Hudson River. It’s hard to be sentimental in a spray skirt, after all. As a fellow volunteer, I tried to imitate their cool, mostly without success—torn Umbros and Tevas do not an old salt make. So I learned to fake it, instead, and displayed the nonchalance of a lifer when a group of novice paddlers hauled in a bag of oranges they'd found floating in the river ("Can we keep them?") or a bunch of tough-looking teenage boys dissolved into giggles when they saw each other in life jackets for the first time. 

As a volunteer, I got first dibs on trips outside the gentle water of the embayment, into the Hudson’s quite literal stream of commerce, where at any minute a "hand-powered vessel" (as the Parks and Recreation Department referred to our kayaks) could be mowed down by a ferry, Circle Line, or a gleaming Chris-Craft—at least, that's how it seemed to me. My first trip was the Boathouse’s inaugural excursion to Governor’s Island, made a year or so after 9-11. We had only just paddled past the Battery Park bulkhead when we were halted by a Coast Guard response boat, complete with machine guns mounted fore and aft. The young Coasties on board peered down at us from the deck of their orange-bottomed vessel, which resembled, from our vantage below, an enormous and lethal bath toy. We must be some kind of kamikazes, their looks suggested: why else would we venture into busy New York harbor in our frail plastic crafts? The trip leaders offered our bona fides and the express permission we had received to land on Governor’s Island, all to no avail. We were already potential terrorists. "You can't cross," the officer in charge shouted into the wind. And then: "HEY! Come back here when I'm talking to you!"  We had stopped moving at his command, but the East River current hadn't, and it swept our boats upstream. Passive resistance by tidal estuary.

This time, however, there was no swaggering Coastie to keep me out of harm’s way. The Soup was my own fault. I had agreed to be part of a small group circumnavigation of the island—just an easy Saturday paddle from Tribeca and back, keeping close to the Jersey shoreline on the way there, and cutting through Buttermilk Channel on our return. But now Taino, our expert leader, was holding his paddle vertically, and waving it over his head like a flag. “This is the best way to signal to a large vessel,” he yelled. I guessed he meant the ferry, but Taino, usually a paragon of cool, had an even more immediate peril in mind—one that had arrived without warning on the periphery of our skyline view. It was the Beast, the Circle Line speedboat that is the bane of every hand- or wind-powered craft in New York waters. The Beast, which has yellow eyes and rows of pointed teeth painted on its prow, pummels down the Hudson River at speeds reaching forty-five miles per hour (by comparison, the Ferry cruises at a stately thirty mph), throwing up a dense wall of spray as it whips its way south toward the Statue of Liberty. The zippy little water taxis give the Beast a wide berth, and even the hard-drinking sailors aboard the floating yacht club near Ellis Island clutch their cups a little more tightly at its approach. It had been secretly exhilarating to tangle with the Coast Guard (they weren’t real New Yorkers anyway, right?), but there was nothing plucky about facing down The Beast.

The group drafted after Taino like so many frantic ducklings, paddling hard at an angle to the waves. We were as close to Liberty Island as their security would allow (here again, we were a potential threat to the homeland). I looked over my shoulder at Manhattan in the distance, bottom-heavy with skyscrapers, indifferent to my panic as the twin menaces approached. How many sailors have drowned in sight of that island? Were there skeleton middens under my boat right now? I pictured the prison ships in Wallabout Bay. The General Slocum. Wasn’t the Titanic bound for New York? I didn’t feel the least bit nimble or self-sufficient anymore. This was no gentle lagoon. This was the gateway to the New World, and we were about to be mowed down in broad daylight. Taino waved the paddle again, and suddenly, miraculously, the ferry made a minute adjustment, passing us by. Following that lead, the Beast, perhaps a bit petulantly, swung off to play chicken with a Circle Line cruiser. The whitecaps subsided. And our little group prepared to make a sharp left turn across the Upper Bay to Governor’s Island. “All right, people, we’re jaywalking here!” Taino hollered back to us as he ventured into the middle of the Upper Bay. I set my eyes on the middle distance, like a real New Yorker, and bid adieu to romance, and to The Soup.

 


Elizabeth Bradley is a Brooklyn-based historian and editor whose books include Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York and the forthcoming New York: Cityscope. She received a Ph.D. from New York University and hopes to paddle the Arthur Kill this year.