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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.

Submerged by Charis Emily Shafer

OBJECT: Parts of Zone B

BODY OF WATER: Hurricane Sandy



Artist's Statement:

Personal narratives reveal the minutiae of an event so epic in scale it escapes understanding. So it is here with the recollections of Sally and John: an artist and his muse. On May 3rd of 2013, they recounted their mutual affection and shared struggles with gentle ribbing and creative interplay. A clandestine painter, John stored his completed canvases in the basement of their Sheepshead Bay home. When Hurricane Sandy flooded the neighborhood, the house was spared, but not so with the paintings, many of which were of his muse, Sally. But, in spite of this, the two find humor and joy in each other and, because of it, they are embarking on another as-yet-uncharted creative voyage together. 


Charis Shafer has worked on a boat and has swum with bioluminescent phytoplankton; she is also an independent multimedia producer living in Brooklyn who moonlights as the Assistant to the General Counsel at the Open Society Foundations. She has worked for the Columbia Center for Oral History, conducted oral history interviews with the Brooklyn Historical Society, recorded podcasts for the LA Review of Books, and produced the short film Occupy: An Oral History Project, featuring narratives of those involved in Occupy. Her current projects include: BrooklynPop, a Brooklyn-based podcast on pop culture; a music video with the singer/songwriter, Julia Weldon; and a satirical Web series. And yet, she still finds time to explore aquatic New York with her wife and their dog, Sylvie. 

More Manageable Space by Rebekah Bergman

OBJECT: Parts of Zone B

BODY OF WATER: Hurricane Sandy


 

When the rain starts, we don’t know each other’s names. We share a line on our address and assume that is all. We are an actor in 1J, a doctor in 3C, law school students in the large unit on the fifth floor. We’ve left dark pockets of tiny towns in the Midwest, the Deep South, the West Coast to emerge in this city. We thought we’d like to join its sprawling crowds.

We shape our mouths to speak in newscaster accents but have still not quite acclimated. We are awed by the night sky—how big it looks starless, how bright. We thought we could shed our hometowns like a snake leaves behind its old skin, but it is difficult to belong to a place that is even right now expanding. One neighborhood splits into two and the city grows like a cluster of cells, multiplying each time it divides. The city-natives harbor deep resentment for us, the non-natives. They blame us for the dense smog, the littered streets, the whole notion of urban sprawl. We find this confusing because we also miss the color green.

To belong here, we learn, you must dream of finding more room for your legs and your elbows—a secret closet, a hidden staircase, an extra half-bath. This is how we feel our foreignness; our preference for bounded landscapes, more manageable space. That ugly word “sprawl” makes us wonder: How can we live inside a place that has no edge? 

It is an autumn of beautiful sunsets that the weatherman says will bring rain. We breathe the chemicals that color the clouds and see how the city spreads into the atmosphere even. The season is warmer than we expected. We unlayer our scarves and wool sweaters, thinning ourselves to stay cool. 

The rain finally starts on a Sunday and at first it is only a misting. It gives us bad hair and shines in our eyebrows, glistening over our skin. We take umbrellas with us when we leave in the morning. But we carry them closed just in case it gets worse.

It gets worse. By evening we sit at kitchen tables but the noise of rain drowns out our chewing, our thoughts. We go to the roof for a closer view. It’s been a long time since we’ve watched nature run its course. We pass through the doorway one by one or two by two, until the whole building spills outward, emptied out on top. We congregate, squeezing shoulder to shoulder to fit. But we say little as the water soaks through to our bones. When night falls, we turn back inside.

The rain persists through the next day and we meet back on our rooftop at dusk. Tonight we scream over the wind, making small talk in big voices. We learn names and faces and when we return to dry beds and put on warm clothes, it is the blurred time between late and early.

The flood shows no signs of slowing. We keep going out to our rooftop all week, getting closer to the storm and each other. We line up around the perimeter, faces turned outward. Sometimes we hold hands. The world has flipped, we decide, and the ocean’s falling out of the sky. We notice the lack of both fish and of birds. There is no rail around us and we have the sensation of floating on a raft together, the street below carrying us like waves.  

Soon we speak softer, familiar with each other’s mannerisms, able to read lips and faces. Sometimes the old accents slip in. It is a comfort to know our neighbors. To know they are strangers here too. We discuss the size of our hometowns, saying: You could stretch out your arms and feel the width of it.

It continues. We don’t leave home for days. When we think of the city we picture only this rooftop and smile, remembering how the building unsprawled to concentrate up at the top. We sleep with our heads in the storm clouds and dream of removing the floors from our building. Everyone living between the walls together, heaped together in the hollowed out space.

When the city is flooding, we know its dimensions. Everything has a finite volume. Nothing that is drowning can grow. But if the rain stops we will step from this ledge of certainty into what exactly? It is foggy beyond the edge of our roof. The universe is expanding even as the rain falls. It expands now and now.

But the rain is still falling.

And it falls now and now.

And even right now.

 


Rebekah Bergman is an MFA candidate at The New School. She lives in Brooklyn and works as an editorial intern at Tin House Magazine and an associate editor at NOON. Rebekah has received grants and fellowships from Tent Creative Writing and Brown University and will be an upcoming resident at Art Farm in Marquette, Nebraska. Her recent work has been published in Banango Street and Spittoon. 



Registering Motion by Nicole Haroutunian

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.



I’ve worked on ships.

I can talk about ballast and ratlines and know that, dreamy as it sounds, starboard just means “right” like “port” means left, like “bow” means front and “stern” means back. If I imagine my body as a mast, my outstretched arms are a yard, a horizontal beam where a sail would hang. I’ve walked on decks, not floors, stepped over knee knockers rather than through doors. I can identify the correct tool for splicing rope, which isn’t called rope on a ship—it’s called a line. I’ve never called a ship a “she.” 

I’ve worked on ships, but I’m not a sailor. My motion sickness is debilitating. Hurtling forward is fine, but up and down is not; side-to-side is worst of all. And once the nausea hits, it can last for days. Nothing is curative—not salt air, not a stick of gum. Not standing still.

As a writer, editor and museum educator, I could have steered clear of a nautical life altogether. But as a New Yorker, avoiding the water isn’t so easy. Freelancers in this city take work where they can get it and that’s how I make my living—how could I close myself off to our sixth borough?

In 2009, I accepted a part-time position on the Hudson River. The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, a decommissioned aircraft carrier, is docked there near 46th Street. During my interview, I was assured that the ship was too big for me to register motion. It seemed true—the Intrepid is as long as the Chrysler Building is tall and while the Hudson’s tides lapped at its hull, they didn’t push or pull it as far as I could tell. But occasionally, trapped on the indoor hangar deck over a beautiful weekend day, I would hope to feel the ship sway, to be able to say, “Actually I do feel a little sick.” The only time the Hudson shook me for real was during a training in the Museum’s submarine. It was as if my colleagues and I were trying to balance in a bobbing tin can, and after a few minutes, as the curator spoke, I edged out, hands over my mouth. I lasted on the Intrepid for a year which, if I remember correctly, is three months longer than its sailors were typically deployed.

The Hudson has been called New York’s first highway; the East River, down by the Seaport, was once known as the Street of Ships. By the time I worked at the South Street Seaport Museum, what used to be a forest of masts had been whittled down to just a few. The Peking is a tall ship made famous for a treacherous journey it took around Cape Horn. It remained docked just outside the Museum, but unlike the unmovable Intrepid, pitched and rolled on the East River waves. I’d teach students right up to the edge of the pier, but a coworker would have to take over as they stepped onto the ship. The Pioneer, a schooner, took crews of kids out into New York Harbor and hosted our staff happy hours and holiday parties. My colleagues sailed, glasses of wine in hand, while I remained on shore.

I always made a point of talking about how the Seaport district was built on landfill, how it wasn’t just by the water or about the water, but of the water, as well. In October 2012, during Hurricane Sandy, the East River rushed forth to reclaim its former territory, flooding the Museum’s basement completely and filling its lobby by more than six feet. The art and artifacts on higher floors were spared, but enough damage was done that now, more than two and a half years later, the Museum galleries remain shuttered. Who would have expected—although of course it makes sense—that it was the ships that fared the best. Built for water, they rose with it, rather than succumbed to its force. In the days after the Hurricane, subways still down, I took the East River Ferry across the water to volunteer in the recovery efforts. Ferry trips, stable and brief, are the only boat rides I can abide.

Besides the Intrepid and those ferry trips, the last time I remember being on a ship was for the Underwater New York launch party. I was newly a co-editor of this fledgling venture—a digital journal of writing, art and music inspired by real-life objects found in New York City’s waterways—and the prospect of having a party to celebrate its inception on a once sunken ship, the Lightship Frying Pan, was too perfect to pass up. When we first visited the venue to plan the event, it was a very still day. The Hudson was placid. I swear I didn’t feel so much as a pitch, so much as a roll. At the launch, as the rocking ship felled other, hardier party-goers, it must have been adrenaline that carried me through. The night was magical, right down to the end, when I started to feel the waves, a slow roil in my stomach.

Thankfully, though, it isn’t forward motion that gets me: Underwater New York is still sailing and I am still aboard.


Nicole Haroutunian's work has appeared in Two Serious Ladies, the Literarian, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Day One, and online at Tin House. Her story collection, Speed Dreaming, will be published by Little A in spring 2015. She works as a museum educator and is a co-editor of Underwater New York. 

The Day the Ocean Turned Our House Inside Out by Marna Chester

OBJECT: Hurricane Sandy

BODY OF WATER: The Rockaways


4 in. square / sand, nails, wood, foam, mulch


Artist Statement

When Hurricane Sandy struck, my childhood home in the Rockaways was hit. Left in charge to clean it up, I experienced an overwhelming torrent of emotion. The storm not only ravaged our homes and belongings, it turned our guts inside out too.


Marna Chester is a multidisciplinary artist, arts administrator and native New Yorker. She holds a BFA from Alfred University and an MPS in Arts and Cultural Management from Pratt Institute. With years of professional experience as a window dresser and prop-maker, Marna’s interests lie at the intersection between art and public engagement. She currently works as a donations coordinator at Materials for the Arts, NYC’s oldest reuse center.

Two Sublimes by Steve Mentz

OBJECT/BODY OF WATER: Hurricane Sandy


 

1.      The Dry

         (thinking about Lucretius)

 

When I tried to count the rings the next day

I estimated one hundred years.

Numbers create order, and I sought precision:

            40 feet tall

            60 inches around at my chest’s height

            20 inches in diameter.

            1913.

The tree had been, for a century, the highest point in Short Beach,

O’ertopping the church steeple that started its ascent partway down the hill.

It came down in the dark.

I was sitting on the couch with the kids reading about Fangorn Forest.

Eald enta geworc.

We heard a sound

Whoosh

And a harsh clatter of wires yanked from shingles.

We stared into darkness, seeing nothing

Because there was nothing to see.

Olivia understood first what the faint glimmer and emptiness meant:

“The pine tree,” she said.

“It’s gone.

 

2.      The Wet

         (thinking about Longinus)

 

When the hurricane made landfall I went outside

To play a game of chance with overhead wires and windswirl.

I could not help myself.

I walked down the street to a granite ridge overlooking the water.

I stood there next to my neighbor, a man who makes his living building houses.

We watched as rows of waves like hump-backed rams

Shouldered their way, sloppy and frothing, onto shore.

We saw water splattering onto and through our neighbors’ homes,

Erupting high and foamy into white cloud-fragments,

Scattering sand and salt and wood and drywall fragments into the surf.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

Is what he said to me.


Steve Mentz is Professor of English at St John's where he teaches Shakespeare, oceanic literature, and literary theory. He's written two scholarly books, including most recently *At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean* (2009), edited two more academic volumes, and also published many articles on literary culture and the maritime environment. His works in progress, performance reviews, and swimming autobiography can be found on his blog, The Bookfish (www.stevementz.com)

Ode to Far Rockaway by Nicole Cirino

OBJECT: Hurricane Sandy

BODY OF WATER: The Rockaways


 

It seems they don't look at the ocean here,

have maybe gotten used to the smell of brine 

as it wafts over gasoline and fried things

and the rumble of the shuttle,

the tired meandering of silver

against the blue of the sky,

of the sea.

 

That sea that rushed

past the dunes, over planks

of split wood, into the streets,

into their homes, their tv's short-circuiting,

seeping up through floor boards

and into closets and beds.

 

It sat, that water, for days,

for months, warped wood

and left walls ashy with salt,

everything a little bit white,

everything a little bit green, 

and then black, as the mold

moved in and grew over

all the things bought or given,

and then left on the side of the road

to be hauled away with the trash.


Nicole Cirino is a New York native, a Brooklyn resident, and an educator. Her varied background in Sociology, Writing, and Child Development informs her current work as a preschool math coach for a research project aimed at improving the lives of children living in poverty in New York City. She is an alumna of Sarah Lawrence College and is honored to share a piece inspired by Hurricane Sandy on its one year anniversary.

The Art of Hurricanes by Lissa Kiernan

OBJECT/BODY OF WATER: Hurricane Sandy


lost-linden-tree.jpg

All hurricanes are cubist: something seeing, something being
seen. A Picasso eye, splitting the world apart.

The failure was fertile: water gushing into concrete
wombs, water gushing into war zones, water

gushing—  The grieving mother refused a coat,
wanting to be as cold as her son, holding herself

together with only dressmakers’ pins.  Sodden,
we slogged into complex fog. When we could not

gain egress, we got stuck in Fibonacci loops—
hung the image of the gurgling brook

by the spray of birch and the spume of skunk grass.
Oyster Creek is on alert, the radio strummed.

We were awkward with neighbors who wielded chain saws
with kindness.  It’s nothing, they said, when we tried

pushing money into their hands. You played me
more cunningly, Sandy, than almost any other

collapse— funneling my breath, lashing me to your mast.
Protean, the rhyme between intake and exhalation,

between oil slick and scarred linden, as you go now,
in search of new patrons.  Almost a human figure already.


Lissa’s work can be found in the journals Albatross, Sow’s Ear Poetry Journal, andTerrain.org, among others. She is the artistic director of The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative, a provider of online workshops. A poet, essayist and critic, she holds an MFA from Stonecoast and an MA from The New School.

Salvaged by Julia Fierro

OBJECT/BODY OF WATER: Hurricane Sandy


My parents live in a small house on a narrow sliver of land that faces the rocky shore of the Long Island Sound and backs up to a marsh, home to swans, egrets, sandpipers and plovers.

This was to be the nest where my mother and father finished their lives, watching their grandchildren dig for hermit crabs, and they signed on the house twelve years ago, one blue-skyed, calm-watered summer day, amazed at the luck of finding a water-front property they could afford.

My father, a southern Italian farmer turned military police, or carabinieri, immigrated to the States in 1978. He has seen war, poverty, famine and disease. For the first seven years of his life he owned no shoes, no underwear and no access to modern medicine. It is a miracle that only one of his six siblings died, a younger sister who would have lived had she been given antibiotics for a simple cut on the sole of her foot.

At 77, my father, legally deaf from the untreated ear infections he suffered as a child, is still climbing onto the roof to hammer a shingle in place, still lugging concrete to fortify the ever-sinking seawall, still lifting firewood onto his back. He thrives in the constant maintenance work that a seaside home demands.

He is the embodiment of forte! – the command he has delivered (gently and not-so-gently) each and every time I have come to him with fear and self-doubt.

For more than thirty years, I’ve watched him turn blazing logs in the fireplace with his bare hands.

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My father cried in my arms the day after Sandy arrived with a 13-foot surge. The wall of water tore away the top of the concrete seawall, the only buffer between the pounding surf and the eroded land under my parents’ home, then splintered the deck and wrenched free three windows, flooding the bottom two floors of the house with a mix of seawater, sand and clay that would take weeks to remove.

my-father-in-their-home-post-Sandy-560x420.jpg

My parents’ know how fortunate they are. Their home can be saved. Although they are living in a cold dark mud-filled house as winter approaches, too scared to leave lest the town or FEMA (who still have not visited) condemn their home, they still sleep in their own beds.

I was able to save over a hundred of my father’s paintings, most of which (because he is ever frugal) were done in cheap oils and acrylics, often on pieces of plywood or plastic he’d found in his neighbors’ trash. But hosing down his once vibrant still lifes and landscapes felt savage, and some were so caked with clay they had to be thrown into one of three commercial-size dumpsters that will eventually haul much of the contents of my parents’ home away.

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I was also able to save some of my father’s “treasure” – what he calls his collections. When, at 77, you have nightmares about losing your first and one-and-only pair of shoes, a pair of women’s shoes with the heels lopped off, which an American soldier gave my father when he was seven-years-old, any object can hold meaning, worth, can be deemed “collectible”.

The bottom two floors of my parents’ house, like every closet, dresser drawer and corner of their home, is filled with my father’s collections, some of which I was able to save, like my father’s collection of ceramic owls. The winged symbol of wisdom has always been sacred to him, a bright man who never had the education he deserved.

I dug into feet of mud and sand to salvage my grandfather’s tambourine, which he’d made from the top of an industrial-sized bucket, the jingles carved from tin cans. Nonno Giovanni was a janitor for all the years of his American life and he crafted his musical instruments with recycled material, like the perfectly pitched flutes he made from animal bone. He died having never learned to speak English, but he lived an exuberant and expressive life through his music.

Nonno-Giovannis-tambourine-salvaged-560x560.jpg

The only time I saw a smile on my father’s face that day after Sandy was when I showed him the chipped statuette I had scrubbed clean. The figures of two little boys – Romulus and Remus – suckling at the She-Wolf.

my-fathers-Romulus-Remus-statue-salvaged-560x560.jpg

It was a story we’d been told as children, the origin tale of a country we knew our father loved more than his adopted one, and the statue that had always sat on top of our kitchen television, so that we stared at it each night as we ate our plates of pasta and meat and vegetables my father had grown in his kitchen garden.

my-father-in-his-kitchen-garden-a-few-months-before-Sandy-560x560.jpg

“Ah, yes,” my father said when he saw what I had salvaged, “this is important.”


Julia Fierro is a novelist, essayist and editor. She founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in 2002, a Brooklyn-based creative home for over 1700 writers. Her first novel, Cutting Teeth, about the complicated and often comical experience of contemporary Brooklyn parenting is forthcoming from St. Martin's Press. Her work has been a finalist for three Glimmer Train fiction awards and she was a contributor to Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer (Random House). An excerpt from her novel will be published in Guernica Magazine’s December “end of days” issue. Julia is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was awarded a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. She has taught Literature and Creative Writing in the Honors Program at Hofstra University, at the University of Iowa, and she currently teaches the Post-MFA Writing Workshops at Sackett Street. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two small children.