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The Rediscovery of New York City
Coles Phinizy
November 22, 1971
The journal of a voyage of discovery should start with the first day and go straight through to the last. For several reasons—the unseemly wrath of God and my own incompetence being excuse enough—this wandering account of an 80-mile canoe trip over the old, worn waters of New York City begins before dawn on the third day
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November 22, 1971

The Rediscovery Of New York City

The journal of a voyage of discovery should start with the first day and go straight through to the last. For several reasons—the unseemly wrath of God and my own incompetence being excuse enough—this wandering account of an 80-mile canoe trip over the old, worn waters of New York City begins before dawn on the third day

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Although tropical storm Doria is running things right now, I doubt if her antics will be what we best remember when we finally haul our canoes out 65 miles farther along. The city itself is too hot a package ever to be upstaged by a passing storm. Ever since I took up existence in one of its warrens, I have considered New York to be the world's worst vertical mistake, a city so compressed that explosion is inevitable. New York's slums and parks lie hard by each other. Filth and grandeur, monotony and excitement are well integrated. In any large New York park you can find Boy Scouts, joggers, bicyclists, empire builders, panhandlers, common pigeons and accomplished thugs, all using the same public parcel for their particular needs. The city's rabid radical rousers and its conservative polliwogs are frequently found ranting in the same public squares, sometimes espousing the same causes.

Lawrence Whit, the man who carted us and our three canoes to our jumping-off spot on the Hutchinson River near the northern limits of the city, was armed with a tear-gas device. Whit explained to me that in the predawn in that part of the Bronx you never know whom you might meet. To judge by the broken streetlights and the rusty switchblade I found in the weeds, that part of the Bronx does have an undesirable element. Nonetheless, as we carried our canoes through junk to water, the only public offender we encountered was a rat. I think it was the common species, Rattus norvegicus, but I am not sure, for it quickly fled under some old bedsprings without baring a fang.

If our purpose had been to sample the best and worst of New York, we could have quit in half a day. In our first mile down the Hutchinson River we passed a complex of high-rise apartments called Co-op City, better known as New York's biggest penitentiary. New York once was a city-nation of little neighborhoods and mixed tongues. As a result of all the witless construction going on—glassy offices and high rises—the city is losing its diverse character and charm, acquiring instead a sterile magnificence that is Orwellian and downright dull.

Even before entering the mainstream of the Hutchinson, we saw small fish dimpling the oil slick. Dery Bennett, who on workdays serves as conservation director of the American Littoral Society, identified these surface dimplers as killifish, and I go along with him. In the boyhood I partly wasted fishing in South Jersey, whenever I needed flounder bait I knew there were killifish galore around the sewer outlets in the bays back of Absecon Island.

Directly across from the towers of Coop City on the Hutchinson River we passed salt-grass flats lush enough to qualify as wilderness. No doubt some day high-rise apartments will be stacked on this marsh, but right now it is an inviolate part of New York's park system—badly oil-soaked but sacrosanct. I fully expected to find herring gulls working the area, for they know how to make a living where there is little life. Curiously, the first water bird we saw was a little green heron, a species I always considered too finicky for such a slum. The list of birds Chuck Stewart and I spotted in the first two miles is lost in the notes I mistakenly threw out. Offhand I remember a green heron and snowy egret, mallard and black ducks, herring gulls and a solitary blackback.

Except for a television crew that followed us a short way in a tug, the only people we saw in our first few miles were three water skiers, two fishermen and a horseshoe pitcher. As we paddled by, one of the water skiers took a spill in the Hutchinson River. He surfaced immediately, declaring, "This water tastes like——." I asked one of the fishermen we met what he was fishing for. "Probably nothing," he replied. The horseshoe pitcher, a retired subway motorman named Matthew Montgomery, was waiting for cronies to show up in a bosky dell on the shore of Pelham Bay Park. He invited us to stick around to watch the contest, but we had many a mile to go before sundown.

Although its bridges and the tunnels under its salt rivers obscure the truth, New York is an island city. Only one of the city's five boroughs, the Bronx, is situated on the mainland of North America. Two of its boroughs, Richmond and Manhattan, are islands unto themselves (in more ways than one). The other two, Brooklyn and Queens, take up the western end of Long Island. In its 320 square miles above the high-tide line, New York includes many lesser islands, the exact number indeterminate because the topography of the city has been in turmoil since the coming of the white man and his all-powerful tool, the hydraulic dredge. Creeks and tidal guts that once were no longer are. Within the city limits of New York, new islands have been piled up; others have been enlarged and joined; some have disappeared. For example, the south end of one parcel in the East River is still called Ward's Island and the north end is called Randall's Island, although the two have been connected by fill for more than 10 years.

In the past century New York has used its lesser islands in a variety of doleful ways, as burial ground, as isolation wards for people of contagion and as rehabilitation centers for lawbreakers and addicts. Yesterday we passed Rikers Island, the biggest of New York's little islands, but we could not land because it is used to contain lawbreakers. Back in the good old Indian days, when the Wechquaesgeek tribe of the Bronx ran things, Rikers Island was less than 100 acres. Today it is more than 400 acres, built up largely of submarine earth that New York's tunnel diggers had to put somewhere. Just beyond the southeast end of Rikers Island one of the runways of La Guardia Airport has been extended to accept jets, and the two public facilities are now at an impasse. If either facility grows 150 yards more toward the other, Rikers inmates will be able to take it on the lam and hijack a La Guardia jet without wetting a foot.

In New York, the city of perpetual upheaval, not even the dead stay put. A hundred and fifty years ago the city buried its impoverished on the south end of Manhattan. When real-estate values in that area improved, the dead were re-buried roughly where 42nd Street intersects Fifth Avenue. When that land became valuable, everybody was re-exhumed and re-reburied farther north. I will say this about New York: it takes care of dead citizens. If you are a dead New Yorker and your relatives are strapped or too stingy, the city buries you free on Hart Island, a lovely place. There is one hooker: about every 40 years the city redigs where they buried you, sifts your remains to the bottom and plants somebody else in the same hole. As I keep saying, this is a crowded town.

We spent an hour on Hart Island, picking berries and wandering. We did not find a scar in the land suggesting that 600,000 people are buried there, only a large monument inscribed PEACE rising out of the tall grasses of the finished summer. The water around Hart Island has a poor reputation, but the Army Corps of Engineers' crackdown on polluters must be doing good. The water was so clear that at a depth of eight feet I could see old sneakers and beer cans on the bottom. Indeed, in two days we have only passed through one bad flotsam line of trash and raw sewage. Among the mentionable items I recall in the flotsam were a head of red cabbage, a toupee and three tires, all with better tread than I have on my present car.

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