July 18, 2003
In City Thrum, Splash of a Paddle
By JOSEPH BERGER
The Parks Department's Adrian Benepe on the Bronx River.
This is the Bronx?
Can't be. A babbling, crystalline stream. Long-necked egrets spearing the rushing waters for fish. Red-winged blackbirds gliding from tree-lined bank to tree-lined bank.
O.K., maybe there is still a well-rusted tire hub in the muddy bottom here and a plastic bottle snared in a low-hanging branch there. But the Bronx River, the city's only true freshwater river, has been restored for a good portion of its eight-mile course through the borough to something closer to what it was before urbanization turned it into a trough for collecting abandoned cars and tires.
To examine how the river looks after recent years of cleanup, an armada of four canoes carrying this son of the Bronx and New York City's parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, pushed off the other day from a slender park north of Gun Hill Road in the Williamsbridge neighborhood. Depending on your point of view, the expedition resembled either Lewis and Clark or Martin and Lewis.
As the river flows through the North Bronx, with famed Art Deco apartment houses and fussed-over row houses concealed by curtains of shrubs and trees, paddling downstream seems like canoeing in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts or even the lush tropics. As Mr. Benepe suggested, a hippopotamus would not have seemed out of place.
The southernmost part, though, is still lined with scrap yards and warehouses and the only things tropical are some of the fruits at the Hunts Point produce market. Still, the ugly car carcasses are gone and five new parks are being carved out, one from a former concrete plant.
Certainly, the launching had all the earmarks of a whitewater adventure. Mr. Benepe, in Bermuda shorts and a baseball cap, and his aides doused themselves with suntan lotion and mosquito repellent. They zipped their wallets and BlackBerrys into dry plastic bags. They donned life jackets. They had me sign a waiver releasing the Parks Department from liability in case of injury or death.
Angela Randall, a canoe guide, provided instructions on how to grip a paddle and change seats in a canoe, forgetting perhaps that even those who grew up on the Grand Concourse sometimes went to summer camp.
"I'm sure you guys will be fine," she said.
Now Son of the Bronx was worried.
We took our seats in the canoe, with me up front, Mr. Benepe steering at the rear, and Linda Cox, the Parks Department's Bronx River administrator, sitting between us on the canoe bottom.
"What is it that Lewis and Clark shouted when they launched their expedition: `Westward Ho?' " Mr. Benepe inquired as we pushed off.
On our left we could see where logs and branches were being used to shore up the muddy banks. Ms. Cox pointed out the profusion of Japanese knotweed, a lush shrub with large leaves. It looked charming. But Mr. Benepe said it was a plant with sharp elbows that pushed other greenery out and was not as sturdy at preventing erosion.
Behind the screen of knotweed, the hum of Bronx River Parkway traffic could be heard, but otherwise the canoeists felt they were on a meandering country brook.
"Can we hear the theme from `African Queen,' " Mr. Benepe said. "We're 25 feet from the Bronx River Parkway, but visually it looks like we're on a small river in Connecticut or something more jungly."
Sure enough, Mr. Benepe spied an egret, which spread its broad white wings and took off. A few hundred yards along, a flock of ducklings — brown was the most specific classification the Bronx taught its children — waddled off into the bushes.
The slim river is shallow up north, sometimes only inches deep, and with an experienced journalist leading the way we twice got stuck in the mud. The parks commissioner had to back us out. He also advised me that I was holding the paddle like, well, a son of the Bronx. Then came the first of many bridges. The vegetation grew denser, the shadows darker, more menacing.
"I think some of the missing weapons of mass destruction are here," Mr. Benepe said.
Stuck in the water was a tire hub that seemed to meld into the river bottom's natural topography. A few minnows swam out of a rusted can. But otherwise the river was almost pristine.
Humans ahoy! Workers in brown rubberized bodysuits from the Bronx River Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of 65 community groups, government agencies and businesses, were yanking out clumps of the much-maligned knotweed and replanting more native vegetation. Standing in knee-high water, Treenan Sturman, the crew leader, said the workers were also narrowing the channel to make the current swifter.
The city has spent a good share of $60 million from various government sources doing such cultivation as well as hauling away 70 stolen or abandoned cars, 30,000 tires and the flotsam and jetsam of several generations of not-so-benign neglect. For years, many residents thought of the river as a cesspool and had no idea how splendidly long it is. (Twenty-three miles long, it originates near the Kensico Dam in Westchester County and flows south into the East River.) In 1971, Michael T. Kaufman and Librado Romero, a reporter and photographer from The New York Times, went down the river in a rubber raft and Mr. Kaufman wrote afterward that the "face of the river has been scarred with shopping carts, hulks of cars, washing machines, mattresses, bicycles and the jagged flotsam of affluence."
The idea for restoring the city's freshwater river was born in 1997 at a meeting of officials from the Parks Department and the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program. The idea was to get neighborhoods involved in a partnership with government to pay attention to the river in a way that had been done with parks like Central Park.
"The Bronx River flows through many neighborhoods the way the Mississippi flows through the many states of the central United States," Mr. Benepe said.
After more than a mile or so from the launching point, the river runs into the New York Botanical Garden, past trees that were saplings when Europeans first came to these shores. An old sycamore and luxuriant willows drooped over the water. The river splits in two around an island, and trapped at the bend was an artifact that proved we were still in the Bronx: a basketball.
Still, the river here is mostly free of garbage — the Botanical Garden gathers river trash once a week. Ms. Cox noted that Dr. Joseph W. Rachlin, director of Lehman College's Laboratory for Marine and Estuarine Research, has been finding such reassuring evidence of the river's recovering health as sea anemone — a species sensitive to pollution — in the tidal southern part.
Canoe trips are run at least once a month on weekends by the alliance and periodically by urban park rangers. Ms. Cox warned that, with several waterfalls that come up suddenly, the river was not suited for spontaneous expeditions.
"You can hurt yourself badly," she said.
Within minutes we spotted a sign that warned us of a waterfall. We had to portage our canoes. Conveniently enough we happened to be near the Botanical Garden's Snuff Mill, once a congenial lunch spot. So, logically enough, we had lunch.
Canoeists are able to resume boating just below the mill. But with time running short, Mr. Benepe was eager to show off changes in the southern part of the river, so we did what any hardy outdoorsmen would do when facing a dilemma: we drove, carrying the canoes aboard a trailer.
We hugged a few miles of the river as it runs underneath the Cross-Bronx and Bruckner Expressways, and ended up at the abandoned Transit-Mix concrete plant. The driver, Brian M. Aucoin, a conservation specialist with the alliance, pointed out spots where in 2000, Gov. George E. Pataki sent in the National Guard, and workers with amphibious equipment extracted 25 cars and 10,000 tires in five days.
Had we chosen to canoe we would have been able to pass through a field of grazing bison as the river runs through the Bronx Zoo or gazed at three of the river's waterfalls. Ms. Cox showed off these sights a few days later on foot, noting how close the bucolic river is to an otherwise citified landscape.
"The difference in 15 feet is striking," she said.
There are plans to create a sizable park out of the Transit-Mix concrete plant, leaving the rusty silos as Calderesque art. On July 26, a 20-mile bike ride along the river sponsored by the alliance will start at the concrete plant. Still the banks of the river here are lined with factories and warehouses.
"When you travel along the Bronx River, it illustrates emphatically the difference between the North Bronx and the South Bronx," Ms. Cox said.
As we put the canoes back into the water to finish our expedition, a pounding rainstorm began. The river is half a football field wide here and deep, and, even in the rain, paddling felt effortless. Possibly that's because on this leg, I was in the middle seat.
In a scrap-metal yard, we glimpsed a crane — a mechanical one with jaws of steel — that was gobbling up cars and dropping them onto a barge. We paddled less than half a mile, not just because of the rain, but because the commissioner wanted to stop at a second riverside park-to-be just north of the Hunts Point market at Lafayette Avenue.
Two willow trees had been planted in the otherwise gritty landscape, an echo of those we had seen in the river's northern stretch and perhaps a foretaste of the rustic restoration that is to come even on this part of the river.
A dump on the river's southern part.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
Nice. *More parks = good. *"White water rafting" NYC style - we really do have it all!
We Need More Water Dependent Facilities in NY Waterways!
Joseph Berger implied in "In City Thrum, Splash of a Paddle," (July 18th, New York Times) that the scrap yards and warehouses along the lower part of the Bronx River were negative aspects of this section of the waterfront.
Water dependent industries that reuse waste products are both profitable and environmentally friendly. Cans that hold our food to the cars we drive may contain steel or iron from Bronx Metal Recycling or other major scrap yards. This means less is dumped in landfills or burned in incinerators.
Transporting goods by barges also decreases the amount of truck traffic that tears up our roads and pollutes our air. In addition, Bronx Metals Recycling also provides valuable blue collar employment in blighted Hunts Point.
Next time one implies that such industries are negative waterfront developments, perhaps they should be reminded of these above mentioned facts.
Marinas on the Bronx River?
Would the Parks Department also encourage public marinas to develop along the Bronx River? If there is a market for these facilities for small powered or non-powered pleasure boats in that area, I would strongly encourage it! It would be a nice addition to the parkland developing around it.
Dredging the channel would not be a problem either, since the Bronx River is a Federally maintained channel from the mouth to the weir/dam north of the Westchester Avenue fixed bridge. Hence boats would then have enough depth to proceed safely up the river.
Near the Bronx Zoo:
The Bronx River Snuff Mill Gorge
Within the 250 acre NY Botanical Garden is a 50 acre stand of original forest. One of the trailheads into the forest:
New York City's oldest house?
Trailmarker info: The cave was formed by glacial ice that moved and tipped these rock slabs. When the site was excavated, pottery shards and arrowheads were found inside consistent with a tribe called the Siwanoy that hunted in this area before the arrival of Columbus.
Bronx River enters the gorge. The signs warn canoists of the waterfall ahead. At one time, the river flowed SW along the Webster Ave lowland. *A few million years ago, movement along the Mosholu fault may have blocked the river and formed a lake north of the Mosholu Parkway. Eventually, the river cut a path directly south. There is still evidence of the ancient riverbed - the Metro North ROW.
The waterfall is actually the remnant of a dam built by the Lorillard family. After the Revolutionary War, the city planned to use the river as a source of water by damming it and creating a reservoir. When the Croton system was chosen, the door was opened for industry to move in. The Lorillards settled here in 1792.
They built the dam to increase the water pressure needed to power the snuff mill. The dam caused serious environmental damage upriver, but there were no waterway laws in those days.
High above the river. The cliffs on the west bank are nearly vertical.
The east bank was once the same, but the rock was cut back to construct the mill road.
The snuff mill. The Lorillards used mill stones to crush tobacco into a fine powder, mixed it with crushed vanilla beans, tamarind, rose fragrance, and other secret ingredients (LOL) to manufacture snuff. In the early 19th century, snuffing (?) surpassed pipe smoking in popularity. The Lorillards got rich.
Terrace on the river side of the mill.
The river passes under a roadway in the NYBG on its way to the Bronx Zoo.
The Lorillards were by no means environmentalists, but since they weren't farmers, the forest was not cleared and survives today. They had a large stable of horses, and some of the forest trails were riding paths that they built. They also had extensive rose gardens, not for beauty, but for the snuff. An ironic precursor to the NYBG.
1792 - Lorillard family moves to the Bronx.
1800 - 2nd mill is constructed out of clapboard.
1840 - Business is booming, and the mill that survives today is built.
1884 - Lorillard family sells all the land and buildings to NYC
1891 - NYC gives land for the NYBG
c1900 - dam is cut to its present size, lowering the river.
1915 - Parks Dept transfers snuff mill tothe NYBG.
1976 - Snuff mill is designated a national historic landmark. Actually, the entire NYBG is a national landmark.
At the southern border of NYBG. We are about 1 mile from the Grand Concourse.
Wonderful. How do you know all this?
Most of the info comes from trailmarkers - supplemented by a few Google searches. I did research the geology of the river, and found a very dry, highly technical paper - reading it gave me a headache.
I found one statement strangely hilarious:
This is a first-order drainage anomaly.
I love this stuff. Very cool, Zippy, another interesting post. So, does the water in the river look clean? It does from the photos, but is there litter and slime up close?
The entire NYBG may be the most litter-free public outdoor space in all of NYC.
The river water is extremely clean in the area of the gorge. At other places, where movement is slow, the water is - let's say organic, but no different than a ravine in the Catskills.
The only maintenance done here involves the safety of the trails. The forest is allowed to evolve naturally.
From NY1, the New-Yorker of the week:
Rocking The Boat Helps Students Learn About Themselves And The Environment
AUGUST 22ND, 2003
In the concrete jungle, we found an oasis. This week's New Yorker of the Week has found a way to use the environment to pave the way for a better future for teenagers.
Adam Green says he’s not just building boats, he's helping to build kids one piece at a time.
“This is something that can make them stand out in their own minds and make them feel really special,” he says.
Green didn't know when he started a volunteer boat building project in college it would lead to his life's passion. But eight years later, he's still going strong with Rocking the Boat, a non-profit boat building program for teenagers with a far greater goal.
“Knowing that they can solve problems, knowing that things happen and we can deal with them,” says Green. “We can’t deal with everything in our lives, but certainly when you're working with wood on a boat you can talk things out, look at the problems and resolve them. I think that kind of problem solving, as deep as you can imagine, is a really, really powerful part of this.”
More than 20 kids work together in Green’s shop in the Bronx for a semester or for the summer, learning everything from sanding to steam-bending to sawing. They start the course by traveling into the woods for their own lumber, and then begin building the traditional wooden boat from scratch.
Edmanuel Roman has been with the program for three years, and says it was Green who helped him realize his dream of being a carpenter.
“He puts me into harder stuff, he challenges me, and I actually like that about him,” says Roman.
The kids all seem to agree that the process is incredible, but they all say that the greatest reward of all is seeing the boat finished and actually being able to use it.
“Just to see you worked on a project and see a final project, it's a great feeling. It’s undescribable. And it gives us youth something to do. I'm really proud of what I'm doing,” said Meliza Pena.
“When we go from scratch like that, then it’s like you started from the very beginning on my own, and I used my skills and the help of others to make this,” says Elliyaas Carter.
Rocking the Boat doesn't stop there. They've partnered up with five environmental groups to research, get water samples, and physically revitalize and purify the Bronx River. The Parks Department has now even invested in Rocking the Boat, funding them to do some of their research.
So whether they're in the shop or on the water, the students learn their impact on the community is limitless.
“It's using a real medium to teach students,” says Green. “In the shop it's wood and tools in the process of making a real wooden boat that really works, and on the water it’s taking those real boats and really using them.”
“I feel like I can achieve anything,” says Pena. “If you put your mind to it you can.”
So, for giving these kids a chance to build a better future, Adam Green is our New Yorker of the Week.
For more information on Rocking the Boat, or to donate, please call (718) 466-5799, or visit www.rockingtheboat.org .