Unearthing New York’s hidden histories, from buried bodies to heron sanctuaries.
I am floating up the shores of the Arthur Kill, the brown-water tidal strait that separates Staten Island from New Jersey, with Rob Buchanan, a teacher and boatbuilder. On the bedraggled green edge of Staten Island, the water’s end of Victory Boulevard, we pass a plastic chair, the universal marker of a secret water-viewing sanctuary, and the Pratt Indus tries paper mill, recycling New York City paper into boxes for Home Depot. On the port side, we see rows of oil refineries, along with an Amazon fulfillment center. The landscape is that of nature bathed in the smog of highway, refinery, and Newark airport. Just past the citgo refinery, we come to a crook in the Arthur Kill, in which sits a parenthesis-shaped roughly 100- acre spit of land. “Pralls Island up ahead!” says Buchanan.
This is our destination, a green patch that looks like a primeval forest broken down on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. We row toward Pralls’s northern shore. In 1990, Exxon’s Bayway refinery spilled 567,000 gallons of oil into Arthur Kill. Now if you walk across the island, you see a landscape repeatedly redevastated by the efforts to save it: Not long after the oil-spill recovery began, when an Asian-long-horned-beetle infestation risked killing maple trees throughout the Northeast, the trees on Pralls were cut down to eliminate a potential breeding ground. Only the stumps remain. From there, the degradation cascaded. Invasive buckthorn shrubs drowned out the native species. When young shoots did grow, the deer ate them. The herons stopped landing there (for myriad reasons, not all of them clear), and stormwaters frequently washed over the island, blanketing it in plastic. Next came mile-a-minute, a vine that emigrated from Asia in the 1930s via contaminated holly seed. It grows up to six inches a day, smothering everything around it. The Parks Department has tried to control the vines by releasing another beetle, the mile-a-minute weevil, which also comes from Asia and is enlisted by ecologists in what is referred to as biological control.
In this minuscule island, roughly 20 city blocks big, you can read the entire recent history of the urban-ecology movement—its ambitions and struggles, its hopefulness and hopelessness—and there are similar stories being told across the archipelago of New York Harbor, if you stop to listen.
Islands are our planet’s poems: Tight, circumscribed, they are other, defined against the landmass from which they broke or the sea from which they emerged. In their isolation and their boundaries, they seem to make living more intense. It takes work to reach them, which can make them storehouses for all we hope to ignore; or, if we choose to embrace them, their preciousness forces human ambition skyward rather than outward.
We know this about our largest islands— the skyscraper came of age in Manhattan because of geological restrictions. But we can easily forget that the city is, in fact, a vast collection of islands. Every borough but the Bronx floats off from the Atlantic seaboard. No one can agree on the precise number of islands in New York waters— 30-odd, depending on how you count—but they are part of what makes the city so extraordinary, located at the mouth of one of the world’s largest natural harbors. The islands are our silent neighbors. It is easy to live here and never notice them. Until one day, driving down the FDR, you might look out at the pile of rocks off the southern coast of Roosevelt Island and wonder, What is that place?
Even the smallest of these islands holds in its tiny footprint morality tales, histories that can help us see ourselves more clearly: the planned community of Roosevelt, the tourist trap of Liberty, the slow-burning human-rights violation of Rikers. As with Pralls, we have more than once considered the islands repositories for waste or trash. More recently, that story has begun to change, and not just because we’ve become more attuned to our harbor ecology. As the last large industrial sites of the greater islands of New York are built over with condos and shops, and public housing is slowly sold away to private developers, these almost-water dots that are the city’s lesser islands have become newly contested spaces, fought for by conservationists, historians, activists, and developers.
Buchanan, my Arthur Kill guide, is what I would call a water activist, somebody who believes the harbor should not be fenced off or privatized but recognized for what it is—the largest public space in the city, a living, breathing thing. By his thinking, our survival in a rising-sea-level future depends on watery, sandy-beach edges, on marshes and creeks, as opposed to concrete walls and gates. Now, as we stand on the sandy beach at Pralls, surveying the ecologically devastated heron-less heron sanctuary, imagining its coast repopulated with millions of oysters, and catching the tips of lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers glinting in the sunlight, I begin to consider what else the islands might have to tell us about what is native and foreign, manmade and natural, past and future. Islands direct us to examine what divides us or disconnects us, what makes one place a sanctuary, the other an asylum.
( I. ) LOWER BAY ISLANDS
The harbor is huge—four times the size of the city—and it’s easiest to think about in regions. Jamaica Bay, the southeasterly section of the harbor, is a marshy interior sea, a cross between the Jersey shore and the Hamptons, filled with reed-covered little islands—Big Egg, Little Egg, Ruffle Bar, Yellow Bar, and Silver Hole—and one big island, Broad Channel, the inhabited island, with fishing boats everywhere. If you pass out of Jamaica Bay through the Rockaway Inlet and look starboard, you’ll see the top of White Island floating just beyond the Belt Parkway.
White Island doesn’t look like Pralls. It’s classically beautiful in the sense of seeming “natural.” Yet it wasn’t formed by a glacier, like Staten Island, or by any other geologic forces. It was made from trash deposited in a salt marsh less than a century ago. It was also made by the golf course next door pouring asphalt on top to prevent sand from blowing on its greens. In 1995, the Parks Department added Rockaway sand to the awkward hump, then surrounded it with acres of spartina grass and, on the top, high coastal grasses specifically attractive to grassland-loving birds. Two decades after that, the former trash heap is now a popular rest station on the highly bird-trafficked East Coast flyway: a habitat for savanna sparrows, field sparrows, and grasshopper sparrows.
White Island is not perfect. Phragmites, the common, side-of-the-highway marsh-killing reed, is nosing in, and then, in a maybe more complicated way, cottonwood has arrived. Cottonwood is a native species, but in a manmade native grassland, cottonwoods displace the grass that attracts the birds. To keep the island a migratory bird layover might mean cutting native trees. We’re taught to see the line between native and invasive species as clearly delineated, but the history of the islands can test those definitions.
Turn the boat back into Rockaway Inlet, enter the Lower Bay just past Coney Island, and in front of you are Hoffman and Swinburne, in the Lower Bay waters off the shore of Staten Island, islands constructed not to attract natives but to isolate so-called foreigners. Easily viewable from the long pier on Staten Island’s South Beach, they were built from scratch in the 1860s after Staten Island residents â€‹burned down the quarantine facilities in Tompkinsville that housed newly arrived immigrants sick with yellow fever and smallpox—too close, the Staten Islanders thought, to their homes. “The Staten Islanders, to a man, have all endorsed the arson,” wrote the New York correspondent for the San Francisco Bulletin.
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