I guess one last vestige of my early life in New York is a fear of the water that surrounds and courses through the city. I am not afraid of drowning or being overcome by floods or extreme weather; rather, I am afraid of its legendary nastiness. I grew up in a very dirty New York; a New York where a splash of the East River on your leg, or the Coney Island seashore lapping unexpectedly at your toes, would require immediate cleansing and a tetanus shot.
NYC is indeed a very watery town — nautical in fact — and always has been. It’s easy to forget that we are an oceanfront city and we have one of the most notable rivers in the country meeting the sea in one of the world’s greatest harbors. It’s pretty amazing really, and it’s these features that made New York the great port city it once was and remains today — even if it doesn’t feel that way on a sweltering summer day on 35th Avenue in Flushing.
That being said, by the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, our waterways were really filthy. Besides the legendary Hell’s Gate currents that we were routinely told as kids playing in Carl Schurz Park would suck us down into a watery grave, even if you survived the twisty spirals, one drop of that poisonous water would surely do you in.
But lately, NYC is seeing greener times, and citywide efforts to clean up our waterways and air quality have been a boon to urban watersports — a term once limited to public pools in Harlem and syringe laden sands in the Rockaways. These days, we’re more likely to find surfing in Brooklyn, fishing and boating off City Island in the Bronx, and kayaking around Manhattan.
For as long as I can remember, there have been the uber-yachts docked near the Winter Gardens across the Westside highway from the World Trade Center, fishing boats for hire in Sheepshead Bay, and little sailboats bobbing happily off Riverside Drive at the boat basin near 79th street. But all of that’s positively old school now. These days New Yorkers are taking to the water…literally. They’re in canoes and kayaks; jet-skis course through the East River like gangs of aquatic thugs. New Yorkers are surfing the (very unimpressive east coast) waves off Coney Island and the Rockaways; the beaches are packed and the people are even eating what they catch in the waters off Staten Island and Brooklyn (a limited annual number I believe is still recommended and not if you are under 50, pregnant or a kid… or really just alive).
If you’re feeling intrepid and want to give our waterways a chance, Inwood Canoe Club is one of the oldest paddle clubs in the city, located in the bucolic Inwood section of Manhattan. Imagine floating beneath the GW Bridge and the untouched Palisades overhanging the Hudson. For competitive inner-city rowing adventures, there’s Row New York or Harlem River Community Rowing.
Truth be told, I love the idea of it all, but have yet to get past my early life NYC water PTSD. Sure, sail me around the harbor on a sunset cruise, with champagne and hors d’oeuvres, or even on the Ferry to Staten Island — but find me in shorts and flip flops in a little plastic kayak splashing myself as I paddle…not yet.
There are certain parts of the new New York that I have to leave to the new New Yorkers. I just can’t get passed certain aspects of my youth. I’ll never be comfortable with that John Varvatos sign at 315 Bowery, canoeing down the Gowanus Canal, or eating city fish from waterfronts where dumped bodies were once the catch of the day. But there will always be someone here who will, and I guess that’s why we all stay.