Monday, October 22, 2018

Crash course in port history

On an overcast, windy weekday a couple of weeks ago--the hem of Hurricane Michael was sweeping over us--I spent the day on Governors Island as part of my residency hosted by Works on Water and Underwater New York. The house on Nolan Park was quiet and echoey and full of mosquitoes. What with the gurgling of water crackling through the headphones of someone’s video installation, it felt eerie in there and expectant of some cataclysm (which may be saying more about my state of mind than the house), so I went walking around the island. The winds and currents were strong and the waves were crashing over the seawall and the fence onto Buttermilk Promenade. Not quite the king tides the island saw in 2011, but a good reminder of the way Governors Island will be increasingly hard-hit by both hurricanes and rising sea levels.
Across Buttermilk Channel, six container cranes towered over the Red Hook Container Terminal. Two faded mint green, two blue, one red, and one goldenrod. All six prehistoric giraffes had their necks raised, though what would I know if they were actually busy unloading containers from a container ship?

As I was swimming up Buttermilk Channel on the home stretch around Governors Island back in June, they'd felt so uncanny looming over us, and us so small and vulnerable down there, hurtable flesh amidst the iron and steel. It's like seeing a whale while you're in the water, only it's over, not under you. 

According to Kate Ascher in The Works (a fascinating illustrated encyclopedia of how infrastructures work in NYC), I finally understood that those giraffes are ship-to-shore container cranes (rubber-tired gantry cranes to be precise). Knowing this information didn't make me much wiser about how they worked, but being able to say the name to myself made them seem a tiny bit less uncanny, and myself a tiny bit less ignorant about my city.

Out here crossing New York Harbor, or swimming in Coney Island Channel, I think about the history of the NYC waterfront, and its future. How we’ve become disconnected from the industrial systems that make our daily lives possible. How little we know about how or where the food we eat is transported, unloaded, and warehoused. So much of that no longer happens where we can see it—the biggest container terminal serving the city is now in Elizabeth, New Jersey—that even when we are seeing parts of “the works,” we have no idea what we’re looking at. And as for the future, the Army Corps of Engineers is considering building a storm surge barrier that may further drastically alter the Hudson River and the entire New York Harbor by restricting the flow of tides and so decimating the habitats of many species of fish and waterfowl (see here for Nathan Kensinger's investigation into the social and environmental impact, and here for the Riverkeeper's position against the current proposed plan). Everything that we see out here points back to our manufacturing history, and forward to a future where our vulnerability to, and dependence on, our waters will become an increasingly daily reality.

Reading about the gantries, and about the different kinds of cargo vessels traveling our waterways, makes these looming giants seem less mythical, more historical, and tied to the politics of our city. Still, every time I’m in the water and see a behemoth container ship, I’m going to feel that queasy something in the pit of my stomach, visions of being sucked under in its undertow, of ironclad whales amassing out in Ambrose Channel.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Yom Kippur Swim

The last two Sundays I swam out at Coney Island, I ended up at the sideshow after. The first of these mornings was rainy and unseasonably cold for early September. The water was a sooty green and the tugs and container ships out in Ambrose Channel were sharply etched against the low clouds, like in one of those early gelatinous prints where everything looks both dark and illuminated. I swam alone and each stroke felt like punishment and atonement. Yom Kippur was in a couple of days and on my mind, I guess.

Afterwards, I wandered up the boardwalk, past the aquarium and the Cyclone, over to Ruby’s. I meant to warm up, but the warmer I felt, the more I resented it and wished I could keep the ocean as long as possible. Maybe this is why, hungry and cold, instead of a proper after-swim lunch, I washed down with a cold beer a dozen clams on the half shell.

There were no more than a dozen of us in the whole place, and what with the salvaged pre-Sandy boardwalk suspended from the ceiling over our heads, it felt like we were all refugees from some cataclysm, us and the driftwood all that remained.

In the back I found a sign for Stauch's Baths I thought was authentic but turned out to be a prop from Woody Allen's 2017 movie Wonder Wheel. The colors, though, looked well-researched, the pale gold and tomato red evoking the art deco palette of the Parachute Jump. Stauch’s Baths was between the Bowery and the boardwalk just west of Stillwell Ave., one of dozens of bathhouses that lined the beach from Seagate to Manhattan Beach (you can read Sergey Kadinsky’s fascinating article about one of them, McLochlin's Baths). According to Coney Island historian Charles Denson, Ruby Jacobs and his wife owned Stauch’s (as well as Clarets, Cook’s, and Bushman baths) from the 1960s until they closed in the early 80s. Ruby’s restaurant, which he opened right around then, must’ve been his consolation, and so a direct heir, in a way, to the lost bathhouses.

Then I cut up 12th Ave to Coney Island USA, where the Texas Talker was doing the bally out on the sidewalk and the sideshow performers were hanging out at the Freak Bar between sets. I ordered a Mermaid Pilsner and sat there with the other freaks and felt something I rarely do—a sense of belonging. Open water swimmer, athlete, sideshow performer, fire eater, what's the difference? We're all doing things with our bodies we maybe weren't meant to do, but that bring us such pain and such joy, we keep coming back.

Crash course in port history

On an overcast, windy weekday a couple of weeks ago--the hem of Hurricane Michael was sweeping over us--I spent the day on Gove...