Saturday, 22 October 2016

On the waterfront

Geology was kind to New York because the waterfront provided plenty of inlets and islands to accommodate facilities that kept the city ticking over in past decades. Elizabeth Albert's book historically looks at ten places that reveal an intriguing amount of human activity.

Islands in particular were taken advantage of by the city authorities. A prison was built on Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt) in 1832, later various hospitals and facilities for the insane were also built. The unclaimed dead ended up at Hart Island, the cities Department of Corrections estimates that more than a million bodies are buried there. A photo from 2012 shows the still standing remains of a prison. North Brother Island had a hospital for infectious diseases in the early years of the last century, later it was used as a rehabilitation center for drug addicts but finally abandoned by the city in 1963.

Non-island locations include Sandy Ground on Staten Island which was the home of black farmers and oystermen (displaced from Maryland in the 1850s where they were forbidden from owning boats). The Gowanus Canal is a badly constructed 1.8 mile long waterway in Brooklyn, it has no locks and the builders hoped two tides a day would clean the didn't. By 1910 the canal was almost solid with industrial waste and sewage and it remained polluted right up to recent years. A ten-year clean up began in 2015. Coney Island Creek (originally an island) is another of New York's incredibly polluted waterways and also heavy with marine litter, including Jerry Bianco's handmade Questar 1 submarine and originally painted yellow (what else) but a storm tore it from its moorings and dumped it in mud away from the shore. Page ninety-one has a lovely color photo, from 1971, of the sub being lifted by a crane ready for her maiden voyage. Dead Horse Bay was just that, a place where animals were rendered from 1860 to the 1930s. Later it was used as a landfill until 1953. Interestingly this has now been breeched by the tides and the shore is littered with a changing collection of household rubbish and animal bones.

The author makes the ten locations come alive with her copy as well essays from other writers. Old photos, graphics and contemporary photos provide the visual interest. Incidentally if you use the Bing maps Bird's eye view option you can see some of the ruins of buildings mentioned in the text and photos.

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