Thursday, December 16, 2010

Requiem for a briny mud flat

As the winter descends slowly on the northeast our thoughts turn towards our avian friends flying south.  One of the few places that privileges these fellows here in the New York Harbor is Shooters Island, the most beautiful briny mud flat in the world, and one of the many uninhabited islands dotting the harbor.
[Shooters Island sits just off Staten Island's North Shore in the Kill Van Kull; the major shipping channel to Bayonne is just to the north; Shooters Island was nearly blown up in the 1960's to ease navigation in the Kill]

Shooters Island is administered by the New York City Parks Department and closed to the public, and that is all the more reason you should consider sneaking a boat into the South Shooters Island Reach of the Kill Van Kull and paddling through the petrochemicals over to the island.  The history of the place is immediately palpable, but just to render what you already perceive, we’ll note for you a brief synopsis:

The island was little more than a hideout and hunting reserve in colonial times and remained undeveloped until the 1860’s when the first small shipyard was established here.  During the early 20th century the North Shore of Staten Island became one of the biggest shipbuilding centers in the world.  The Townsend-Downey Shipbuilding Company began operating here, manufacturing world famous vessels for the rich and famous; in 1902, the island produced a luxurious yacht for the Kaiser Willhelm II of Prussia.  And then twelve years later it started cranking out gleaming war machines that would eventually rend asunder the good emperor’s navy.
["Yes, yes, your yacht is right this way Mr. Kaiser.  NO!  Please, emperor, you can't look at the warship we are building behind that curtain."]

[remnants of old ships' hulls and dry dock crumbling into the water]

The need for fill to enable the expanding shipbuilding operation made Shooter’s Island a convenient dumping ground for the dredge material from the adjacent Kill Van Kull and the island swelled beyond its primary bulkhead.  Not long after the end of WWII, shipbuilding on the Island was done and it was abandoned, left to soak in the petrochemicals and sewage overflows from surrounding industry and neighborhoods for the next 60 years and now the ever larger dredging operations are slowly eating away at the island.
[the USS Muscatine being fitted out at Shooters Island; it was a 4430 gross ton refrigerated cargo ship (with 10,562 tons of displacement) used by the Navy as part of the logistical supply line during WW1]

In researching this (we obviously use the term "researching" loosely), we came across some interesting web chatter:  a number of Staten Islanders seemed to remember an old woman who lived on the island for years, rowing herself to shore a couple of times a week for supplies and to wander flaneur-like up and down the heinous streets of Staten Island.  In recent years, the city of Bayonne, New Jersey has tried to sell its portion of Shooters Island, ostensibly to “close a budget gap”.  This may or may not be part of some new hard line conservative fiscal initiative, but regardless, whenever you stand to make a few thousand dollars by selling off a priceless ecological sanctuary that happens to embody some of the greatest story lines of your industrial past, you’ve got to do it.
[the NOAA navigational charts show the bathymetry of the channels swirling around Shooters Island.  The South Shooters Island Reach is a minor channel and is not maintained by the same Army Corps contracts as the channel to the north]

We here at FASLANYC are in awe of the lovely, dangerous, polluted island.  The juxtaposition of petrochemical industries and bird sanctuaries, an old boat graveyard and massive modern tankers, shipbuilding histories and hearty, homeless old ladies, all perfectly embodied by that sharp line bisecting the island, demarcating the tidal mud flat from the marshy island- it seems perfect, and makes us want to pan around and around in Bing (of course, we would never go to the island- we prefer to conjure landscape experience through the glowing screen).  We wonder what ever became of the idea floated out in this NY Times piece from the 1990’s, and whether anyone else has any designs on the drawing board for what the island might be.  At the very least, it should be the subject of a most excellent treasure map:  a carefully curated and choreographed journey aboard the Staten Island Ferry, down Richmond Terrace, through the numerous bands of chain link fence, careful to circumvent the combined sewer outfalls, ending with a straight shot across the South Shooters Island Reach of the Kill Van Kull.

[if you want to see me, make your way to Shooters Island; and even if you don't care for birds, it's still an amazing place]

At any rate, the great migratory birds that love the island are heading south for the winter, and we are too.  We still hope to get up some content occasionally, but things are likely to be a little slow until February rolls around and the first thaw begins to show up.  Hopefully we will be able to chime in with new developments, report a bit from down south, and we promise to trot out some new themes, interviews, and to bring you the most lackadaisical reporting around.
[Faslanyc, H. Willis Montcrief, and DRDLM- the turkey buzzard flock of the nerdy landscape blog world- prepare to head south for the winter.  Or is it west?  Do they have any idea of the direction they're headed?]

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