Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor

Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor

Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor

Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor

Excerpt

New Yorkers have a dark fascination with their surrounding waters. Where else is it expected that sometime during mid-April, as the depths warm, bacterial activity will bloat the previous winter’s bounty of murders and suicides and cause them to rise to the harbor’s surface—a synchronized resurrection of the damned that captains call “Floaters’ Week.” New York Harbor is a place so mysterious that things go bump in the night in the daytime, too. The public’s cognizance of its ecological health leans more toward this black view—a harbor of utter lifelessness or a chemical stew featuring gasping flounder—than the present reality of a simultaneously stressed but thriving ecosystem.

No one has rendered this bleak perspective better than Saul Steinberg in his frontispiece to Joseph Mitchell’s classic Bottom of the Harbor. In his simple sketch Manhattan appears above the waterline as a bundle of gloriously towering spires, the image’s visual weight balanced offshore by Lady Liberty. Commerce is represented by a tugboat towing a cruise ship. Below the surface the composition is spare, with natural life embodied by only two passing fish. But the scene is made memorable by a critical addition—the mystique and dark romance of the harbor are symbolized by a human skeleton tumbling out of a fifty-five-gallon drum.

Growing up in New York City in the 1960s and traveling to cleaner shores to fish and swim, I shared the general naïve disdain of the harbor environment and could scarcely believe rumors of fine angling beneath raw sewage. Riding highways along the East River or Upper New York Bay, I wondered what creatures, if any, lurked under the floating garbage . . .

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