Around the corner, behind my apartment building, beyond the first of the eating establishments which first distinguished my neighborhood as up-and-coming, there is a dark underpass beneath the Major Deegan Expressway. Today, the YUCA Arts program has beautified it with the help of some legendary Bronx artists; but not that long ago, it was…not quite nice. At all.
You could point to a lot of factors for why it used to be so grimy. But the most easily identifiable one was that feathered ubiquitous menace of the city — and perhaps cities worldwide — the pigeon.
I imagine pigeons most other places are fairly docile, passive birds, but this wouldn’t be the South Bronx if they weren’t a little rough around their undercarriages.
The Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of Animals: A Visual Who’s Who of The World’s Creatures is a book that I cherish and was lucky enough to acquire as a lowly publicity assistant 20 years ago and have guarded with my life though I have not used it for any purpose of any import since, and perhaps including, this very moment. It was in this book that I learned that pigeons are part of a glorious lineage. That of the 9,000 species of birds that exist and the approximately 23 categories, or orders, of classification into which birds can fall — woodpeckers in one order, for instance, peacocks in another, obvi — pigeons share Order Columbiformes, 20th by the looks of my two-decade-old edition of the encyclopedia, with doves and the extinct dodo bird.
The Columbidae: Pigeon Family does not make room, as you would imagine, for the more, uh, feral pigeons that we come across in the city in the same way as Wikipedia, but that may be a sign of the times. Instead, our first introduction in its pages is “Rock Dove/Pigeon,” which is so endearing and sweet. (In Wikipedia’s defense, it describes pigeons as the oldest domesticated bird in the world, which is quite distinguished, and gives homing pigeons a special shout out for their skills during times of war.)
Anyway, as has been noted in popular culture depictions of pigeons over the years, nobody generally puts any respeck on their names. I, for one, have generally considered them just mediocre, particularly in comparison with other city creatures including the very large, gymnastic rats that in recent years have evolved to strengthen their maws such that they can carry slices to and from long distances without the assistance of opposable thumbs. The most irritating trait most pigeons have is that they flock together in groups of two or three and let their excrement fly all over your car.
But most New Yorkers don’t have cars, so they don’t have too much reason to trifle with birds, although that’s never stopped the city from making ill-advised moves before. And when have city dwellers anywhere ever just let nature be nature without trying to intervene?
I’m what you might call an odd…bird, in case you haven’t gathered that already. I’m quite proud of my strong constitution. Not much makes me barf, wretch or gag.
I’ve only vomited from nausea twice in my life. But I promise you, the South Bronx pigeons who call this particular underpass home are so damn disgusting that my stats on this front nearly doubled since I have to walk underneath it to get to and from the closest subway station.
The pigeons crapped all over the already moist brown-gray concrete, which was permanently stained with large pockets of mysterious green slimy sludge caked over with white and gray fresh dots of pigeon poo. They would line their little bird butts up along the inner and outer ledges of the underpass, threatening to rain some more down on some unlucky jerk like me. You think the MTA is nerve-racking? The subway used to have nothing on this 30 foot stretch, when I would be torn between trying to map out how to avoid pigeon booty territory or staring at patterns of pigeon crap on the ground.
Everything beneath the underpass hadn’t gone to shit, though. People would leave these birds food. So there would be, depending on the day, a large scattering of bread crumbs or a pile of rice and so a gang of them (alright, a flock!) would be cooing happily while they dug in. It was just one sensory nightmare after another combined with the scent of exhaust, heat and sweat.
The first weeks of walking through the muck and mire of this was unsettling, to put it mildly. I tried blasting Kendrick Lamar and SZA and anything else to help me speed walk, strategically, lest I slip and fall into a white out and ink mix of pigeon dookie on my way to work. I learned to hold my breath or breathe through my mouth while I walked under the most dimly lit part of the underpass. I’m certainly not a fan of the racist white ladies who keep calling the police on black people, but if I were to try to have any understanding of that impulse to call 311 about a thing, any common shit that would bind us? It would be the pigeon shit.
But I’m not that chick. I don’t phone in things, not usually. There was this one time I got fixated, for a stretch of about eight days, on an open fire hydrant near the CrossFit box where I work out. Bronx residents like me sometimes have chips on our shoulders because of how much attention other boroughs get when people talk about city services and city improvement and then you see something like this.
I sensed that the location of this open hydrant, in front of the projects, might have been one of the reasons it had been left to gush in the street on a major bus route for days on end and the waste of environmental resources when cities like Cape Town have run out of water made my insides burn with outrage. I tweeted. I called. I emailed. I filled out the online report. It still took about a week before someone put the hydrant cap back on.
I digress.I knew white people were really coming to my neighborhood for real when the pigeons were in danger of being displaced, girl.
I woke up one morning to an incredible sight. Stacks of bright, fresh thick wooden beams meant to be placed into the crevices where the pigeons would roost in the underpass’ infrastructure.
City workers, looking so focused I couldn’t even be mad (but I was, just a little, because this was about birds, after all, so come on!) had taken over both sides of Alexander Avenue. There was a plan. They were about to take back the underpass.
I mean, a pickup truck was parked on the sidewalk. The men were wearing helmets and those orange fluorescent vests with the reflective stripes. You really can’t make this stuff up.
The pigeons, God bless their ignorant hearts, remained entirely unbothered — at least initially. They perched themselves, some sleeping with their heads tucked a little inside their puffed up breasts, on the side of the lime green structure facing the waterfront. It was almost as if they wanted to believe these men were there for their comfort and not their destruction.
This whole thing seemed to go on for about three or four days. I couldn’t follow it closely because of work, and I was really bummed out not to be able to actually spend a lot of time watching this real life man versus nature saga play out in my urban equivalent of a backyard. Maybe no one else really cared, but I was (obviously)fascinated.
The placement of the wooden planks — just so that there was no room in which the pigeons could maneuver — seemed well-devised to my untrained eye. The wood, to my relieved nose, smelled like cedar and that was, indeed, good news.
For about 24 hours, it looked like a different place and the pigeons went elsewhere to roost. The ground below the underpass was clean, like I imagine it hadn’t been in years. So this is what it’s like when you can actually change some shit, I thought.
And then, the next thing I knew, the dripping returned.
The sons of bitches had found their way into the crevices of the wood, wiggled and chirped and cooed and pooped in the spaces that the smarty pants construction dudes hadn’t filled up. The South Bronx pigeons had hacked the system, and the ground below the underpass was back to being pretty gross almost all of the time. I was annoyed, but I also couldn’t help but respect the little furry bastards.
This was their place and they were staying. Damn a wooden beam or a hundred of ‘em.
Not to be completely outdone by nature, of course, the city guys eventually returned to put spikes on the waterfront side of the bridge where the pigeons used to stare at Manhattan while they dozed and took their dumps. So they don’t get to coo and poop with a view. But if you ask me, the South Bronx pigeons still won.