Hunts Point Resiliency: Connection Stories

On the Bronx River with Rocking the Boat

This is the first of a series of Hunts Point Connection Stories that we will publish throughout this project to spotlight different voices and stories in Hunts Point. Throughout the series, members of the Hunts Point community will be paired with different City representatives to explore different aspects of resiliency in the peninsula.

The first story focuses on ecological resiliency of the Bronx River featuring Ty, Isaac, and McKinney, three high school- and college-aged program assistants from Rocking the Boat. Ty, Isaac, and McKinney were joined by Pablo Caraballo, who oversees digital media at the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency; and Louise Yeung, a Senior Resiliency Planner at the NYC Economic Development Corporation and project manager of the Hunts Point Resiliency Project.

I’ve spent the better part of this month analyzing the current conditions of Hunts Point. Research at this stage entails making sense of a lot of data — on energy usage, food storage needs, socioeconomic trends, and more. Understanding these contexts is an important part of the project, but there are only so many maps and tables you can review at your desk without wanting to walk around Hunts Point in person. That’s why I was glad to take a break and from the spreadsheets and meet up with three students from Rocking the Boat for a tour of the Bronx River.

Founded in 2001, Rocking the Boat teaches boatbuilding and ecological restoration as a way to develop leadership skills for young people from the Bronx. Our tour guides for the day were Ty, Isaac, and McKinney, who had all participated in Rocking the Boat programs as high school students and returned as Program Assistants.

Despite persistent rain, we boarded the boat at Riverside Park. Our trip started with familiar sights: the looming pink towers of Concrete Plant Park, the machinery of the scrap metal yard, and the banks of Soundview Park.

Soon, our tour guides pointed out a number of things I hadn’t noticed before. We passed by a restoration site that they planted with native plants and areas where they conduct water quality testing. We pulled out an oyster line and they taught me how to gauge the health of the river through oyster monitoring. The oysters, aquatic plants, and birds who depend on the river are living indicators of resiliency. Isaac explained the function of oysters as natural filters to the water, regulating pollution that might harm the river. “We collect all this data to see how much is growing and to see how well it’s doing. Oysters are a natural filtration system. Many moons ago, they used to be the size of dinner plates and what they would do is filter hundreds of gallons a day. What we do now is see how well they flourish. If they grow big and strong, that means our river is doing really well and able to filter nicely. If they die quickly that means our river is doing really bad and it’s too much for them to handle. If we could get them back into our river as natural families and live here normally, then our river would be a whole lot cleaner.”

Somewhere along the waterfront at Soundview Park Isaac pointed out his favorite tree, whose branches are so low that they become submerged when the river is at high tide. McKinney’s favorite part of the river is the sheet piling at the Produce Market. “I like that wall. I call it the Great Wall of the Bronx River,” he said fondly. Ty spotted a heron. “For the past couple of days, they haven’t been around here. Normally they’re around here when it’s low tide so they can feed … We hadn’t seen any sight of them, but they’ve returned, so I’m glad.” We paused at the mouth of the river where a rainy Manhattan skyline opened up into view. McKinney summed it up perfectly: “It’s mad beautiful.”

Ty, Isaac, and McKinney see firsthand that, despite some bad days with heavy combined sewer overflows (“the biggest enemy we encounter every week” according to Isaac), the oysters, plants, and other wildlife filter the water and keep the Bronx River thriving and resilient. They notice the daily ebbs and flows of the water levels and changes in the weather. Isaac described what he notices each time he goes to the river and I began to see what he sees. “The first thing I look at is the river itself. I look if there’s any oil in there or garbage around. Next, I look for the wildlife that surrounds it. If there are a lot of birds hunting for fish, that must mean there are fish in the water and the water is good enough to keep fish surviving. And then I would look for the greenery. If there’s no fish or birds, then something’s wrong with the river.” In the time that our tour guides have been involved with Rocking the Boat, the quality of the water has improved. McKinney used to tell neighbors and friends he was going to the water and “They would say, ‘Where?’ They just thought it was dirty water.” Restoration of greenery has brought back wildlife. “Now,” he said, “I see all these birds and I can identify all the birds like nothing.”

The story of existing conditions can be told in many different ways, and this boat trip reminded me that, more than anything, the river is personal. The Hunts Point Resiliency Project will result in an infrastructure project, but the ultimate goal is protecting a thriving community of people, businesses, plants, and wildlife.

While we’re eager to share our current existing conditions findings with you later this fall, it’s only one lens through which to see Hunts Point. Over the course of the Connection Stories, we will document and share the many ways that people experience the peninsula and we hope that all of these unique perspectives can help shape resiliency in Hunts Point. Learn more at the Hunts Point Resiliency Public Meeting on October 19 at The Point CDC (940 Garrison Ave) at 6:00 PM.

- Louise Yeung

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