Friday, August 21, 2009
Paddling the Bronx River
Yesterday I had the remarkable treat of going canoeing on the Bronx River with colleagues from Montefiore Hospital who are celebrating the recovery of the borough. The Bronx was badly damaged in the 1970s by the civic policy of planned shrinkage, which had the horrific unintended consequence of spreading the AIDS epidemic, and unleashing drug epidemics that in turn created overwhelming violence with all its accompanying illnesses. Montefiore has been one of the hospitals at Ground Zero of this succession of catastrophes, leading the treatment and research endeavors for all these problems. Like other organizations it has soldiered along doing what it could for recovery. The Bronx River Alliance is another example of an organization committed to the recovery of the Bronx, and doing the slow, considered work that I've come to call "careful recovery." Since the 1970s the Alliance has been cleaning the river and bringing people to the river so that it might function as a "Main Street" of recreation and community life. They have removed 70 cars and 12,000 tires, and fought for better caretaking by upstream communities which still dump on the river. They hope to make the river swimmable, and they are nearing that goal -- what a wonderful gift that will be to the Bronx! What makes this "careful recovery" are the following characteristics: they haven't gone for a quick fix, indeed, they know there isn't one; they are aware of and seek to understand all the complexities of life along the river, its ecosystem; they teach others to love the river as they do; and they reach out to all the communities that might help. Careful recovery helps all the injured parts of the ecosystem -- animal, vegetable and mineral.
The river I visited yesterday was sparkling in the sun, and its clear bottom was free of debris. People were gathered at its edges, longing to get in, which some had done though the probably to their peril -- it's not that clean just yet. The river plays peek-a-boo with the city. At one point we got stuck on a sand bar just under a bridge. A man on the bridge helped us get our canoe going the right way, just as he would have helped us get our car off a patch of ice. Another time we heard a man singing, though we couldn't see him. My granddaughter Lily shouted, "You sound great!" "I think it's important to compliment people," she said to Greg and me, her fellow paddlers. What was the man thinking to hear a voice come out of nowhere? There are so few paddlers on the river, he might not have thought to look for the voice there.
When we arrived at the Bronx Zoo, we entered a small lake created by dams built hundreds of years ago to power small factories. There insects hovered over the water and water birds collected, including an egret, a duck, and a seagull. Dart Westphal, who had organized our trip, said that a beaver had been spotted on the river, the first since the dams were built in the 1700s. When he heard about the beaver he went out and bought a beaver tie and gave beaver toys to all his friends: that is how careful recovery works, I thought to myself, celebrating small victories on the road to Recreation Main Street.