Why Don't We Fix the East River?

Updated 2 years ago Peter McCarthy
East River at Sunrise from Roosevelt Island
East River at Sunrise from Roosevelt Island
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Not long after moving Roosevelt Island, you realize the East River can't be a river. Rivers don't change direction several times a day. That makes true rivers naturally cleaner and easier to fix.

To Fix the East River, Recognize the Source

The strait, churned by tides, separating us from both Manhattan and Queens, in two channels, was always called a river, the Sound River (because it's connected to Long Island Sound) for a while, but almost always the East.

Not being a river though means, instead of constantly rinsing itself out, the East River just moves its waists back and forth, never getting rid of them.

Cartographers weren't always so fussy. For centuries, the Hudson River, running parallel to the East, was known as the North River and, still is in some seafaring journals. And just for the record, the Hudson is not a river either.

Tides shove it back and forth past Manhattan below high cliffs. The Hudson is a fjord.

The most catchy definition for the East River is a technical one: a drowned valley.

Carved out more than 10,000 years ago during the Wisconsin Glaciation, it filled with water leaking into the oceans as rising temperatures caused a massive melt off.

Today, global warming accelerated by manmade pollution continues to drown the valley deeper. We're at 35 feet on average and growing.

The East River Since Then

When Europeans swarmed into to the New World, the Lenapes already living here didn't think of it as a drowned valley. The strait and areas around it were a verdant garden surrounded by a bountiful sea they called home.

Without retelling the oft told tale of how the Lenapes were pushed out and New York grew, we can move along to where the strait became the East River, a verdant garden of toxic pollutants and raw potential too slowly being cleaned up and lined with scenic pathways.

Note: there is more to the story, but this is, after all, the Roosevelt Island Daily, so we'll mostly stick close to home

Let's get past the pollutants and raw sewage first.

Before moving on or going in for a dip, you need to know that New York City still pumps an estimated (or admitted, depending on your level of skepticism) 27 billion gallons of untreated waste into the East River every year.

This is not new, just different. "The East River has been the city's digestive system," explained a 2004 New York Times article.

''The East River has been the kidneys, liver, spleen and urethra of New York City,'' according to Carter Craft, an expert quoted by the Times, who went on to acknowledge that this might have stigmatized the waterway.

The usually unspoken truth is that, as Manhattan's population grew, so did its waste.

In the good old days you hear about or, more appropriately, overnight, crews carted the waste from outhouses and elsewhere and dumped it in the water. Later, when sewers were built, all manner of waste got flushed in from outlets along the river's slips.

You can conclude pretty easily of what the "landfill" used to enlarge Manhattan and narrow the river consists. 

Today, the official story - an official story always rides alongside the true story - says that those 27 billion gallons of untreated waste only gush into the water when stormy weather overloads treatment plant capacities.

As my window faces Manhattan, I hasten to report seeing sewage gushing out from under Manhattan and into the East River under sunny, blue skies.

Lots of times.

We're told that, on most days, the bacterial level in the water is low enough that you can swim in it without excess risk.

Caution: the measurements are taken in the middle of the river, not along the shores where both you and the waste are likely to be or near Superfund cleanup sites along Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal.

Joining the human waste have been enough pollutants, in days past, that the Newtown Creek tributary has, at its bottom, a fifteen foot layer of petroleum based gunk known as "black mayonnaise."

Jennifer Bolstad who does the annual Brooklyn Bridge Swim anyway, told The Verge, "People ask me, ‘How many times do you have to shower after doing that?’ The answer is three, before you stop smelling strangely metallic."

I may be laying it on as thick as the black mayonnaise, but since there is a politically inspired effort to downplay the full scope of the problem, largely because nobody is willing to pay the price for fixing history's mindless negligence, I thought some balance was a good counterbalance.

Alternatives for the East River

Using the cliche, "It's complicated," understates the case dramatically.

Top of the chart for why you can't see the bottom of the river more than a foot or two from shore is that nature - Damn those glaciers! - gifted the waterway with a problem for which no one has come up with a feasible solution.

That is, pushed as it is by competing tides from Long Island Sound and the Hudson, via the Harlem River, it can't flush itself.

Just as what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, the excrement you dump in the East River stays, too.

A while back someone floated the idea of building a damn near Hell Gate that would block off tides from Long Island Sound. Cries of "too expensive" drowned it.

In the middle of the Eighteenth Century, James E. Serrell drew a lot of attention to his idea for filling in the river from 14th to 125th Street and replacing it with a new "East River," a canal cut through Queens.

Roosevelt Island, under the Serrell plan would've been connected by land to the bigger island to the west. Not only would that eliminate the shipping dangers of Hell Gate, but my wife and I could just take a leisurely stroll to 71st Street when we a craving for our favorite Turkish restaurant arises. 

The much maligned L Train may still have had its tunnel wrecked by Super Storm Sandy, but easy aboveground alternatives would be available during downtime.

The Serrell plan as well as variations touted for decades by the likes of Thomas Edison failed because of a general inability to think big when it comes to civic projects without recognizable profit involved.

Perhaps all we need to do now is stir politically connected developers imaginations with the idea of ever more glass towers rising above what was once a virtual sewer.

Along the East River Today

As much as we love new developments like Brooklyn Bridge Park or our not so new Roosevelt Island Promenade, what we have now are mostly cosmetic fixes, bike and walking trails diverting attention from how badly damaged the East River is and how we continue to abuse it.

Environmental ornamentation doesn't do anything to correct the phenomenal harm of 27 billion gallons from untreated waste gushing into the strait that can't flush itself every year.

It's like slapping some paint on a weatherbeaten old outhouse that nobody will tear down and pretending it's fixed.

That's what politicians do when they don't want to tell you that you need to invest tax dollars into a project that's been neglected so long that the cost of repairs is too much to measure.

The East River has come to symbolize the environmental degradation that nobody wants to talk about.

It's intractable to policymakers without courage, like poverty, inequality and all the isms we're tired of hearing about and unwilling to conquer.

So that, last but not least, is what the East River is: a disgusting manmade disaster made worse by the day from neglect, symbolizing civic cowardice.

Complicating the mess are the politics of it. Less consequential issues dominate the news and political debate. Even in a mayoral election year, nobody's talking about the monster problem we share: the broken East River badly in need of a fix.

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