On a warm afternoon in late May, a group of teenagers launch a flotilla of five wooden rowboats onto the Bronx River, then take the oars and begin pulling swiftly upstream–past a scrap-metal yard, a furniture warehouse and a defunct cement plant. On the bank, yellow irises grow amid poison ivy; three cormorants sun themselves on a half-submerged log. A subway train rattles past on an elevated track, then the only sounds are the trill of a red-winged blackbird and the rhythmic splash of the oars.
When they reach a cluster of buoys, the crew begins hauling up mesh traps, checking the day’s catch against an illustrated chart. The students are participants in an environmental education program run by the youth development group Rocking the Boat; today they are conducting a creel survey, an informal fish census. A small ripple of excitement spreads among the boats when someone identifies a tiny silvery tomcod. Its presence upriver, explains Joseph Rachlin, an aquatic ecologist at Lehman College who advises the program, shows that the Bronx River estuary is becoming “an important nursery ground” for marine fish.
Across the country, from Providence to Los Angeles, urban rivers that were polluted and even paved over are being restored. But the revival of the Bronx River is unusual. Traditionally advocates for the environment and for low-income communities have had little to say to each other; but because the Bronx River traverses some of the country’s poorest neighborhoods, a few of its advocates are navigating new territory by connecting environmental issues like water quality and habitat restoration to economic issues like job creation and training. As Majora Carter, founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, has said, “Economic degradation begets environmental degradation”; if the problems are linked, the solutions must be linked too.
The Bronx River begins as a stream in Westchester County and then flows down through the Bronx before spilling into the East River at Hunts Point. Once a habitat for muskrats, snowy egrets and beaver, by the late nineteenth century it was a dumping ground for the towns and industries alongside it–an “open sewer,” in the words of an 1896 state commission. By the 1970s the river had become an urban wasteland lined with polluting industries, hemmed in by expressways, its banks strewn with refuse.
Congressman José Serrano, who represents the Bronx and has steered more than $15 million to Bronx River restoration projects, remembers volunteering with a river cleanup fifteen years ago: “The things that were being pulled out of there…parts of jeeps and trucks and tires, things you can’t tell a lady. It was bad.”
Since then, local ecology groups have continued to clear debris and advocated for cleaner water and riverside parks. Wildlife decimated by overharvesting and habitat destruction are now flourishing in and along the river. Oysters, once abundant in New York’s waters, are spatting on manmade clamshell reefs. Hundreds of herring were released in the past two springs; when their fry return to spawn, volunteers will scoop them over the dams that have blocked their migration since the 1600s. And last winter, a beaver built his dam on the bank–the first of his species to make a home in New York City in 200 years.