Do you know who founded Bronx River Art Center? Answer: one of the authors to the document you’re about to read. 2014 is the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the kind of Bronx River rehabilitation, recreation, and education we have today! The essay below was originally published in the New York Botanical Garden’s monthly journal Garden Magazine in April 1974. Please take the time to learn a little about its authors at the close of their story.
THE BRONX RIVER
Studying Pollution at Work
— an Autopsy or a Rebirth?
By Axel Horn and John Sedgwick
I sat me down upon a green bank side.
Skirting the smooth edge of a gentle river,
Whose waters seem unwillingly to glide,
Like parting friends who linger while they sever,
Enforced to go, yet seeming still unready,
Backward they wind their way in many a wistful eddy.
–Joseph Rodman Drake (1725-1820)
THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO—after the last glacier covering the area now known as the Bronx had finally melted—a small stream started out in the section known today as North Castle, cascading down a gentle slope through miles of salt marsh, and ended silently in what is now known, as the East River. To the Indians who paddled for centuries over its clear surface and hunted along its mossy trails, the Bronx River was known as Aquahung, a place of high bluffs or banks.” Then, it ran pure, its sparkling waters carrying native trout over shallow rapids.
Like the Hutchinson River, it was navigable for several miles in canoes and bateau up to the present West Farms, but the waters were too shallow for ships—particularly war fleets. In his book, History of Bronx Borough, Randall Comfort writes, “We hear of an order coming from The British War Office, directing its warships to proceed at once up the Bronx and attack Yankee ships supposed to be hiding above. How far they got is unknown, for a tug has difficulty, even at high tide, in reaching West Farms…Why, there are plenty of places where one can easily ford the stream by jumping from stone to stone!”
Poets and painters have been mesmerized by that little stream, “shaded by arching willows and giant butternuts.” As a boy, Joseph Rodman Drake, who came to be known as the Poet of the Bronx, would take his rowboat into the shade of the river’s beautiful willows and compose verses like the one introducing this article. It was his express wish to be buried along its waters.
Today, the beautiful face of the river Drake loved is scarred with what has been called “the jagged flotsam of affluence.” Super-high-ways and ugly train tracks flank its banks. The waters run dirty, carrying a load of life-robbing sewage contributed by an unthinking and unfeeling population.
In an attempt to reverse the process, to restore the river’s fading beauty, the New York Botanical Garden, as part of its Environmental Education Program, has undertaken a project geared toward understanding the river, its ecosystems, its relationship to the surrounding human population, and its history and current state of health. The premise on which the Bronx River Project was organized is quite Broad: our planet is an environmental system made up of innumerable regional sub-systems, each in turn composed of many localized sub-systems, each in turn composed of many localized sub-systems. To comprehend the total system, environmentalists need data on sub and sub-sub-system
levels. The Bronx River is part of a system comprising five rivers that penetrate New York City from the north. It descends from the Kensico Reservoir area in White Plains and cuts through the length of the Garden northwest to southeast, from near the Mosholu Parkway to the Bronx Zoo (5/6 of a mile of river is contained within the Garden). If a true understanding can be gained of this small section of the river, it will help greatly in understanding the whole system.
The process of collecting information on this Garden-enclosed sub-system began in the spring of 1973, when members of the Bronx River Project group began their probe of the river’s banks. Among the group were twelve students from four neighborhood high schools—Theodore Roosevelt, Evander Childs, Christopher Columbus, and Bronx High School of Science—who had been designated by their schools to participate for academic credit. The number has now risen to twenty-four, and hopefully will continue to grow. It is in the interest of today’s students, who will inherit the task of solving our environmental problems, to become involved in such a project. And they, themselves, benefit directly from having coped with clearly defined problems in a meaningful way.
In an attempt to get away from the very structured atmosphere of a classroom, each student has the opportunity to pursue his own particular interest within the study of the river. With the help of Garden staff members, particularly twenty or so “resource persons” who have expertise in a variety of areas, they examine everything from the tiny algae coating the river’s rocks to the Nineteenth Century pottery shards along the banks. A student interested in invertebrate biology, for instance, turns to someone like Arnold Gausin, a research chemist with a great deal of knowledge on the subject. On the other hand, Larry Pardue, Coordinator of Plant Information, is the one to see with questions about plants found along the banks.
Students group together according to their interests. For example, those interested in exploring the biological and chemical factors of the river work together on projects like water analysis, making tests at control stations along the riverside to determine pollution factors, temperatures, nutrients, and animal and plant populations. Students who share an interest in photography take photos of the various aspects of both river banks in order to provide the integrating thread with which to bring all the river findings together. Still other groups deal with archeology and history, mapping, animal and plant life, even law (concerning the legal aspects of getting the river cleaned and kept free from polluting materials).
So far, the in-depth study has turned up many interesting, disturbing, but in our day none too surprising facts. Students have found oil and gas coating the surface waters, pipes emptying noxious organic chemicals, whole car bodies rotting alongside discarded refrigerators—all the contemporary artifacts of a careless wasteful society. Measurements have shown high levels of polluting bacteria, as well as the nitrates and phosphates that result from their decomposing actions. Oxygen levels in the odorous waters are low due to the respiratory needs of these sewage-consuming bacteria, robbing the waters of the elements needed by fish or the populations of bottom-dwelling insect larvae fish graze upon.
On one six-mile expedition up the river toward Westchester, students discovered twenty-nine pipes emptying sewage waste into the waters, which transported it through the Garden. Large active raw sewers have been found near the Cross County Parkway in Westchester, and two particularly active pipes empty into the river just north and south of 233rd Street in the North Bronx. One pipe, harboring a colony of rats, contributes a last insult to the river’s integrity just as it enters Bronx Park.
As the river flows south through the Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo, little waste is contributed, but at 180th Street an environmentalist’s nightmare begins. It is here that a food store’s daily garbage is dumped, tumbling down river banks to join rusted box springs, discarded bicycles, shopping carts, and rubber tires by the hundreds, all in a wreath around a discarded Volkswagon. From here south the river is increasingly desecrated with the waste of our urban culture.
Ironically, the Bronx River Parkway, completed in 1925, was constructed in response to people’s complaints about the odorous burden carried by the river from houses. Shacks, small mills, and refuse heaps. It was in 1906 that the Governor of New York approved a bill for a commission to study the question of the river’s pollution and to propose a possible solution. The commission decided to enclose the environs of the river to its source in Kensico Lake and to include the landscaped parkway, hoping to solve the problem by giving municipalities control of access to the river, thus enabling them to enforce sanitary regulations. Over sixteen million dollars were spent to build the parkway, but it did not live up to expectations.
In spite of everything we’ve done to it, the river is not yet dead. Nature is fighting back, Myriad life forms have been found clinging tenaciously to what is left of their battered habitat. The bottom rocks near the Snuff Mill are coated with green filamentous algae. Diatoms and small invertebrate cyclops have been collected by students with plankton nets, and minnows, whose oxygen requirements are low, live to feed upon these small life forms. The pollution-resistant carp brought from China in the late nineteenth century forage on the waste-coated bottom, doing their part to clean the river of its filth.
The students, in short, are finding something more than a catalogue of deadly statistics. They are finding hope where many thought no more hope existed. The data they are compiling are a measure to others all across the country: if the Bronx River can be saved, so can the Chicago River, so can Lake Erie, so can every dying waterway in the land. All it takes is understanding the problem—its lethal seriousness and the nature of its challenge—and then solving it.
Exploration is going slowly in the Bronx River program because of the small number of students working on the project and the small amount of time they can devote to it out of busy school and study schedules. But, with the help of the Bronx community and local government officials, the work can be done.
Most of the information collected up to now will be made available for public viewing when the museum building reopens this May. Students’ photographs will make one long exhibit—a continuous documentary photo of both banks of that segment of the river flowing through the Garden. It will be supplemented with a wide variety of descriptive material, including: cross-sections of the river bed; biological analyses in the form of charts; photomicrographs, and drawings; samples of geological formations; indications of wildlife, including drawings, casts of paw prints, and photos of animals; a census of plant life shown by leaf prints, photos and drawings; charts of temperature fluctuations, oxygen levels, and rates of water movement and turbulence. Other graphic material will be incorporated to produce a multi-media profile of the river as an entity.
The exhibit will remain in the Museum Building, and information and material will be added as it is accumulated, so it will grow almost as a living organism. This approach will demonstrate the interlocking web of environmental factors—physical, biological, chemical, social, historical, and political—as well as the dynamics of change.
The aims of the people working on the Bronx River Project are many. First, the findings will, hopefully, provide the Garden with the information it needs for its own understanding of the precious piece of open land under its stewardship. It will give the Bronx community and decision-making bodies some of the facts they need in their effort to solve over-crowding, poor housing, waste disposal, and other burgeoning conditions. It will also supply federal, state, and city environmental agencies with information useful to their understanding of local land use, energy use, waste, noise pollution, and health conditions. And it will serve as a pattern for others to follow in attacking the same problems in their communities.
The main goal remains to get the river’s waters clean again, and with the Garden’s education department providing the concept and guidance and local students providing the manpower, there is hope of bringing the dream to pass.
After all the information has been collected and analyzed, it will be taken to city, state, and county officials in an attempt to convince them of the necessity—and the possibility—of cleaning up this intolerable mess. The sewers can be stopped, the tires hauled out, the garbage removed. Living habitats can be changed, if there is a desire to do so. When we examine all we have done to destroy the river, the task of acting to clean it of our wastes seems very small indeed.
Axel Horn is a trained artist who, after many years as a professional graphics and science exhibit designer, became committed to the cause of environmental education. He is now coordinator of Environmental Studies Program Development for the New York Botanical Garden.
John Sedgwick, NYBG’s Coordinator of Environmental Education, is a young man with a long history as a fighter for the purity of his native Hudson River. He is Vice-President of Hudson River Fisherman’s Association, the most active conservation group on the river. As an officer of Hudson River Sloop Restoration, Inc., he helped Pete Seeger’s Clearwater set sail, and as part of Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference he is involved in the Storm King controversy.