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Intro to New York Harbor, Part 1: Before the Clean Water Act

By Heather Flanagan
March 6, 2017

New York Harbor’s abundance dazzled colonists and its superiority as a port turned the city into a manufacturing powerhouse during the Industrial Revolution.  But the Harbor that drove New York City’s extraordinary rise suffered the consequences of its growth.

statue of liberty oil slick

An oil slick in New York Harbor by the Statue of Liberty in 1973 from the Environmental Protection Agency’s DOCUMERICA project by Charles Higgins.

We’re going to start this history of New York Harbor in an unlikely place: Ohio.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire- the thirteenth time since 1868.  This is one of those fires, a consequence of industrial dumping, from 1952:

Time magazine ran the 1952 photos of the river burning to widespread media attention, and as a symbol of how polluted the nation’s waterways had become, it catalyzed the burgeoning environmental movement in the United States.  Cleveland’s mayor, Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major city, along with his brother, US Representative Louis Stokes, advocated for greater federal involvement in pollution control, and their work contributed to the passage of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972.  This landmark legislation included the goal that the navigable waters in the US become “swimmable and fishable” by 1985.  The law gave the newly formed (1970) Environmental Protection Agency the power to set and enforce pollution control standards, setting the stage for sweeping transformations of the country’s waterways in the years to come.

But what was New York Habor like before the CWA?  In Part 1 of our two part series “Intro to New York Harbor,” we’ll look at the historical harbor, drawing from a presentation by John Waldman of Queens College, author of Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor.  Waldman delivered his presentation at a Billion Oyster Project Curriculum and Community Enterprise for Restoration Science colloquium this February, speaking about the past, present, and possible future of the harbor to a group of NYC public school teachers participating in our BOP Schools program.  Waldman is a Biology professor who focuses on aquatic conservation biology who previously worked with the Hudson River Foundation for Science and Environmental Research.

The midcentury perception of New York Harbor was “a harbor you didn’t want to put a hand in,” frequently satirized like in the 1960 sketch below.

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A 1960 sketch of the bottom of New York Harbor by Saul Steinberg, courtesy of John Waldman.

There was good reason.  While water pollution laws at the state and federal level existed prior to 1972, dumping garbage, industrial pollutants, and sewage into waterways was often legal and had been common practice since colonial times all across the country- especially historical New York City.

This ingrained behavior was persistent- Waldman noted wryly that “later on, when laws were enacted, maybe you did it at night.”  “DOCUMERICA,” a large scale photodocumentary project undertaken by the EPA “to record changes in the American environment” the year of the CWA’s passage, offers a glimpse- probably a shocking one for younger readers- of these conditions.  In the pictures below, mostly of Jamaica Bay and Gravesend Bay (in Queens and Brooklyn), you can get an idea of the sheer volume of dumped garbage just from car and tire waste alone (all photos below are from the U.S. National Archives Documerica- Arthur Tress album on Flickr, except the Statue of Liberty photo by Charles Higgins):

…in addition to sewage overflows and whole neighborhoods not connected to a sewer system:

…along with industrial pollutants- the first thumbnail is of an oil slick encroaching on the Statue of Liberty, the second shows smog near the George Washington Bridge, and the others show oil and other pollutants draining into waterways and coating the shorelines:


But New York City hadn’t always looked this way, of course.  Waldman explained that during the colonial period, “Europeans coming from a continent that had been overfished, overharvested, and disturbed for centuries” had never seen abundance like what they encountered in the New World.  Jasper Danckaerts, a 17th century Dutch traveller, wrote, “It is not possible to describe how this bay swarms with fish, both large and small, whales, tunnies [an old word for tuna], and porpoises, whole schools of innumerable other fish, which the eagles and other birds of prey swiftly seize in their talons when the fish come to the surface.”  (And although European colonizers didn’t fully understand it at the time, the original New Yorkers- Native Americans like the Lenape- were practicing sophisticated agricultural and agroforestry techniques to foster this prodigality.)

According to research from the Wildlife Conservation Society‘s Welikia project on the native (pre-European) landscape and biodiversity of all of New York City’s five boroughs, over 55 distinct ecological communities existed in Manhattan alone- more diversity per acre than many of America’s national parks today.  (You can explore the landscape, research local flora and fauna, and learn about how Lenape Indians used the land in 1609 of every block in Manhattan [and some areas of Brooklyn] in their interactive map.  [For educators, check out their curriculum page here.])

Here’s what BOP’s home, Governors Island, looked like in 1609 vs. today (the orange outline):

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And here’s the lower tip of Manhattan with Governors Island, New Jersey, and Brooklyn:

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Various waterfront spots around the city would have supported different ecological communities (photos below from Welikia).  This would have included marine deepwater communities:

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…and tidal river communities:

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…and marine eelgrass meadows:

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…and low salt marshes:

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…as well as freshwater ponds:

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And of course, New York Harbor was home to billions, maybe even trillions of oysters covering 220,000 acres in reefs that provided habitat for a diverse community of organisms and a food source for many species, including humans.

Image courtesy of John Waldman.

Image courtesy of John Waldman.

New York’s pristine ponds, streams, rivers, and harbor became dumping grounds almost immediately after Europeans arrived in what would become New York City in the early 1600s.  Even during the colonial period, operations like tanneries polluted the harbor (and even drinking water sources) with what we might today call industrial waste.  The first large scale tannery in New York City opened in 1638 near what would become the Brooklyn Bridge, quickly earning the nickname “The Swamp.”  As one source notes, “Living next to a tannery meant the constant stench of curing leather and stagnant pools of waste material.  Streams became heavily polluted as tanning liquors, lime solutions, flesh, and hair were discharged directly into them.”  (You can read a very colorful and sometimes offensive 1901 history of The Swamp, including the story of a “spa” built around a spring with a “reputation for health-giving mineral qualities” that turned out to run through “old tan pits” here.)

Pollution of New York Harbor rose in tandem with the city’s explosive population and economic growth in the following centuries, even though it was the harbor itself that fueled this extraordinary rise.  In a paper, “Urban Colossus: Why is New York America’s Largest City?” Harvard professor Edward L. Glaeser attributes the city’s rise to its “emergence as the nation’s premier port” because of the harbor’s depth, location, and its connection to the Great Lakes (and Midwestern agricultural resources like wheat) via the Hudson River and the Erie Canal.  As transatlantic ships grew larger, shallower rivers and ports could no longer accommodate them, and New York’s deep port became a central hub for the export of goods and raw materials from the rest of the US, and the import of goods, raw materials, and immigrant labor from Europe.  Economies of scale in manufacturing also encouraged centralization, and New York’s ready access to raw materials and a large immigrant labor force drove a flourishing of industries like sugar refining, printing, and garment manufacturing.

(Indeed, Glaeser writes that because of immigration, “the basic industrial structure of New York remained remarkably consistent between 1860 and 1910 while the scale increased enormously…the continuing growth of the city’s economy was the steady influx of immigrants between 1890 and 1920.”  Immigrants [then as now] were a key factor fueling the city and country’s economy, making the city wealthy and contributing immeasurably to the city’s culture.)

With the influx of industry and millions of people to the city, New York Harbor saw massive spikes in pollution in multiple forms.  The manufacturing industries drained chemical pollutants, some toxic, along with other wastes into waterways:

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Image courtesy of John Waldman.

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Image courtesy of John Waldman.

Additionally, New York’s population growth lead to huge increases in sewage and garbage, both of which were dumped into waterways that fed the Harbor, the Harbor itself, or close enough in the Atlantic Ocean for pollution to reach the Harbor.

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Image courtesy of John Waldman.

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Image courtesy of John Waldman.

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Image courtesy of John Waldman.

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Image courtesy of John Waldman.

By the 1920s, the combined impact of the various pollution sources had taken its toll.  Among the many ecological impacts was the closure of New York City’s oyster fishery.  The oyster population had been decimated, and 11 inch oysters like the one below were virtually an impossibility, with the species becoming functionally extinct in New York Harbor.

Image courtesy of John Waldman.

Image courtesy of John Waldman.

And yet, Waldman noted, despite all of this, in the 1969 book The Hudson River: A natural and unnatural history, Robert H. Boyle wrote, “As of now, the biological productivity of the lower Hudson is staggering.  Fishes are there by the millions…All told, the populations of fishes utilizing the lower Hudson…comprise the greatest single wildlife resource in New York State.”

Midcentury New York Harbor still had a lot of life left in it.  And with the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act, it was primed for a comeback.  We’ll take a closer look at the revitalization of New York Harbor in Part 2 of our Intro to New York Harbor series.

Want to know more about getting involved with BOP at your local waterfront? Click on the “Get Involved” tag above to find out! And if you’d like to attend a workshop like our Colloquium with John Waldman, we’ve got more great professional developments coming up- check them out on the BOP Digital Platform Events page:

We hope you’ll join us! If you’d like to read more about BOP Schools, keep checking back on the Billion Oyster Project blog for more posts and follow us on the BOP-CCERS Tumblr!