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Eternal City

Bay Watch

Jamaica Bay is New York City in a clamshell.

11:56 AM EDT on August 23, 2023

The mouth of Gerritsen Creek. (Jonathan Tarleton / Hell Gate)

The July sun breaks through the clouds lingering over the mouth of Jamaica Bay, the body of water at the heart of New York City. As birds and the odd runner glide by, they’re welcomed with the best-known Zulu phrase in the West—"Nants ingonyama bagithi, Baba!"—belted by a group of bathing-besuited dancers.

"We've been up since three, so we're all a little delirious," says one of the dancers, justifying their butchered rendition of the first line from "Circle of Life": "Here comes a lion, Father" in English. The black-and-red-clad crew are posted at Plumb Beach, a swathe of the national parkland at the mouth of Sheepshead Bay and just south of the neighborhood that takes that bay's name, to film a video for the singer Namé's R&B single "Kiss 'N' Makeup." A jetty rises in the background, forming the backdrop of the shot; at its tip, two men sit among rocks and fishing poles beneath a hand towel-sized Jolly Roger flown from a twelve-foot pole. A flounder caught earlier and the bloody scraps of the baitfish used to lure it lie nearby. A shirtless older man in neon shorts undertakes some vigorous, post-run arm swinging. 

Namé, who hails from Flatbush, Brooklyn, visited Plumb Beach for the first time a month prior for a friend's birthday bonfire. Growing up, Coney Island was the only beach she knew. As it is for many New Yorkers, Jamaica Bay was just the blip of water off JFK's main runway. Viewed from Terminal 4, the 26 square miles of saltwater amount to a slim sparkle beyond the tarmac’s heat field. Even the view 321 feet up from one of the airport's control towers gives little additional perspective, or so says Steve, an air traffic controller in his twenty-third year working above JFK. "The bay, the Manhattan skyline—it all blends together. It's just the natural environment behind everything," he says. "I probably don't appreciate it!"

Underappreciated but overwhelming could be the tagline for the bay. That it is an essential part of the city, historically and today, is undeniable. Almost one million people live in the (give or take) 25 neighborhoods surrounding it. Every month, around five million travelers touch down and take off from JFK's runways built on filled marshland. The A train trundles across Broad Channel, providing vital access for Rockaway residents to the rest of the city. The Belt Parkway courses along the bay's shores to points north and east. Four water treatment plants continue a long tradition of waste management and mismanagement around the bay. Counting the former landfills on its shores is difficult, given that old trash joins whole islands to the mainland. Vertebrae still wash up on the shores of Dead Horse Bay, named for the equine-driven rendering industry that, along with fertilizer and fish oil plants, polluted the waters from the mid-1800s right up to the Great Depression. 

Salt marsh at low tide. (Jonathan Tarleton / Hell Gate)

The history of the bay has long been one of addition and subtraction: dredge here to deepen a channel, dump there to "reclaim" marshland for development. The construction of Floyd Bennett Field in the early 1930s wrought flatland for the city's first airport from numerous islands and the lazy, fluctuating channels between them. Popular as a base for feats of flight by the likes of Amelia Earhart but unconducive to the growth of commercial airliners, LaGuardia Airport superseded Bennett before its overcrowding called more bay frontage, and salt marsh, into flight service on the site of the former Idlewild Golf Course in the 1940s. It'd be known by this moniker, evoking peaceful landscapes, until its renaming in 1963 in memory of the slain president.

On the bayside stretch between the two eventual airfields, agricultural land gave way over 150-some years, first to a mix of industrial and pleasure grounds and then residential neighborhoods. Where the suburban streets of Mill Basin now curve, the early 1900s saw dredging operations tear apart marshland to make way for wet and dry docks beckoning to a shipping industry that would never quite develop. A bit northeast, Canarsie would play a flashy role in the roaring '20s, home to hotels, casinos, and their accompanying vices along its coast. Howard Beach encapsulates the general transition, going from goat farm to hotel center to a plain of single-family homes thrown up in a post-World War II boom on former marshland still punctuated by the occasional canal. 

Since 2012, how the water interacts with these artificial residential plains, and how high it will rise, has taken precedence over the enduring question of what that water harbors. Superstorm Sandy turned the bay into ground zero for action and study on waterfront resilience. With it came a wider acknowledgement of the bay’s unique role in the city's ecological and social life.

Low tide near Broad Channel, looking across the bay toward Manhattan. (Jonathan Tarleton / Hell Gate)

"It's a shame people messed up this land so much," Ken, a former bodybuilder and longtime Coney Islander, laments, as he cooks a pot of oatmeal and a kettle full of eggs over a green two-burner camp stove. He's parked at the edge of Floyd Bennett Field, the former airport that now forms part of the Gateway National Recreation Area—the nation's first urban national park that includes the majority of the bay.

The remnants of vast concrete runways serve recreational model airplane pilots, kayakers, community gardeners, and the occasional drag racers. Plans are currently in the works to erect temporary shelters to house more than 2,000 migrants amid an ongoing increase of people seeking shelter and opportunities in the city. For now, the crumbling bulkhead fronting the bay is sparsely lined with fishermen. Ken minds his station at a picnic table, his smart black Hyundai pumping a soundtrack into the nascent weekend. 

Between stirs of the oatmeal, he busies around the car with a feather duster, shirt off and shorts rolled up to reveal an aging but muscled physique. Asked if he lives nearby, Ken is incredulous: "I live outside. I live in the wild."

Ken points to Ruffle Bar, an island close to a mile across the bay from Floyd Bennett. "I stay out on the islands," he says. The government says they own it, but it's really my people's land." Ken traces his ancestry to the Cherokee. The tunes emanating from his car are heavy on pan flute and feature a jarring bass, faint drums, and a husky, recorded voice mourning a lost reverence for the land: "Seminole, Sioux, Cherokee…What happened to our love for Mother Earth?"

"I had a real Indian canoe, but someone swiped it. I used to hide it in the brush over there," Ken says, pointing toward a patch of scrubby woodland nearby. In the meantime, he's marooned on Long Island, but that doesn't keep him out of the water. "I fish with a spear, I catch fish the natural way. I swim everywhere. There's nothing wrong with this water except where they pollute it," he tells me. "I've been drinking this water for years, and I'm in better shape than all of them," he says, referring to less ripped congregants along the bulkhead. Bodybuilding doesn't pay the bills anymore, if it ever did. His black car sports the license plates of a registered driver with the Taxi & Limousine Commission.

As dubious as Ken's claims to regularly imbibing saltwater may be, his story hints at that of the bay. The Canarsie, part of the Lenape branch of the Algonquin civilization, called Jamaica Bay home. Later, after campaigns of genocide and dispossession cut the Lenape off from much of their home, subsistence fisherfolk and workers in the oyster and clam industries inhabited the bay's islands. A branch of the Long Island Rail Road once ran across the bay to carry thrill seekers to proto-Coney Islands. 

The flood of attention to southern Brooklyn and Queens in the wake of Sandy's devastation also extended to the Rockaway peninsula, helping to spur the so-called "Rockaway Revival" that reintroduced Jamaica Bay to many New Yorkers. Ride the A train to Far Rockaway on a summer weekend or break out your Schwinn for the ride across the Marine Parkway Bridge to Fort Tilden, and you'll join the legions of Brooklynites keen to marry city living with beach town vibes. 

The Atlantic Ocean is the crowd's primary destination, but the bay is their first taste of respite. The expansiveness of open water stuns straphangers as the A train leaves suburban Hamilton Beach to rumble atop a narrow trestle, bordered by steel sea walls rising seven feet above the rails, a fraction of their 30-foot depth. Fifteen minutes later, you arrive at the bay's long barrier peninsula, the rise of small businesses hawking paddleboards and beers indicative of the Rockaway Revival's overflow into a new port. 

Deeper into the bay, toward Far Rockaway, I meet Oro. He's one of hundreds of fishers who line the bulkheads from the Marine Parkway Bridge all the way to Cross Bay Boulevard. Oro now lives in Rosedale, but he's returned to his old fishing grounds, clad in gray flannel pajama pants, a black tank, white Adidas sandals, and an orange shirt tied turban-style for sun protection. In between massive heaves of a 10-foot rod—he's casting for porgies—Oro rebaits his line with bloodworms, grabs handfuls of orange cheese puffs, and swigs a Redd's Wicked Apple hard ale. 

"If you love fishing, it's good for getting out of the house, you know?" Oro tells me with a West Indian lilt. "I've never gone out in the bay. I always fish right here or over by the school." So far, he's caught a few, but nothing large enough to keep and eat. "At around 3:10 to 3:30, the fish take a rest," he notes. Immediately after Sandy, Oro recalls, the fishing was better: "I'd just throw it in, and bang! Big fish! The storm pushed them here."

Oro at the bulkhead. (Jonathan Tarleton / Hell Gate)

The storm is never far away from memory. Indeed, the whole bay is in a process of restoration, one that may prove interminable. The latest proposal to protect the area from flooding calls for the installation of 12 moveable barriers, to the tune of $52 billion. One bench over, some mild curses and cackles break through the salsa rhythms coming through a portable speaker. Another fisherman lowers rod and line toward a five-dollar bill floating in the water below. "You're gonna have to be lucky to get that one," Oro quips. 

"If we were that lucky, we'd have more money," the other replies. Much like the beater boats that ply its waters, the bay may prove to be a money pit for dollars, personal and federal.

Floyd Bennett Field's kayak launch. (Jonathan Tarleton / Hell Gate)

To reach the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge from the Rockaways, I pass Broad Channel, a bungalow village in the middle of the bay, and pick my way along sidewalks crowded with Call-A-Head port-a-potties. A ranger on duty at the nature center talks me through the trails around the two major ponds that straddle Cross Bay Boulevard. On one side, a maintenance road edged with vine-choked forest gives way to wooden boardwalks encroached by ferns and waving reeds before opening on the larger pond, replete with swans. On the other, wildflowers, salt hay, and cordgrass mingle on the sandy ridge separating pond and bay. "Because it's a refuge, we tell people not to make changes to the ecosystem, but the funny thing is, it's all artificial," the ranger says. The refuge (including its ponds) were fabricated at the behest of Robert Moses in 1951. Since its creation, it has served as a vital link in the Atlantic Flyway, a bird migration route along the coast. More than 300 birds spend time in Jamaica Bay throughout the year, and they attract two other species endemic to the area: birders and bird photographers. 

I'm schooled on the distinction between the two when I stumble on three such photographers in a blind at Big John's Pond, each clutching cameras with massive lenses. Felipe's is covered in camo, a match for his cargo shorts and many-pocketed vest. As a helicopter flies overhead, the ibis that's been ambling along the pond takes off; the adult and juvenile yellow-crested night herons remain still. "The ibis are very nervous birds," Felipe tells his companions Ed and Johann, and me. 

The three had arrived independently, but they knew one another from shooting in Manhattan. "It's a small community," Ed says of the photographers, but "God forbid you get in front of a birder—it's like war." Felipe chimes in on the curious migration patterns of their camera-less relatives. "I heard about a birder that flew into JFK, came here, saw a bird, wrote it in his notebook, and flew out," he says.

A few yellow warblers come into view, prompting a spate of rapid-fire clicks and sighs of exasperation. "One thing that we have that professionals do not is time. We can wait around all day for a bird," says Ed, who works in corporate security and lives in Astoria. He's been out for three hours. "As long as I get a couple of keepers, it doesn't matter how long," he says. Ed shows me his collection: the S-shaped curve of a great egret's neck, the anxious ibis in profile. "I really like this one," Ed says, admiring the latter. It’s not long before Felipe asks if I've met Don, aka "Mr. Jamaica Bay."

An egret in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. (Jonathan Tarleton / Hell Gate)

"A rising tide lifts all boats. Write that down," Don jokes as we pull his boat into the channel just east of his waterfront home in Broad Channel. He bought the house with a fellow park ranger in 1982 for $10,000 after moving back to New York to work at Gateway. In 2004, he took the title of Jamaica Bay Guardian for the American Littoral Society, a position as the waterway's constant advocate and watchman, and has since overseen a variety of environmental restoration projects in the bay. 

Today, marsh restoration is his focus. Sandbars created through dredging operations by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are spawning new marshes, what Don calls "the life of the bay." Without restoration, the marshland that once dominated the waters might disappear in as little as ten years, victim to degradation from past dredging, landfilling, and pollution, along with the more recent specter of sea level rise. 

Don's colleague Lisa has come along to spot abandoned boats. "No one has ever legally disposed of a boat," she tells me. She shows equal attention to the shorebirds, yelling out their names as we coast through submerged grasses— osprey, black skimmer, least tern, great egret, green heron.

We make our way east toward JFK, passing through the bay's largest extant marsh, JoCo, all the way to the edge of runway 13L-31R. "Sometimes, the Port Authority sends a truck to watch me," Don says; the operating agency of JFK is also on the lookout for wildlife. According to Steve, the air traffic controller, his tower broadcasts a recurring message to planes 24/7 warning of birds "operating in and around the airport." The Port Authority kills thousands of birds each year as part of their "depredation" campaign to keep wings away from the machines they inspired. And then there are the turtles who wander onto the runway. The turtles—diamondback terrapins, Don specifies—were harvested for soup long before they were airport nuisances. 

Altar at Plumb Beach. (Jonathan Tarleton / Hell Gate)

After my boat trip with Don, I plot a return to the marshes of Broad Channel on foot. I consult tidal charts to catch the waters at their lowest ebb, eager to make my way out to Little Egg, a manmade island now home to a mature maritime forest. I arrive on the A train later than I had hoped, but the tide's turning doesn't staunch the magic of arriving at a tidal marsh by public transportation—peering at mussels with the towers of Manhattan in the background, and laughing gulls a few thousand feet below their big, white, mechanical cousins.

Jamaica Bay is the city in a nut—or clam—shell: a place of oscillating balance, of dissonant juxtapositions. Equilibrium will come eventually, but only temporarily, until the next displacement. What that looks like isn't always clear, but the bay, and its muck sucking at my boots at low tide, will remain integral to whatever future the city inhabits. That much is assured.

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