Sunday, August 21, 2011

Just Say Poop River

According to a newspaper story I just read, several candidates aspiring for the highest office in the land want to gut—if not entirely disembowel—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They claim the agency’s myriad strictures are—in the big picture—job killers. One would-be president more or less believes businesses can regulate themselves vis-à-vis pollutants—just as big banks and investment houses, I suppose, are looking out for, first and foremost, you and me.

When my father was a boy in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan, the family and some friends would regularly hop on the Number 1 train during summertime for a short ride up to Inwood Hill Park. Upon their arrival, they would hike through the area’s primordial woodlands—on Manhattan Island still—to an off-the-beaten trail leading to a tiny snatch of sandy beach at the scenic confluence of the Harlem River Ship Canal and the Hudson River. The older generation of Italian men always brought their homemade wines along with them and placed the bottles in an icy cold freshwater spring, which trickled down through the hills. The Henry Hudson Bridge, opened in 1936, loomed like a colossus directly above this Shangri-La.

Provided one didn’t venture out too far, the waters off this obscure snippet of shoreline were shallow enough. My father vividly remembered these beach visits and—most of all—wading through waters awash in, among other things, human excrement, which frequently had to be pushed aside while frolicking in the drink. Granted, this couldn’t have been the healthiest of recreational activities, but it was the late 1930s and early 1940s, when raw sewerage was poured into the local waters.

Flash forward thirty years and I recall being at water’s edge in New York Harbor. The wafting breeze was a curious mix of sea salt and sewer, and flotsam in the Hudson was the rule. The cleanliness of the river in those days—in these parts—was a standard joke punch line. But a funny thing happened over the last three decades. The river’s gotten cleaner—dramatically so. There’s even talk of a public beach on Manhattan’s West Side. And not very far to the north of the city, Hudson River beaches are open for business.

The EPA was the brainchild of the Nixon Administration, circa 1970. And as for swimming in poop in the future, I think would be wise to Just Say No. We’ve been there and done that—and we’re not going back.

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