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A New Name for Our Premier Waterway

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union
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A New Name for Our Premier Waterway
Engraving from Currier & Ives, 1892. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

With the Triborough Bridge now known as the R.F.K. Bridge, New York City is evidently in a re-naming mood. May I suggest that we finally lend a proper name to the East River?

The indigenous name for the waterway is murky. The two most credible candidates, Pawkatuck and Muscouta, describe the course as "an estuary with a waterfall" or a "marshy place," respectively, according to Algonquin scholar Evan Pritchard, author of Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin People of New York. The East River never boasted waterfalls, but a treacherous rocky whitewater section was blasted open in the 19th century with the then-largest controlled explosions in history. The marshes we eradicated more quietly, smothered by landfill or poisoned by pollution. While it's important to remember our history, neither Native American name captures the character of the East River today.

Early Dutch explorers bypassed indigenous names for our waterways, tagging them instead with convenient shorthand to frame their territorial claims: the North River, South River and East River. While the former two became known as the Hudson River and Delaware River, the East River remains stuck with a placeholder name.

East River, No. 3, 1926, Georgia O'Keeffe.
Photo from the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College

Correcting a Misnomer

This even though the East River is not a river at all. This 16-mile long strait links the Upper Bay of the harbor with Long Island Sound. Unlike a river, it has no fresh water source. The flow between Manhattan, Long Island and the mainland simply rises and falls and sloshes back and forth each day with ocean tides. It's true that the Hudson River is also tidal up to Albany and not a true river within our city. The Hudson River's source, however, is the fresh waters of Lake Tear in the Clouds. The lower Hudson River is an estuary, an arm of the sea that includes the strait we call the East River.

Renaming the East River has had several near misses. Some navigators called the passage the Sound River, for its eastern connection. Hell Gate, that dynamited central bend of the waterway between Randalls Island and Astoria, was named through an Anglicization of the Dutch hellegat, meaning "bright passage." That name, a bit of a double entendre perhaps, could have referred to the strait's entire length.

When our forbearers renamed the North, or Mauritius, River for Henry Hudson's historic 1609 voyage aboard the Half Moon, they might have extended a similar honor to Adriaen Block for the East River. Block's ship, the Onrust, explored the East River just five years after Hudson. The ship, the first trans-Atlantic vessel built in the Americas, was also the first vessel with a European crew to sail through from Manhattan to the Long Island Sound. Indeed, with this year marking the 400th anniversary of Dutch exploration of our harbor, a "Block River" movement might surge.

The City's Waterway

Photo from WikiCommons
East River lore: Harry Houdini built up his strength by swimming the East River

Instead let's rename the East River for the outrageous metropolis it nurtures. For ourselves. After all, this is our premier waterway. Each bank of it is a borough, with Brooklyn and Queens on one side and the Bronx and Manhattan on the other. Our most stately bridges span it, and on its bed lay our darkest fears and fantasies of disappearance. Ghosts glide over its surface, from the thousands of patriots who died of starvation and disease aboard prison ships on Wallabout Bay during the Revolutionary War to the over 1,000 lost in the General Slocum ferry disaster of 1904.

The strait carries our lore, like the story of Ehrich Weiss, the sickly teenager who swam its turbulent waters to build up his strength and who became the Great Houdini. The infamous pirate Captain William Kidd lived a Manhattan gentleman's life in view of the bustling East River piers while smuggling through Cripplebush, or Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Moby Dick begins with a walk from "Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall northward." Georgia O'Keeffe painted the East River with the focus she brought more famously to the desert. By contrast, the Hudson River is shared by New Jersey and a horde of counties and towns up north. It is they who are celebrated in the Hudson River's stories and paintings, not us.

The East River, like New York City, is far less dirty and dangerous than it once was. But it remains a roiling place of restless energy - only recently its currents sheered off the blades of electric turbines meant to harness it. Like our city of late, it lures dreamers into even the most daunting conditions; divers still descend in hopes of finding gold from the HMS Hussar, claimed by Hell Gate in 1779. Today sailors, paddlers, anglers, and swimmers are once again discovering that its beauty provides a new way to love New York City.

This water pass is ours, and it is us. Call it the Gotham Strait.

Erik Baard is a writer whose family has worked New York Harbor for generations on tugs, barges and in marine construction, along with some rum running. He founded the LIC Community Boathouse to provide free kayaking on the East River, co-wrote a book of historic images of the waterway and is working to start a World Boatbuilding Museum. His blog is at www.naturecalendar.com.



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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Hope And Fear For City Schools

By Jill Chaifetz

11 November 02

The new school year is well under way, and what a year it has been already. I feel torn wondering whether New York has truly embarked on a positive new chapter in its history of educating children, or if I am watching just another in a long succession of chancellors arrive full of plans that will never come to fruition. As executive director of Advocates for Children, an educational advocacy organization, I have seen three chancellors in the last four years. So, not surprisingly, I feel the tug of alternate realities. Here is the first:

The Bold New World of Education -- Going Where No Chancellor Has Gone Before: We have a new system of school governance that has firmly put the mayor in control of the school system. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has staked out education as one of the most important issues upon which he is to be judged. His new chancellor, Joel Klein, has at least the potential to create massive systemic change, since Klein is clearly the mayor's choice and has indicated that he wants change in the system to become reality. The new board of education, renamed the Panel on Educational Policy, is firmly under mayoral control and intended to be largely advisory. Having mayoral appointees account for a majority of the panel appears to have eliminated the political infighting and grandstanding of the past, though some parents wonder how their voices are going to be heard.

Toward this end, Chancellor Klein has announced his Children First initiative to create a blueprint for changing the system. He promises widespread involvement by parents and community-based organizations. This is sorely needed as the fate of the community school boards is still unclear. The new governance law does away with them as of next year, but no one has yet put forward a new way for parents and others to be involved in the education system.

Efforts by former Chancellor Harold Levy to reform high schools have resulted in the creation of three new specialized high schools for academically high-performing students. Several large and unsuccessful high schools in the Bronx have been broken into an amazing 10 new small high schools. The current chancellor has indicated he would like a few hundred more of these new schools.

Though not all small schools created in the last 10 years through the support of the Annenberg Foundation have been successful, the majority have. Small schools where students and teachers all know each other well provide more intimate learning communities. Fewer students drop out and more go on to college. A few hundred more successful schools would do wonders for curbing the dropout rate and increasing the number of students furthering their education.

An overhaul of curriculums from kindergarten through grade 12 is being discussed, as is the reorganization and revitalization of middle schools. Heady stuff.

Unfortunately I am abruptly halted from this positive line of thought as soon as I sit down at my desk and am assailed with the problems faced by parents in the other education world reality.

Same Old, Same Old World of Education: In the fall, parents' normally intense stress levels about their children's education reach new highs. Ibuprofen and Pepto Bismol have to be close at hand.

First we have parents whose children will enroll in kindergarten next year or whose children will move to middle or high school. How do they find out if their local or "zoned" school is a good school? How do they even determine where these schools are located?

New York City has some academic gems that are tops in the nation, but nearly a third of its schools are considered to be failing in at least one academic area. This is why it is essential for parents to research their local schools and know about their other options. (My organization has put together a web site to help parents navigate the system, for grades kindergarten though eight and high schools. It also provides information on individual schools.

If a parent is not satisfied with the zoned school, is there an alternative? At least theoretically, New York has the largest school choice program in the country. A child hypothetically can be enrolled at any school in his own school district; he can even be enrolled in another school district if given an inter-district transfer.

However, the chance to exercise this choice at least on the kindergarten through eighth grade level appears to have encountered new barriers this year. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, passed in January, was intended to provide greater student choice, particularly for students in failing schools (See related article). Students in many of the city's lowest performing schools are supposed to have the "option" to transfer to another school and the chance to get free outside tutoring.

It sounds great, but so far the measure is a chimera for those eligible, while providing an excuse to keep students who are not in failing schools from getting transfers. Parents whose children attend schools not designated as failing have contacted my organization saying they received letters from their districts telling them transfers would not be possible because the new law means that all available seats must go to students in failing schools.

That is a blow, but then surely some parents whose children are in failing schools have gotten into new schools as a result of the new law, right? Fat chance it seems, according to a September 6 expose in the New York Post. Most parents requesting such transfers run into a huge loophole: A school does not have to accept a transfer student if doing so would violate safety or health codes. So, if a good school is already at capacity -- as most are -- then they need not accept any transfers.

OK, I say to my staff, how about all that free tutoring offered through the same law? Again, that bold new world has disappeared onto another plane of existence. Parents whose kids are in low performing schools have until November 15 to access tutoring services, but the school system has not yet set up a coherent system to offer the extra help. There is a list of tutoring services available district by district. However, different districts approach the issue differently, and it is unclear if all the districts have even sent out letters to inform parents that this free service exists. And no one seems to know if there is enough money for the children eligible for the service to actually receive it.

In the meantime, some high school students are being told that, if they do not have their identification cards, they cannot come to school or can enter but must remain in a room without any instruction for the day. If they have lost their ID, they must pay for a new one, a blatant violation of state law that provides a free education. I read about this, and my hope for the bold new world dims.

But wait. The chancellor has been here barely two months. In this short time he has hired what looks like some very promising staff. They need to be given a chance to create the brave new world. In the meantime, I have my Maalox at the ready.

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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