Students Trade the Classroom for a Canoe

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Put down the pen and pick up an oar.

That was the instruction for a group of students enrolled in the course Sustainable New York, as they embarked on July 14 for a 90-minute boat tour of the city’s Newtown Creek.

The 3.5-mile waterway that separates Brooklyn from Queens is one of several waterways the group visited, along with the Bronx River and the Gowanus Canal. Like the Gowanus, the Newtown Creek is surrounded by heavy industry. It has suffered mightily as a result, and was declared a Federal Superfund site in 2010.

But, unlike other trips where the class observed waterways from dry land, this one involved signing waivers, donning life jackets, and carefully stepping into a 10-person canoe.

“Once you’re on the water, you understand how it connects places and how each waterway has its own personality,” said course instructor Amanda Schachter, adjunct professor of architecture. “It’s not just something pretty that you look at from afar. In New York, we’ve gotten to the point where we now look toward the water [view], and not just inwards. I think the third stage is being on the water and looking back at the land.”

Because of its pollution, the creek is one of many areas of the city where persons aren’t encouraged to go, she said, but “those are the places where we need to find out what’s going on.”

Students saw up close just how much the creek plays a vital part in the functioning of New York City. After departing the North Brooklyn Boat Club’s dock, organizers got word that the MV Hunts Point, a 290-foot-long sludge boat that transports organic waste material from the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant to Ward Island, would be heading their way.

Students paddled toward the bulkhead on the north side of the canal, where they waited for the ship. As it lumbered past, the water displaced by the ship—one of three specifically designed to safely pass below the Pulaski Bridge at high tide—pushed the canoe ever so slightly back up the creek.

During the trip, the canoe passed a crane busily loading squashed cars onto a barge, a conveyor belt delivering crushed concrete into another barge, an oil depot, and other industrial businesses. Amanda Molina, a visiting student who grew up in Riverdale, thought she’d be learning about urban gardening and solar panels, but said she liked the focus on the water.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a canoe before, so it was quite a unique experience,” she said. “It was eye opening being surrounded by the garbage facilities and petroleum plant.

“It makes me take a step back and think about how much I’m consuming, and how much of a better job I can do [to conserve].”

Jane Skapek, a rising senior at Fordham College at Rose Hill (FCRH) majoring in visual arts, said she expects that her final project on the Bronx River will be useful for her career, as it’s centered on how visual arts aids in data presentation. The Chicago native said she misses water because she hardly ever sees it here, even though Manhattan is an island.

“I was surprised at how actively industrial it was. You hear about it, but it’s different to see a boat with a 15-foot draft go by,” she said.

Cameron Kummer, an FCRH rising senior majoring in German and history, likewise hailed from a post-industrial city, Pittsburgh. He marveled at how fast his oar disappeared in the murky water when he paddled, and he said he was “pleasantly surprised” at what little stench there was on the creek.

“Those [Pittsburgh] rivers used to be polluted too, back in the day,” he said. “We had all these steel mills, and they left. Now, the rivers are wonderful places to be.”

“I’d like to see that for some of these New York waterways.”

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