An unhurried, knowledgeable tour of New York City’s waterfronts via catboat.
Kornblum (Sociology/CUNY) might make light of his sailing prowess, but he is intimately acquainted with the archipelago of New York. From City to Ellis and Liberty islands, but also to Prall’s, Shooters, and the Brothers, gloomy South and gloomier North, the author knows them all. In his 24-foot catboat, Tradition, he starts out from his homeport of Long Beach, sailing and puttering his way west along the barrier beach, up into Jamaica Bay, out into the Lower and then up into the Upper Bay, along the East River, and through Hell Gate. Along the way, Kornblum describes the act of sailing these waters (he has a gratifying number of boating fiascoes) and weaves his firsthand experiences into the historical narrative of his route. He has lots of good stories and background material, conveyed in a voice just scholarly enough to let you know he has done his research. But the tone is also personal; makes clear he has lived much of his understanding of the area. Kornblum will tell you why a prime piece of Rockaway beachfront is dune and grass rather than luxury condos (the reason isn’t pretty, nor is the way in which racism has shaped the look of the coastline); how waterways became the haunts of privateers, pirates, and today’s smugglers of human cargo; and all about sociological environs like the Irish Riviera, biological ones like Gateway (a national park “devoted to unheroic species”), and scary ones like the 1950s wetlands, “outside the law, and a good dumping ground for murdered gangsters and the hulks of stolen cars.” Few get to see the city from this angle, and Kornblum’s watery transit finds not only a past but perhaps even a future for New York City’s shoreline, with stirrings of restoration as natural habitats are allowed to regain their health.
Revelatory and heart-gladdening.