Park in Hunts Point is launch-pad for kayakers
By Laura Age
At Tiffany Pier in Barretto Point Park this fall, four people walked to the boxy container on which a graffiti artist had painted “South Bronx Kayak Club” in huge, boldly outlined letters.
Two brightly colored kayaks lay inside, one forest green, the other fluorescent yellow.
Two to a boat, the foursome launched the kayaks into the East River, and, dipping double-bladed paddles into the water, accelerated toward North Brother Island.
Tug boats tooted their horns in the distance. There were other boats on the river, as well, but none so small and bright as the kayaks, which are no more than 15 feet long and sit close to the waterline.
The setting sun glistened on the water. In the distance the paddlers could see a sign for Rikers Island. Off to one side was a lot full of abandoned yellow school buses; the sewage treatment plant next door to the park emitted smoke. But trees beckoned from the kayakers’ destination, and, instead of the odor of the sewer plant, a breeze brought a fresh tang from the water.
“I love the water, and I love history,”
said Rachelle Fernandez, the fiscal officer at The Point. Fernandez is one of a handful of club members from the community center; others work in the office of Rep. Jose Serrano.
As they neared the triangular patch of shore on North Brother Island, the paddlers recalled the story of the General Slocum, a excursion ship that caught fire, claiming the lives of more than 1,000 people, most of them German immigrant women and their children, in the worst single disaster in New York City history before the attack of Sept. 11, 2001. Bodies were piled on the very bank the kayaks were approaching.
Hopping out, the kayakers pulled their craft out of the water and climbed onto the island, which is overgrown with tress and dried ivy. The island was once the site of a hospital. Typhoid Mary, the cook who spread the disease to her customers, was confined there for two decades. Antique tools, including a rusty old ob-gyn chair are a reminder of the island’s history.At its October meeting, Community Board 2 called for North Brother Island to become a city park. The city Office of Management and Budget will respond to the request next spring, but for now, the island remains accessible only to those who can reach it by water.
“The East River holds a lot of mysterious refuges inaccessible by car. You get to see things totally hidden from view,” remarked one of the kayakers from Serrano’s office.
“It’s like a little adventure in the city,” added Alejandra Delfin, the artist who teaches at MUD/BONE and The Point and serves as the community center’s web master. “We can’t access a mountain to hike, but we can easily go out onto the water. We go and it’s right there!”
Kayaking offers the opportunity for New Yorkers to get a new perspective. Many fortunate neighborhoods have opened up their waterways to residents. On Manhattan’s docks, the New York City Downtown Boathouse maintains three locations along the Hudson River, all with free walk-up kayaking.
Going Coastal, an organization devoted to kayaking, http://www.goingcoastal.org/templatezero.htm lists no fewer than 13 kayak landings in Manhattan, but only one in the Bronx, in Roberto Clemente State Park on the Harlem River.
To kayak in the East River, though, Bronxites would have to go the recently-opened Long Island City Boathouse in Queens, which also offers free educational and recreational paddling programs while advocating for ecological improvement of the river.
Eventually the Hunts Point Kayak Club would like to add a Bronx site for exploring the East River, beckoning anyone interested to join them. But for now, they have too few boats and too little time.
Point staffers say that if they could grow the kayak club, it would offer lessons and possibly kayak rentals, and, most importantly, would play a role in realizing the vision of the South Bronx Greenway.
The main limitation, they say, is that they have only the two kayaks stored at Barretto Point Park.
In addition, said Delfin, “The Point is too busy with larger plans. There are so many other issues near Tiffany Pier,” she said, including both “positive changes in this area”
and the fight to prevent the city from building a jail at nearby Oak Point.
Nevertheless, Adam Liebowitz, the Point’s community development associate who is in charge of its teen A.C.T.I.O.N. Program, views the potential of the kayak club in the context of the long-term effort campaign to clean up the waterfront and make it accessible to residents.
“What’s the best thing you could do if you are fighting for more bikeways in the city?” he asked. “Hop on a bike and use it. Same goes for the water,” he said.
”We are a waterfront community that has been disconnected from our waterfront for so long, and the residents here deserve more,”
Getting people into the water, he argues would be “great for the environmental movement, striving to clean up the waterways.”
So, he concluded, “The best thing you can do for the rivers of New York City, literally, is jump in.”