In fire alley, the world is reinventing itself

By Clive Doucet

Doucet

Photo: Max Finkelstein
Clive Doucet on Chesapeake Bay


Fire Alley
Fire Alley
From fire alley,
you can watch the towers of New York City
lined up in steel and glass rows above the East River.
They rise in the night like Mount Olympus
scratching the sky at the edge of the Peloponnesian plain.
In the alley, we sit by the fire warming ourselves
next to the Pulaski bridge, while above
trucks smash across the steel gratings.
Below the bridge, tugs push giant barges
silently along the creek at our feet.
If this is hell, it is a comfortable hell.
Maybe while I slept, I died and was sent to fire alley
to live with the homeless people
where finding food and toilet is a full-time job.
It’s not so bad.
There’s wood chips to sleep on
and the moon to set over the distant towers.
In fire alley the world is reinventing itself.
Life is always reinventing itself.
It isn’t in the distant towers,
that even in silhouetted glory look dead.
Civilization will take root again in fire alley
where fortune has blown me
to sleep with the new gods.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part article offering readers a glimpse at the journey of a lifetime – paddling a voyageur canoe 42 days from Ottawa to Washington, D.C., getting up close and personal with rivers, lakes and canals. Local participants in the voyage of discovery included Ottawa paddlers Liz Elton, John Horvath and Clive Doucet, who travelled the entire distance, as well as Carol MacLeod and J.B. McMahon, each of whom joined the crew for part of the trip.

I wrote this poem after paddling from Yonkers to North Brooklyn, past some of the great signposts of our civilization: the United Nations, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Yankee Stadium. But seen from a 35-foot freighter canoe, these buildings seem entirely different. In spite of their magnificent heights and elegant proportions, in a canoe your focus is on the river, whereas if you arrive on the island by car, plane or subway, you are hardly aware of it, since you cannot see it from the streets. But in a canoe, it is the power and beauty of the Hudson River that commands your attention.

New York City is located along the Hudson River, an estuary waterway that divides before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. The river here is many-channelled and always powerful. In front of the United Nations, a particularly narrow channel of the East River called Hell Gate connects three bodies of water (New York Upper Bay, Long Island Sound, and the Hudson River). On a calm day, the waves here are broad and high as they curl and snap before the bow. The current is immense and the Atlantic horizon so broad and endless that there can be no mistake, in spite of New York’s skyline, that it is the river and the sea that are more impressive, more intimidating.

Daylighting streams

Photo: Max Finkelstein
The campsite at North Brooklyn Canoe Club on the East River

We camped on New Town Creek in North Brooklyn, just across the East River from Manhattan. At the beginning of the 20th century, New Town Creek carried as much freight as the entire Mississippi River. The alleyway where we set up our tents was about six metres above the creek, high and dry and comfortably layered with cedar chips by the North Brooklyn Boat Club. The cedar chips were a cheap and clean way of sealing the old polluted ground without the expense of moving it.

The North Brooklyn Boat Club is young, only a couple of years old. The members have gained the use of a long, abandoned alley. They’ve created a private space by chaining it it off from the street, and and are converting it into a club space with old containers to store their boats and equipment. At the creek end, there’s a fire pit and social area overlooking the club’s dock. It was sitting by the fire, contemplating the voyage that we were on and the miles still to go, where I wrote the poem.

Campsite at North Brookklyn Canoe Club

Photo: Max Finkelstein
A good news method of “Daylighting” or redirecting streams above ground brings the rivers in Yonkers back to life.

The welcome we received from these young New Yorkers was inspiring. The members of the club are not just about kayaking and canoeing, they’re also about cleaning up the waterways around New York City, starting with New Town Creek. They are identifying sewer surcharge pipes, marking them and alerting people to stay off the water after a storm when sewage spills into the waterways. They have scientists analyzing the water and trying to figure out what “pollution” means exactly, in terms of human use, and already they’re discovering some interesting things. For example, toxins in the water don’t just stay in the water, they migrate back into the air. Dirty water means dirty air.

The trip was so rich with experience and events that picking one day as the highlight of the trip diminishes it. In a different way, paddling by the New Jersey shore held its own kind of power. It felt like a post-apocalypse scene where the land is lined with abandoned factories, and yet was redolent with new flora and fauna. We slept at an old marina on that shore that was so toxic, and the next morning we awoke to headaches as if we had hangovers. Yet we were greeted by kind people, who brought us coffee and doughnuts. They told us how they were organizing kayaking camps for inner city kids and war veterans. You never see this kind of stuff in the headlines of newspapers, but it made headlines with me. I came home with a feeling of great optimism that somehow we will find a way to break though the nonsense of partisan politics, both in the United States and Canada, and define new priorities that will address the real problems that beset the environment.

Ten days after we returned, Hurricane Sandy flooded every campsite that we had occupied from New York to Washington. Fire Alley was entirely underwater. The club’s storage containers had to be roped down to stop them from floating way. The damage wrought by this hurricane is difficult for people to imagine from the safety of Ottawa. It affected more than ten million people. The entire Battery end of Manhattan was flooded. It will be years before many of the buildings and city services are functioning again.

Yonkers on Hudson River

Photo: Rob Fournier
Heading into Yonkers on the Hudson River — with the youngest member of the crew, Isaac, setting the stroke and Liz Elton just behind

This is what I mean by “real problems” that beset the environment. It’s not as if governments don’t know about climate change. The Goddard Institute, which is located in New York and is NASA’s principal climate change research centre, has shown for years that about a third of New York City is not going to be habitable because the planet is heating up and the ocean is rising. Ordinary people of every political persuasion understand this. The people who assisted us were card-carrying Republicans, Democrats and Tea Party supporters, and they all saw the central importance of getting the message out that river water in which you can drink, fish and swim matters more than any political affiliation. The trip was worth it, just to learn this.

Clive Doucet is a poet, author, former Capital Ward councillor, rower and now an 800,000-stroke paddler.

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