On a typical Saturday leading up to the wet season, Owen Foote can be found at the dead end on Second Avenue in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. He’s there to pick up trash and remove other debris from the Gowanus Canal shoreline. Foote is the treasurer and one of the founding members of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, one of several groups advocating for New Yorkers to make use of their considerable access to water.
According to Foote, who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, “New Yorkers are island people” — something, he says, few of us truly understand. The city may not have a reputation as a bastion for aquatic activities, but that’s certainly not due to a lack of effort by the Dredgers and other community organizations such as the Long Island City Community Boathouse.
Ted Gruber, head of water activity for the Boathouse, says his organization takes great pride in providing New Yorkers with free access to water sports, such as kayaking, and water education. “We are the coolest friggin’ thing in the five boroughs in the summertime,” Gruber says. Last season the Boathouse launched ninety-nine kayaking events, including twenty-one trips (known as “paddles”) to Hallet’s Cove in the East River, six sunset paddles, and two day trips during which paddlers circumnavigated the island of Manhattan.
The Dredgers and the Boathouse are just two of several nonprofits that provide waterfront access and free aquatic activities to the public. Since its formation, the Dredgers club has helped launch aquatic activity clubs in other areas, including the Boathouse, as well as Kayak Staten Island and the Red Hook Boaters.
Michael Smalley, a third-year volunteer for the Boathouse, says that when he’s paddling down the East River, people will often yell out to him and the groups he leads. “The most common thing I hear is, ‘Hey, how can I do that?’ or, ‘How much is that?’?” he says. While the group’s excursions have been successful, Smalley says that in order to have enough boats and guides to support these programs, members of the organization constantly work to increase their visibility.
“Right now it’s mostly word of mouth, yeah, but we’re trying to get a social-media presence to bring people out,” he says.
An Iowa native who grew up canoeing and enjoying the water, Smalley says finding the Boathouse was a perfect fit for him. Smalley, who manages the Bareburger restaurant in Astoria, says he found himself dedicating his weekends to the water. “My friend was like, ‘This could be your thing,’?” he says.
Smalley moved to the city in response to the 2008 recession and discovered the boathouse soon after. He says he was surprised by the size of New York’s kayaking and canoeing community. “It blew my mind that no matter what neighborhood I live in in New York City, I have a local boathouse I can go to.”
Foote founded the Dredgers in 1999 as a way to build environmental awareness about the city’s waterways. According to Foote, New York City was long viewed as irrelevant for water activities. “If you wanted to go to the river, you would go upstate,” he says. Foote believes this mindset is changing, and has been over the last decade or so, thanks in large part to the advocacy of groups like his. One challenge groups like the Dredgers and the Boathouse find in increasing the public’s interest in utilizing the city’s waterways is the stigma that surrounds the water itself.
Heavy rains have historically been a major polluter of the local waterways. The overflow could sometimes be too much for the city’s water treatment plants to negotiate, sending everything from shower water, sink water, and toilet water down the same pipe as the storm drain and dumping it into the NYC waterways.
“The people who grow up in New York City, their parents have told them, ‘Don’t touch the water, it’s going to kill you, it’s going to give you diseases,’?” says Smalley.
Today the Department of Environmental Protection for New York City says the improvements to sewage handling have led to increased water quality in recent years. According to its website, “[the] Harbor is cleaner now than at any time in the last 100 years.” The DEP claims its efforts have led to an increase in recreational activities on the water. Meanwhile, the National Park of New York Harbor and the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy have partnered to meet specific goals for maintaining the city’s water resources. These goals include: “protect natural and cultural resources, improve access to the parks, expand programs for diverse audiences, raise public awareness, enhance funding and facilitate partnerships to support the above goals.”
Foote recalls biking around Brooklyn after moving there in 1991 from the Upper East Side and noticing the filth that filled the East River. “I wondered, why wasn’t anyone doing anything?” he says. He joined a group, but after deciding the right questions weren’t being asked, he and others decided to launch an organization that would allow for the types of educational programs and activities he had been exposed to at camp upstate, right in the waterways of the New York islands.
The Dredgers began in Brooklyn, but today their mission is to connect New Yorkers to all the rivers — or, as Foote calls them, “the sixth borough.”