By Bill Parry
Seventeen members of HarborLab slipped their kayaks into the polluted waters of Newtown Creek early Saturday morning and paddled off from their launch site at the southern tip on Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City.
The group headed towards Governors Island to join City of Water Day, the metropolitan region’s largest and most popular harbor festival celebrating the waterways and 700 miles of shoreline in all five boroughs.
The two-day event, organized by the Waterfront Alliance, now in its 10th year, drew thousands to more than 60 locations. Over 100 organizations participated, including several from Queens.
“City of Water Day is a day to play and a day to acknowledge our shared responsibility,” Waterfront Alliance President and CEO Roland Lewis said. “We wouldn’t have cleaner water, more waterfront access, and fantastic new ferry service without the hard work and advocacy — and we’ve still got a long way to go in terms of accessibility, resilience and environmental health.”
The festival has its roots in western Queens, thanks to Erik Baard, the founder and executive of HarborLab, the Long Island City-based non-profit which offers programs in environmental education, stewardship and restoration. Baard created the Five Borough Ramble when he was the president of the Long Island City Community Boathouse in 2007.
“I was thrilled when Waterfront Alliance joined me as a partner, then asked if they could make it their annual event. I was ecstatic,” Baard said. “Waterfront Alliance has so much more capacity to make this annual event great, and it’s grown far beyond its origins. Less known is that I co-founded the annual Manhattan Circumnavigation tradition.”
More than 200 kayakers from all over the tri-state area took part in Saturday’s daylong circumnavigation, taking a lunch break at Astoria’s Socrates Sculpture Park after landing in Hallets Cove. Socrates is now a four-acre park and cultural institution, but in 1986 it was an abandoned landfill and illegal dumpsite.
“It’s marvelous that Socrates Sculpture Park transformed a foreboding place into one that welcomes families and all lovers of art and greenery to our waterfront,” Baard said. “HarborLab is eager to do all we can to extend Socrates Sculpture Park’s mission onto the water, especially now that Hallets Cove water quality may be improving following our advocacy.”
In 2014, Baard discovered uncapped drains at the Astoria Houses were allowing sewage to flow into the cove. The city eventually stopped the runoff problem and today Socrates Sculpture Park Beach is a kayak launch, NYC Ferry is set to launch its Astoria route to its landing in the cove Aug. 1, and City Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) is moving forward with a plan to bring an eco-dock to Hallets Cove that will bring more waterfront access and education to the residents of western Astoria.
“These expanded services show that the Hallets Peninsula waterfront is growing for the better,” Constantinides said.
Meanwhile, in Long Island City Saturday, Mitch Waxman was leading a walking tour of the Dutch Kills tributary of Newtown Creek, a federal Superfund site Waxman calls “The Poison Cauldron” as historian of the Newtown Creek Alliance. As part of City of Water Day, Waxman led the three-hour tour of the polluted waterway from Court Square to the Smiling Hogshead Ranch community garden on Skillman Avenue.
“NCA is making a real effort to expand the awareness of Newtown Creek and issues surrounding it in Queens,” he said. Other members of his organization celebrated City of Water Day by painting stencils near area catch basins to remind people that the area drains into Newtown Creek.
“During rain events sewer outfall causes street trash to be swept into the already polluted waterway,” Waxman said. “The stenciling builds awareness for those that litter.”
It was the 10th year Waxman has been involved with City of Water Day.
“Normally we do a boat tour,” he said. “But this year there were no boats available.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr