2001-12-15 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

I know that Jamaica Bay is there. I have lived in Rockaway virtually all of my life, much of that time within jogging distance of the bay.

It is hard not to know that Jamaica Bay is there, because the entire peninsula, from Bayswater to Breezy Point, is situated along the bay. Drive the length of the peninsula on Beach Channel Drive (a misnomer for a road that runs along the bay, not the beach) and you constantly catch glimpses of it on the east end and wide expanses of it on the west end.

Although I always have known that it is there, I hardly ever paid any attention to it. Most people who live in Rockaway do not.

When I was much younger, and so was Rockaway, I would stand at the bay where Beach Channel High School now stands and watch as raw sewage poured from an outlet pipe into the bay. Being teenagers, we marveled at the feces, toilet paper, condoms and other less identifiable stuff come out of that pipe.

I know that doesn’t happen anymore and that the bay is cleaner than it was when I was young, but I don’t know much more about it than that.

Sure, as a newspaper person, I have covered drownings in the bay, the boats sinking each summer, the ski-dos crashing into the bridge pilings.

I have covered the odd drills where the NYPD and the Port Authority would drop an aircraft fuselage into the bay with cops and firefighters playing passengers and everybody would respond to the "plane crash." Those drills became frighteningly real on November 12. One of my first thoughts as I stood on Beach 130 Street and Newport Avenue, in front of the Harbor Light, was that it should have fallen into the bay as the NYPD predicted and trained for.

I know the bay is there often when my family and I eat at The Wharf or Pier 92, sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time, eating good food and enjoying the company. The same for sitting at a window table at the Sunset Diner, watching the sun set across the bay.

I knew that the bay was there on September 11 as I stood with dozens of other Rockaway residents, watching the World Trade Center burn and then fall down across a blue expanse of water.

I know that the bay is there, but I never paid all that much attention to it unless it meant a story to cover or a vista to watch.

Then, I went to a meeting of the Jamaica Bay Task Force at the bird sanctuary in Broad Channel and I met a group of people who love the bay. I mean they really love it. They spend their lives defending it, talking about it, advocating for it, arguing about it.

The task force has been in existence for many years and everybody in the room seemed to know everybody else. I was the only "outsider," a person who was there not because he loved the bay, but to cover the story of those who did.

The only two Rockaway people in the room, as far as I could make out, were Bernie Blum, the Wave’s environmental columnist and Marilyn Grossman, a Rockaway resident who teaches at PS 43 in Edgemere. I was there because Bernie told me about the meeting and told me that it was important that somebody from The Wave cover it.

Dan Mundy and Don Riepe from Broad Channel were there. Dan is the leader of the group that discovered that the bay is losing marshland at about 50 acres a day. Don works for the National Park Service and knows more about the bay than almost anybody but Dan.

There were lots of other folks there who love the bay as well as the locals and know just as much.

There was Ida Sanoff from the Natural Resources Protective Association in Staten Island, Jim Sarcella, the president of the Staten Island Friends of Clearwater, John Fazio from Community Board 10, who covers the Brooklyn bayfront like Mundy and Riepe cover ours.

There were people from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). They work on the bay, but those who love it say that those agency people do not always love it like they do.

Mike Quinn, one of the men from DEP, tried to explain to everybody why it was necessary to dump millions of gallons of sewage into the bay. He told those at the meeting that the dump has little effect on the bay. They told him that he didn’t know what he was talking about, that his tests were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They told him of rotting fish, putrid water and the worst smell they had ever encountered for weeks after the dump. It was obvious from his sheepish grin, and "what can you do" shrug that he knew what the dump meant to the bay, but was not allowed to say that he knew.

Eugenia Flatow ran the meeting. She is with the New York Soil and Water Conservation District.

Bernie Blum says that she is the "witch of the bay," the person who is tied to the "Manhattan Clique" that despoils the bay for its own nefarious reasons.

I found her to be rather delightful, interested in balancing recreational and commercial use around the bay with the need to conserve our natural resources.

Of course, Bernie has known her for 20 years and I only met her briefly at the meeting. Perhaps Bernie is right and my first impression is way off.

In any case, Riepe showed slides of the various marshlands on the bay. It is obvious from the slides that they are quickly degenerating. I had known that from past stories, but my knowledge and my concern were peripheral, just another story from those crazy environmentalists, nothing to worry about.

After viewing the slides, I am not sure that I still feel that way. The loss is stunning. If I feel that way, think about how those who love the bay feel about it.

Have I become an environmentalist? Probably not.

When the group began to talk about the Arverne Urban Renewal Area and the need to keep development in that area "under check" because some sort of dune grass grows there or because there might be Piping Plovers on the land, I reverted to my old ways rather quickly.

"Rockaway needs development, middle class money to stay alive, I told them. Dune grass cannot get in the way of that development."

They looked at me as if I were speaking Martian. Of course the dune grass and the Piping Plovers were more important. They are endangered, after all.

That’s when they lost me.

I know the bay is there. I now know a little more about why it is important to Rockaway. Perhaps I have more respect for it.

I also have more respect for those who love the bay. At least, I think that I understand them better than I did before.

Do I agree with them? On some things, I do, and on others, I do not. It is clear that I will never love the bay as they do, and perhaps that is their problem.

Because they love the bay so much and have trouble deciding which battle is important to fight, they fight all of the battles and that takes them out of the mainstream.

For some of them, it takes them way out of the mainstream. Perhaps they like it out there.

Real conservation, however, will not take place at Jamaica Bay or anyplace else until that conservation becomes more accepted by the public, more mainstream.

I am not sure that people who love the bay as much as they do will ever be able to gain that acceptance.

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