The More Things Change…

While I may not have gotten in any “big” rides in over the weekend, it was quality and not quantity that defined my velocipedal endeavors. On Saturday, before heading out to the beach, I enjoyed some time on my State Of The Art Gravel Bike:

And on Sunday I took in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan on my Midlife Crisis Fixie Mark II, whereupon I remembered that I live at Mile 10 of the New York City Triathlon:

And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t briefly consider taking advantage of the street closures by hopping over the barrier and riding a car-free Henry Hudson Parkway:

Alas, I’m way too much of a “Woosie” to actually do so:

I bet you Lucas Brunelle totally would have done it, though.

Also, in order to pull off the ruse, I might have had to jump in the Hudson, which…no thanks:

“Curveball” in this case is a euphemism for “fistful of poop.”

Anyway, instead, I made my way to Randall’s Island, where I took a little time to sit by the East River not far from where it meets the Long Island Sound:

Even when it’s not grey and overcast there’s a pall over this body of water, dotted as it is with islands that either serve or have served variously as quarantine hospitals, dumps, potter’s fields, and prisons. For example, that’s Riker’s Island in the distance, and I believe the island adjacent to my vintage saddle is South Brother Island, little sibling to North Brother Island, where Mary “Typhoid” Mallon was kept until her death:

North Brother Island is also where, in 1904, the General Slocum ran aground as it burned:

I’d known about the General Slocum disaster, but I hadn’t made the connection between it and North Brother Island until I fell into a bit of a history hole after my ride. Now I can’t stop thinking about it:

Survivors reported that the life preservers were useless and fell apart in their hands, while desperate mothers placed life jackets on their children and tossed them into the water, only to watch in horror as their children sank instead of floating. Most of those on board were women and children who, like most Americans of the time, could not swim; victims found that their heavy wool clothing absorbed water and weighed them down in the river.[9]:108–113

It was discovered that Nonpareil Cork Works, supplier of cork materials to manufacturers of life preservers, placed 8 oz (230 g) iron bars inside the cork materials to meet minimum content requirements (6 lb (2.7 kg) of “good cork”) at the time. Nonpareil’s deception was revealed by David Kahnweiler’s Sons, who suspected a shipment of 300 cork blocks.[5]:71–72 Many of the life preservers had been filled with cheap and less effective granulated cork and brought up to proper weight by the inclusion of the iron weights. Canvas covers, rotted with age, split and scattered the powdered cork. Managers of the company (Nonpareil Cork Works) were indicted but not convicted. The life preservers on the Slocum had been manufactured in 1891 and had hung above the deck, unprotected from the elements, for 13 years.[9]:118–119

Here are the bodies, just across the water from where I sat yesterday with my purple fixie:

The present can feel heavy with what lies just beneath the surface and in the not-too-distant past.

By the way, I covered much of the same ground shown in this video, which gives good insight into what it’s like to ride in the Bronx:

I didn’t look nearly as cool though, in spite of (or perhaps because of) my purple fixie.

Speaking of going down history holes, after our trip to the beach this weekend I revisited a history of the Rockaways written in 1917, which includes one of my favorite stories, that being the one about Hog Island. Basically, Hog Island was an island off of Rockaway Beach that featured taverns and restaurants and bathing houses all the other trappings of 19th century beach life…until one day it just disappeared after a storm:

In this time of dire climate models and mass concern over sea level rise and all the rest of it, it’s fascinating to read about how the Rockaway peninsula has always been subject to the Whims of the Sea:

Hog Island disappeared in 1893–that’s 110 years before Greta Thunberg was born and could blame the rest of us for it–and so I consulted an old map to see if I could find it:

Now I’m not sure, but based on what I’ve read I think maybe it was that long strip labeled “Far Rockaway Beach” that’s just below the “Bay of Far Rockaway,” even though it’s not technically an island:

And even if I’m wrong and that’s not Hog Island, you can see that the long strip is now gone:

Note the thing labeled “Atlantic Beach” on the new map is what’s labeled “Long Beach” on the old one.

That’s all at the eastern end of the Rockaway peninsula. Now let’s look at the western end, whereupon lies Fort Tilden, which is New York City’s “hipster beach:”

You might be tempted to say that Rockaway is in fact disappearing and we’re all doomed. But as I understand it, the current also takes the sand and deposits it west. So, noting that what is now Floyd Bennett Field was once “Barren Island” and using it for reference, you can see that back in the late 19th century the entirety of “hipster beach” basically didn’t exist:

Not for want of hipsters, that is:

Neptune giveth hipster beaches, and he also taketh away.

I find all this fascinating not only because I have a personal connection to the area, but because like so much else in history it puts our present in context. Last week’s flooding in New York City–which was over almost as soon as it began–elicited the usual apocalyptic prognostications:

So just imagine how the media would react if an entire fucking island in Rockaway disappeared like it did back in the late 19th century. Most of us remember Hurricane Sandy well; there were storms like that before, and there will be again, and that’s true whether you stop driving or not.

Speaking of change, while the ever-shifting landscape of the Rockaways is the result of both natural forces and human engineering (dredging, landfill, etc.), the names we apply to it are all us, and here’s a shocking example from that same old map:

This was its name until the 1960s when it became “Negro Bar Channel,” which it remained until 2018 when it finally acquired its current name:

A change that was signed into law by…

…insert record-scratch sound…

Donald Trump:

I should point out that I grew up playing literally on the edge of that channel, and I never, ever heard anybody call it that. Still, like the bodies that once washed up on North Brother Island, it’s yet another reminder of all that heaviness from the not-too-distant past.

Anyway, I find that learning about the past generally makes me feel better about the present, and my optimism that we’re generally making progress sometimes puts me at odds with my contemporaries:

As for the future, who’s to say? I tend to think we’ll sort it all out one way or the other. I also think bikes will always play a role–as does Space Fred Richard Branson, apparently:

Now that’s what I call multi-modal.

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