When you think about living by a River the picture that comes to mind is probably Huckleberry Finn on the Mississippi, or perhaps natives living on the banks of the Amazon River. In comparison the East River is a weak assed River, but I lived one block from it for eighteen years. I knew it was the most beautiful River in the world.
Except for about one and a half years during which I resided on 178th Street in the Bronx, I have always lived fairly close to a large body of water. The East River in Manhattan, The Verrazzano Straights in Brooklyn, The Great South Bay kissing Long Island. These are all pretty impressive bodies of water. Now it just might cross your mind that The East River can’t hold a candle to the other two, but New York’s largest Maritime disaster happened right on the East River in 1904*. Hell’s gate swirling and boiling at the north end of the River has claimed many lives.
When the sun sparkles off the East River it appears tranquil and inviting. In reality, the currents and eddies are treacherous . Very few people are strong enough to swim across from the Manhattan side to one of the many islands that border the East Bank. If you were capable of doing the swim ( few people are) you would have a heck of a time trying to climb out. The banks are steep and rocky. Today the River is much cleaner than when I was younger thanks to the later efforts of government and their environmental controls.
My girlhood friend, Susan and I, spent many hours on the paved West bank. We would walk through Jefferson Park and cross the East River Drive (FDR Drive) by way of a zig zagged foot bridge. From that drop off point you could walk North or South to other foot bridges going to Ward’s and Randall’s Islands, or sit on benches to enjoy the cool breezes coming off the water. One of those islands across the expanse was known for the mental hospital which occupied much of the island. The grounds were kept beautifully around the hospital. Rikers Island, where prisoners are still housed, is also on the East Bank.
By 1962 the water traffic was a mere shadow of what it once had been, but on occasion the circle line would come chugging by. Susan and I would jump up and down waving at the people on the festive boat. We always shouted at the top of our lungs, “You are now passing by East Harlem, East Harlem!” People out for a days sail would acknowledge our shouts, call and wave back. At that point, around 112th Street, the river is fairly narrow from West to East shores. There was no difficulty hearing someone from boat to shore. We were always proud of where we lived and announced it to the world. I still love having been born and raised in East Harlem.
Sometimes I would join my next door neighbor, Louise, and her mother Nunciata for a picnic on Randall’s Island. It was a good walk from 116th Street, but we were easily up to it. One of the things Nunciata would bring for lunch was spaghetti pie. It was fabulous, fried spaghetti held together with eggs and imported parmesan cheese. To this day I cook it up myself and always think of those moments on Randall’s Island.
Nunciata was a hardened woman who had gone through the second world war in Italy. Her first 4th of July in the United States she came running into our apartment frantic. She believed we were being bombed when the fireworks began blasting. It took some time for my Grandmother to assure her we weren’t in any danger and it was a celebration. I remember how she shook with fear and the tears flowed from her eyes.
Some years later Nunciata was strolling up on third avenue when an agile young would be bag snatcher grabbed her purse. Apparently he was no match for a woman who had lived through so much. They had a short tug of war, she lifted one high-heeled foot, kicked him in the chest knocking him to the ground. Nunciata shook her fist at him and then cursed him out in Italian. She told him what she thought about his Mother, his Father and all his ancestors. That teen was lucky he escaped with his life. Every thief should meet up with someone like this resilient lady. Justice on the spot can be very effective and surely less expensive when it comes to straightening out errant teens.
*When the twin-paddlewheel steamboat General Slocum departed Manhattan for Long Island Sound on the morning of Wednesday June 15, 1904, the 1,300-plus passengers on board expected nothing more than a relaxing day trip. The itinerary called for a short ride up the East River to Long Island’s Locust Grove, where the travelers would eat, drink and play to their heart’s content before being ferried back home. It’s safe to say that swimming was not one of the planned activities, as the mini-cruise called for participants to wear their Sunday best, and few early 20th century New Yorkers knew how to swim, anyway. But just minutes into the excursion a fire started below deck, and before long flames engulfed the boat, forcing the passengers into the water.
In the new book, “Ship Ablaze” (Broadway), historian Edward O’Donnell recounts the General Slocum story, a tragedy that took the lives of 1,021 people—mostly women and children. Initially, the fire and subsequent horrors were viewed as a simple, albeit catastrophic, accident. But when survivors reported the alarming disrepair of the boat’s safety equipment, it became evident that corporate greed, corruption and negligence were to blame for the casualties. Within a week, grand jury hearings were underway to determine culpability, but the victims’ families would get no satisfaction. The decisions and actions that led to the second-deadliest incident in New York’s history went almost entirely unpunished.