New York Magazine

OUR LESSER ISLANDS

Unearthing New York’s hidden histories, from buried bodies to heron sanctuaries.

I AM FLOATING UP THE SHORES of the Arthur Kill, the brown-water tidal strait that separates Staten Island from New Jersey, with Rob Buchanan, a teacher and boatbuilder. On the bedraggled green edge of Staten Island, the water’s end of Victory Boulevard, we pass a plastic chair, the universal marker of a secret water-viewing sanctuary, and the Pratt Industries paper mill, recycling New York City paper into boxes for Home Depot. On the port side, we see rows of oil refineries, along with an Amazon fulfillment center. The landscape is that of nature bathed in the smog of highway, refinery, and Newark airport. Just past the CITGO refinery, we come to a crook in the Arthur Kill, in which sits a parenthesis-shaped roughly 100-acre spit of land. “Pralls Island up ahead!” says Buchanan.

This is our destination, a green patch that looks like a primeval forest broken down on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. We row toward Pralls’s northern shore. In 1990, Exxon’s Bayway refinery spilled 567,000 gallons of oil into Arthur Kill. Now if you walk across the island, you see a landscape repeatedly redevastated by the efforts to save it: Not long after the oil-spill recovery began, when an Asian-long-horned-beetle infestation risked killing maple trees throughout the Northeast, the trees on Pralls were cut down to eliminate a potential breeding ground. Only the stumps remain. From there, the degradation cascaded. Invasive buckthorn shrubs drowned out the native species. When young shoots did grow, the deer ate them. The herons stopped landing there (for myriad reasons, not all of them clear), and stormwaters frequently washed over the island, blanketing it in plastic. Next came mile-a-minute, a vine that emigrated from Asia in the 1930s via contaminated holly seed. It grows up to six inches a day, smothering everything around it. The Parks Department has tried to control the vines by releasing another beetle, the mile-a-minute weevil, which also comes from Asia and is enlisted by ecologists in what is referred to as biological control.

In this minuscule island, roughly 20 city blocks big, you can read the entire recent history of the urban-ecology movement—its ambitions and struggles, its hopefulness and hopelessness—and there are similar stories being told across the archipelago of New York Harbor, if you stop to listen.

Islands are our planet’s poems: Tight, circumscribed, they are other, defined against the landmass from which they broke or the sea from which they emerged. In their isolation and their boundaries, they seem to make living more intense. It takes work to reach them, which can make them storehouses for all we hope to ignore; or, if we choose to embrace them, their preciousness forces human ambition skyward rather than outward.

We know this about our largest islands—the skyscraper came of age in Manhattan because of geological restrictions. But we can easily forget that the city is, in fact, a vast collection of islands. Every borough but the Bronx floats off from the Atlantic seaboard. No one can agree on the precise number of islands in New York waters—30-odd, depending on how you count—but they are part of what makes the city so extraordinary, located at the mouth of one of the world’s largest natural harbors. The islands are our silent neighbors. It is easy to live here and never notice them. Until one day, driving down the FDR, you might look out at the pile of rocks off the southern coast of Roosevelt Island and wonder, What is that place?

Even the

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