Last Wednesday I ran into Geralyn and Jane Borock at a book release party in the city for a colleague of mine. Yes, once upon a time I had colleagues and was a graduate student at the Journalism school at University of California, Berkeley. Robin Shulman was a year ahead of me. While I finished my degree and went to go founder around in the “scene of creative non-fiction,” Robin went to the Middle East and reported on the war for places like the NY Times and the Washington Post. I reconnected with Robin, although we weren’t friends at Berkeley—which is no knock on her, I wasn’t really friends with anyone there who wasn’t dead by the time we graduated—at the 2010 derby opening party at Dream. She was working on a book and she was cornering me into slipping a few names of fisher-folk who might be eating the fish they were catching out of the East River. Eventually, Robin stuck around to meet guys like John Ruffino and women like our own Jane Borock and their own unique contributions to the life of city fishing. I remember we once took Robin out to the Green Street pier. In retrospect I think it was a terrible idea seeing how dangerous it was out there, and I was sure we were going to catch something big, but we didn’t. All we had was that fantastic view of the city and a small bottle of whiskey before we had to sneak back out along the rotten planks and overwhelming wash of awful white light from the floods perched on a telephone pole on our way out.
So this is Robin’s book, Eat the City , which I picked up today at the bookstore in Greenpoint. Officially the title is completed by “A tale of the fishers, foragers, butchers, farmers, poultry minders, sugar refiners, cane cutters, beekeepers, winemakers, and brewers who built New York.” It is an extensive and comprehensive look not only at the recent movement of local farming and harvesting, but also an intense look at the city’s history of these kinds of practices, in which Robin shows that the recent trendiness of farm/sea to table isn’t really all that new. People have fished, farmed, harvested, and brewed within the city limits since colonial times and though it’s taken different forms and iterations, that spirit of the city was always there. I’ve only read the fishing chapter (for obvious reasons) thus far, but just this single chapter that appears toward the back third of the book was incredibly eye-opening. She traces the colonial times through the industrial age, assesses the history of the city’s abuse of its waterways through sewage and chemical pollution of the Hudson, East River, and New York Harbor—as well as the evolutions (or devolutions) of the two Superfund sites that ignominiously call Brooklyn its home: Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal. And the damage was, and still is, extensive and prevalent. These are still the same waters we all fish.
Robin interviews Chinese fishermen who hunt near the Manhattan Bridge, Trinidadian immigrants who crab Coney Island, Guyanese men who swim and net silversides in the waters around City Island, and more. Two of our BKUAA members make appearances: John Ruffino and Jane Borock, a pair who will be hilariously (to me, anyway; maybe not to John) featured in a segment on a reality TV show airing in September concerning a certain situation about a fish that happened on North 5th Pier a couple weeks ago. (I’m only being ambiguous here because I just learned about this thing at Robin’s book release party, during which Jane regaled me with a full 25-minute version of the events, and I can’t hope to do it justice myself. I’m going to have to convince her to re-tell it here.)
There’s lots of other notable Brooklyn landmarks one will notice in Robin’s book as well. The Meat Hook, Diner, Marlow and Sons, the Domino Sugar factory, the beekeepers in Red Hook… I’m sure there will be more as I get back to the rest of the book. After having lived in Brooklyn for six years, the most I’ve lived anywhere since I left Delaware, I’m hooked on the history of the city, especially within the context in which Robin writes. It’s fantastically researched and a story every New Yorker should read. Well done, Robin.
For more information check her site here.