since 2009

Goodbye Green Street Pier—Part II and III, a photoheavy conclusion

(part I here)
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[photo by Geralyn Shukwit]

The first night I snuck out there it was to retrieve plugs from errant casts. I probably figured out all the worst ways over that fence, from getting stuck on top of razor wire to squeezing through the fence gate just under the spotlight. All terrible ideas. It took me a few trips before I realized the best way was actually under the fence. But for the first few trips I just stuck to the shore next to the pier, it loomed next to me like a destroyed Pandora’s Box, a place of great temptation, and one last great secret of this part of the East River. For a time I was content to catch schoolies under the light, to finally catch some fish! And out of the East River, no less. I remember the first fish came early one fall morning, like around 5AM, a striped bass no bigger than 18 inches. I texted my girlfriend at the time, “I caught you a delicious bass.” For all the horror stories about the East River, many true and an equal amount assumed and exaggerated, I looked at this shiny fish flopping among the weeds and broken concrete blocks, and it looked just like I remembered as a kid: clean, smooth, strong, and vibrant.
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It wasn’t until I started hanging out with Greg that I started fishing off Green Street pier. Greg was the son of some sort of law enforcement official and he carried himself with the kind of swagger that nobody could touch him and boundaries didn’t exist. The first time I met him was at the end of Huron Street and he was pumping up an 10-foot inflatable raft to launch into the river. Anyone who’s been on the East River during a moon tide knows how crazy this sounds. But there he was, him and a friend rowing plastic and rubber paddles out to the end of the pier to fish the dark north side. For a week I could see and hear splashes from the midpoint of the pier to its end and knew I needed to get out there. Greg was an ideal partner for trespassing and we made a plan. By that time getting to the pier was easy. We slipped our gear and rods under the fence, one person pulled while the other ducked under and climbed onto the deck of the pier, then pushed the fence out for the other to climb aboard. Then, in a motion that we’d get very used to doing, was the low sprint out of the glow of the spotlight, hunched over, scooping up gear and running for the first obstacles: aim for the steel I-beam, drop down four feet onto the old pier platform, run another 10 yards, then back up to the newer section, this one a narrow walkway lined on both sides by drop offs back on the old, rotten planks—no man’s land on the right, and 20 yards ahead, the first fishing spot on the left.

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We hopped down into the shadows of a short section of old pier. If we sat we’d be hidden from security. There were holes and missing planks everywhere. At one part someone laid a heavy, metal plate over a stretch of missing boards, making a sketchy situation even more precarious. We gathered our wits from the sprint, the adrenalin racing in our systems, and before we could even congratulate each other on making it this far, we saw it. A tiny orange glow in the corner of a section of old pier and new, bright, then out. We didn’t even see him as we ran past and over him and there he was, sitting in the dark, not at all happy to see us. Another fisherman already out on the pier, not more than three yards away. Our welcome worn out before we even got there, we jumped back onto the walkway and ran west, to the concrete end.
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[An overlay of the pier. The graphic shows the hole in the pier before it was built over.]

The river seems to narrow here in this turn as it starts to curve north east, or maybe it’s because the Green Street pier juts out more than 300 feet into the water, further than any other man-made structure that just dead ends into the drink here. Out on the concrete platform the view of Midtown is unparalleled, the U.N. Building seemingly telephoto’d across from us, the black, rushing water beneath us stereophonic. This area was also part of the old pier—a section actually slants back toward shore down at an angle like a driveway into the water. You could actually crawl under the pier at this point, under the boards and lay down on the concrete, which we did a few weeks later to hide from a police helicopter. But for the time being, this freedom was the real prize. We could run around here all night and nobody could touch us. Broken glass and shells littered the ground among the white piles of bird droppings and some old ropes. And in the dark, swirling water beneath our legs dangling off the chipped concrete, there was a constant pop of big fish nailing bait on the surface, literally just a few feet underneath us. It was almost too good to be true.
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We didn’t even need to cast where we were. We sat on the slanted driveway and pitched out bucktails, Storm shads, and Rat-L Traps about 10 yards to the left and let the incoming tide swing the lures under the pier, raise the rod tip and let it drop, and bam! A fish. Then another fish. Hits on every cast. At one point we just dropped the lures straight below us and jigged and caught fish, almost always on the drop. I felt like an urban Huckleberry Finn fishing this way. That first night we caught four keeper bass, which Greg threw into a plastic bag and we carried off the pier. On the way out a security guard happened to be driving past. He stopped us as we tried to pretend he didn’t see us. “I’ve seen you here before, haven’t I?” he asked Greg. “Yeah.” “Next time I call the police.” “OK.” As we crawled our way back to the parking lot Greg said to me, “I gotta talk to that guy’s boss tomorrow.”
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For a while this was my secret spot. Thomas, I knew, knew about it as well. We caught dozens of fish on the pier in a week. If the driveway didn’t produce, we moved to the very end. Bluefish and bass aggressively fed all over the extended appendage of Green Street, stretching into the river like a phantom limb. One night Greg and I watched blues tail walk across the water in the glow of Midtown. This was the place, I thought, where I’d beat the bait guys who fished the legit piers up and down the East River: Valentino, Gantry, and later North 5th. Like most people, I didn’t have the luxury of throwing bait and hanging out on the pier, literally, all day long. I can’t hate on people who can fish all day, but I hated that they were catching all the fish, without, I felt, really having to work for it. Some of them do put their work in, finding the deep holes, being diligent about fresh bait, knowing the spots. But personally I’ll save the bait-and-wait for summer days on the beach with a case of beer. After weeks of scouting and reconnaissance, I’d finally found the spot where a plug guy could even the odds, a place I knew most bait guys wouldn’t venture. I was out there every night when the tide was coming in. Slack tide there produced little, and the outgoing tide brought with it the effluent from the (very) nearby Newtown Creek, which I just didn’t want to mess with. The conditions, paired with trespassing and subsequent need for cover of darkness, limited our time on the pier, but when everything came together the fishing was almost unreal, in front of the best view of the city you could wish for. And it was free.
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[photo by Geralyn Shukwit]

***

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[Taken from Greenpointers blog]

Everything changes. The rezoning of 2005 made sure that no waterfront property was going to stay empty forever. Land owners have been sitting on their seemingly worthless industrial property for decades, empty warehouses and junked lots, waiting for this moment to sell out the neighborhood. Of course, it’s all a matter of perspective. Most citizens would choose gentrification and relative safety over grittiness and history, even if the cost is as great as what’s facing Greenpoint right now. Housing projections range to nearly 40,000 new residents in 11,000 units in the coming years, never mind that the public transit and neighborhood infrastructure can probably not handle such an influx. Artist renderings of gleaming towers, realizing the dream of making the Greenpoint waterfront a marina for the rich, while maintaining that “affordable housing” will be made available in the new buildings in exchange for seven-story height increases is simply disingenuous. One need only look at the North 5th area of Williamsburg, and the Gantry Pier area of Long Island City to see what affordable housing looks like. When a veteran agent with a major corporate real estate company tells me he and his family are looking to move out of the North 5th Pier area because it’s too expensive, it tells me everything I need to know about the city’s idea of affordable housing. There are people who are fighting back, organizers like Jen G at the Greenpointers blog, and the urban planning activist Jane Jacobs, who wrote to Mayor Bloomberg, “The community’s [alternate] plan does not promote new housing at the expense of both existing housing and imaginative and economical new shelter that residents can afford. The community’s plan does not violate the existing scale of the community, nor does it insult the visual and economic advantages of neighborhoods that are precisely of the kind that demonstrably attract artists and other live-in craftsmen… the proposal put before you by the city staff is an ambush containing all those destructive consequences.”

But the wheels are already far in motion. The piers have been built and there’s too much money to let them fall the way of Green Street pier. And for some reason, there is commercial interest in having people live on the waterfront of one of the most polluted waterways in the entire country, Newtown Creek. The concerns and needs of the neighborhood, those long suffering residents who made the place their home, their community, dealt with oil companies poisoning the land (an EPA report states “The American Petroleum Institute (2002) indicates that 40-80 percent of product may be retained in soils as residual product”) and water for decades, the radioactivity—all of those voices are always paved over with money. It seems the best people can hope for is to delay it. The trade off for being priced out of one’s own neighborhood is that we will more or less have waterfront access from Greenpoint to Brooklyn Bridge Park. Is that worth the price of community? Places like the Green Street pier are ephemeral. That’s part of the the appeal for me. After the rezoning of 2005, which happened while I still lived in San Francisco, it was never in question whether a place like Green Street pier would survive. It was already a rule, just a matter of time. What city development board would allow the investment of billions of dollars and let an ugly, poorly rebuilt and constructed, dilapidated deathtrap of a dinosaur of the industrial age remain an eyesore in an otherwise unfettered, unobstructed view of Manhattan? The same views we had on the end of Green Street will eventually be more or less available again; we just won’t be able to afford it. But should a neighborhood be priced out of itself because the city decided richer people should live there?

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With part of ephemera comes documentation—the seemingly intrinsic need to record everything we do in a modern age. As soon as I introduced the derby founders to the pier, the need for coverage was immediate. Nothing was as cool as sneaking out to Green Street pier—the combined element of danger, law breaking, and experiencing the act of running in the dark over floorboards that could break at any time was too great for people to resist. Fishing became secondary to having someone with a video camera follow you around. I never liked it, but accepted it as part of the life cycle of a place like this—that places like this would hardly be around forever, and maybe it was better to get some evidence of the experience than to be the old guy at the bar telling people what it used to be like. Hence, video needed to be shot, photos needed to be taken. This is what bothered the few locals who fished the pier the most. They wanted their secret to remain as such, but just like the proposed revamping of the neighborhood, the change was always coming, though we could have collectively respected it more. I’ll take the responsibility for telling too many people about access to the pier, as it seems to be in my drunken, gregarious manner. There were a lot of things that happened on the pier that people should have been smarter about, such as using lights to shoot video, wandering around on the deck near the spotlight, staying on the pier until daylight. Stupid, brainless shit. But it was anarchy, the last free spot of its kind. More people on the pier certainly blew up the spot, but it didn’t end it. If one were smart enough, or stupid enough, solo missions were always available and preferable. And when it was all over, as it is now in my opinion, I’d begrudgingly rather someone was there to document the experience out there on the pier, than silently remember the stupidity that may have come with it.

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[all above photos by Geralyn Shukwit]

Green Street pier was not all fun and games for the hipsters, as I’m certain some of the locals regarded us, the ones who co-opt and take and never give anything back. For as worried as I was about the inexperienced and irresponsible, I think the worst fates fell the ones who ventured out there the most. I took my brother out there once on a July night and of course on his first cast he caught a 36-inch bluefish, which was bigger than any blue I ever caught on the pier. One night I watched Thomas run from under the fence and, in apparent attempt to hide from the spot light, jump down into the No Man’s Land and drop out of sight in the darkness. Anyone who fell into the water at this point would surely be dead, I thought. The water was too deep and the current too strong, not to mention whatever obstacles of the ruined pier lay beneath the surface. Nobody was getting out of that black water alive. I ran as fast as I could from the concrete platform to find him punched through a plank and waist deep in rotten wood. Another time I ventured too far to the edge of the south side of the pier and had one of the boards see-saw its way into the water, as I dove to the side, barely missing getting catapulted into the river. I’ve held the legs and feet of people who stretched down from the driveway to reach a dangling fish at the water’s edge. I’ve hidden under the pier from police cars and helicopters more times than I can count. The best/worst story was when I was fishing the middle area and a schoolie bass I’d just caught flipped and spun and knocked my plug bag into a hole in the pier, it plopped down into the swift current and immediately disappeared. I sat mouth agape staring down into the abyss, watching $300 of plugs vanish into the water, holding my last Bomber and a fish that couldn’t be more than 20 inches. I should have sealed that striper’s fate with American steel, but in a strange way, out of all the fish I’d caught on the pier, I almost had to respect it. So I tossed it back, and immediately there was a chorus of tail slaps in the water, as if they were all giving him high-fives for finally exacting revenge. I felt like Bill Murray in Rushmore when he realizes Max Fisher is the one who infested his hotel room with stinging bees.

That son of a bitch. I also think Thomas and I lost a fish-finder transponder later that night. Not to mention the countless bucktails and plugs I’ve lost to the old, sunken remnants of the pier. Tribute to the river gods, although probably what they really wanted was a body. The Green Street pier was aching to provide one.
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The end of Green Street as a fishing spot really happened well before Sandy. It wasn’t even the cameras and lights, the foolish people who didn’t think about stealth, or even the idiots we were sneaking out there every night when every instinct advised otherwise, when every detail of the precariousness of the venture and structure clamored out to every nerve like a hook in the hand. Ultimately it was the unceasing tide of progress. When the India Street Pier opened up to ferry service and 24-hour access, Green Street was over. Too many lights, too many eyes. It would be impossible to return to the end, where the best fishing in the river was, without someone seeing you from the glow of India Street. It was the end of a short era and it was nobody’s fault, it just was. With that, the need for documentation was more important than ever, despite the annoyances and inconveniences it caused when one could climb onto the pier and make that long run. The photos and video we shot of the pier in those days not so long ago might be the only ones that exist, not just of the pier, but of the act of being out there. Geralyn Shukwit’s photos from a night early in the 2010 derby capture those moments for me—the challenge and danger of getting out there, and the ease and peace you felt once you reached that concrete platform. I spent so many nights out on that pier by myself and sometimes wondered if it was right that only I would remember it. It was like nothing else you could experience on the river, the kind of thing only the old time guys know and can talk about. It became important to share the perspective, not just with the people close to me, but with everyone because places like this don’t exist anymore and there won’t be another one. The mystery is gone from this area. There’s nothing left to explore. And since we stopped running along those old, rotting planks on Green Street it’s aged and fallen apart faster than it ever seemed to before, as if our absence equated neglect. Look at it now: the planks lay strewn about at random, odd, and impossible angles, like the keys of a ruined piano.

I never caught the biggest bass of the fishing derby on Green Street, though I always believed it was possible. I caught probably hundreds of fish off the pier in the past few years, but I ultimately I never beat the bait guys. I’ve stood out on the end of the pier in the cold and wind, watching the water below me whitecap and whip its way to the Long Island Sound and the city silently shining ahead of me, a giant beacon and reassurance of life. There was a real peace out there and it looked out toward the heart of the city. Below, the current reached for you, wanting to take you where it was going. If I fell into the water there would never be a sound, and if my body were ever found it would have been dragged swiftly and mercilessly into the night. Who knows where, maybe to Rikers Island.

—mkl
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