Currents of Controversy : ‘Gold Coast’ Erupts Along the Hudson

Times Staff Writer

The river begins as a trickle from Lake Tear of the Clouds, a small pond with a romantic name high on the southwestern slope of Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks.

Gathering strength, it winds through highlands and farmlands, flows through broad bays and shimmering coves and glides past towering cliffs and chasms--majestic vistas that awed explorers and inspired one of America’s foremost schools of landscape painters.

At last it divides New Jersey’s Palisades from the skyscrapers of Manhattan, sweeps around Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and rolls to the sea.

The Hudson River, the river the Indians called Muhheakunnuk--meaning great waters constantly in motion--occupies a unique place in America’s history, literature and psyche.


Immigrant Flow

“Three out of every four immigrants came through New York,” said James P. Shenton, professor of history at Columbia University. “It was the river everyone from abroad saw.”

In the last two decades, the Hudson has come back from being the butt of comedians’ jokes about pollution to become an internationally recognized ecological model, one of the few urban rivers with abundant numbers of its original marine species. Scientists estimate that close to 200 kinds of fish now swim in the Hudson, ranging from striped bass to short-nose sturgeon. Along Manhattan’s piers, where the river is mixed with salt water, sea horses are common.

“The general picture of the Hudson as a biological desert is wrong,” said John Waldman, a researcher at the Hudson River Foundation. “It actually is an oasis.”


Private Foundation

The Hudson may be the only major river in the nation protected by its own private nonprofit foundation, created in 1981 as part of the settlement by conservationists with an electric utility. It was the first U.S. river to be guarded by a river keeper--a politically savvy watchman--who sails its waters seeking polluters.

But fresh currents of controversy are swirling along the Hudson’s shores. Its banks have become a magnet for developers. Projects worth billions are on the drawing boards. Along its 315-mile length, realtors are busy advertising condominiums and office complexes. In many communities, for decades, the shoreline was the equivalent of the wrong side of the tracks. Now, it is the Gold Coast--eagerly sought for its life style and views.

“Everybody wants to live near the water and have a great view and be close to New York City,” said Cindy Zipf, coordinator of Clean Ocean Action, a coalition of 100 environmental organizations in New York and New Jersey. “We have a tremendous population explosion along the Hudson.”

Conservationists, concerned about possible new pollution and about restricted access to the Hudson for those too poor to own riverfront condominiums, view developers with suspicion. Some realtors are equally distrustful of environmentalists.

“The battle lines have been drawn. The owners of the waterfront land are seeing the possibility of enormous profits, and the people who cannot or will not live there see their waterfront access dwindling,” said D. W. Bennett, executive director of the American Littoral Society, an environmental group specializing in shoreline preservation.

“You’ve got developers who would never lift a pinky to help the river, now rushing to it as a mother lode,” charged Robert H. Boyle, president of the Hudson River Fishermen’s Assn., who believes the river may face “death by 1,000 cuts” through cumulative small abuses.

For riverfront communities experiencing explosive growth, the costs and rewards, in terms of additional services and tax revenues, are huge.


Typical is Edgewater, N.J., a small town across from Manhattan, in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. In the early 1950s, when Alcoa Aluminum, the Ford Motor Co. and other industries left Edgewater, the tax base changed dramatically. Edgewater’s 5,200 residents were forced to assume 80% of the tax burden, when they had previously paid only 20%.

But in recent years, as Edgewater has increasingly been seen as a desirable place to live, about 600 new housing units, mostly condominiums, have been built and now plans call for 2,500 residential units and a million square feet of office space to be constructed in the next 20 years.

“We will dramatically raise the tax base,” predicted Edgewater’s Mayor Bryan Christiansen. “It will almost double.”

Developer Funded

Edgewater’s new $16-million sewage treatment plant is being paid for largely by developers. “We had to move ahead with the plant without any state or federal funding,” Christiansen explained. “The present Administration in Washington wants to limit all federal funding for clean water. Without the new development, there would have been tremendous pressure on the tax base. Why not let the new development pay for it?”

Across the Hudson in Manhattan, suspicion and divisiveness remain as the legacies of a bitter debate over Westway, a proposed highway along the river bank that was defeated in the federal courts in 1985.

Building Westway would have required dredging 3 million cubic yards of sludge from the river bottom and then dumping 8 million cubic yards of landfill to create 169 new acres of Manhattan between the Battery and 42nd St. A 6-lane highway would have tunneled beneath the landfill and a park and real estate would have been built on the surface. But a federal judge ruled that the plan posed a serious hazard to the Hudson’s striped bass population.

Despite their victory, many environmentalists now fear that developers are trying to annex the Hudson’s shoreline bit by bit.


“Every few feet up the river you bump into a new off-the-wall proposal,” said Marcy Benstock, director of the city’s Clean Air Campaign and a Westway opponent.

Current proposals include building housing on platforms in the Hudson off Manhattan and filling in a smaller section of the river than Westway’s original plans called for. A floating jail barge designed to relieve prison overcrowding and even a floating bus garage have been proposed. New York’s Board of Estimate on Friday approved plans, over vigorous objections of community groups, to moor a jail barge in the river.

Advocates of development now are calling for expanding the shoreline through landfill on 68 acres north of Battery Park City, a modern residential and business community along the Hudson, opposite the World Trade Center.

Conservationists fear all these plans could pose serious hazards to the river that Henry Hudson first saw on a fog-shrouded morning in September, 1609, when he sailed the Half Moon, an 80-ton flat-bottomed galliot, into the bay and past Manhattan’s fragrant forests and meadows.

Other explorers had visited the river before--the Florentine Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524 and Estevan Gomez, a Portuguese sailing for Spain, in 1525. Both were impressed. Verrazano described the river as “an exceedingly great stream of water.”

But it was Hudson, in search of an inland passage to the Orient, who penetrated deepest. Exploring upstream, he stopped at the present site of Yonkers, N.Y., to buy oysters from Indians, then anchored near what is now West Point. But as he sailed farther north as far as Albany, the river narrowed dramatically and his dream of a passage to India faded. Returning to the entrance of what he called “the great river of the mountains,” Hudson again set sail for open sea.

Over the years, the panorama of the river has inspired writers ranging from Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper to Edith Wharton and Maxwell Anderson.

Thomas Cole, the English-born former engraver and a principal founder of the Hudson River school of landscape painting--which captured America’s imagination in the 19th Century with its luminescent, almost photographic, patriotic views--summed up the river’s lure.

” . . . The mists were resting on the vale of the Hudson like drifted snow. Tops of distant mountains in the east were visible--things of another world,” Cole wrote of the Hudson at sunrise. " . . . Seen through the breaking mists, the fields were exquisitely fresh and green. Though dark, the mountainside was sparkling; and the Hudson, where it was uncovered to the sight, slept in deep shadow.”

Cole and other artists even went so far as to build their studios along the river’s banks.

But scholars say it was the great waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries--the first sight of the Statue of Liberty and New York’s harbor for millions of newcomers--that firmly fixed the river in America’s collective consciousness. For current generations, the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial and the nation’s Bicentennial reinforced that patriotic picture.

If the immigrant experience was important, so was the power of New York’s influentials.

Along the Hudson’s east bank, the cream of New York society built mansions, some of which, including Springwood in Hyde Park, N.Y., the birthplace of Franklin D. Roosevelt, still stand.

“When you visit any of those homes along the river,” added Shenton, “you suddenly understand what it meant to be a member of the New York gentry--the singularity of the Knickerbocker.”

Robert Fulton made history on the Hudson in 1807, changing water transportation when he launched the first commercially successful steamboat. As the Clermont, belching smoke and fire, passed on its way from New York to Albany, a frightened farmer couldn’t believe his eyes. The farmer told all who would listen that he had “seen the devil going up the river in a sawmill.”

Over the last two decades, the Hudson has been in the forefront of environmental battles.

“In 20 years it has gone from being a paradigm of polluted waterways to becoming an estuary of tremendous ecological significance,” said John Cronin, the Hudson’s river keeper.

Historically, the river’s pollution was a gradual process. As far back as the 1850s, there were reports of the “fouling of waters.” At the turn of the century, diseases such as cholera and typhoid were the main worries.

In the early 1900s a sewer commission was formed and it found conditions in New York’s harbor to be deplorable. Sewage was being emptied directly into the Hudson.

“A lot of people don’t realize that organic pollution was a lot worse 80 years ago, before sewer treatment,” said Dennis J. Suszkowski, science director of the Hudson River Foundation.

“With the manufacture of new organic chemicals within this century, a different kind of pollution occurred,” he added. “The automobile produced lead pollution in the atmosphere which settled back into the river.”

The idea of a river keeper came to Boyle, the head of the fishermen’s association, whose book, “The Hudson River--A Natural and Unnatural History,” is considered by scholars to be an encyclopedic work about the river. Boyle was reading about William Lunn, who guarded trout waters on the Test in England against poachers. Why not, thought Boyle, employ a river keeper to guard against polluters?

Money for the project came in part from settlement of a suit the fishermen’s association brought against Con Edison and other utilities over fish kills at the site of power plants.

Cronin, who was appointed river keeper in 1983, works out of offices made from a gatekeeper’s cottage in Garrison, N.Y.

” . . . What we have at stake here.” he says, “is one of the few healthy breeding grounds and spawning grounds for many of the major migrating species of the East Coast. This is a national ecological treasure.”

Cronin attends legislative hearings as the public’s voice on the river, collects evidence against polluters to be presented to federal prosecutors or used in private suits and serves as a lobbyist and public spokesman for clean water. He played a vital part in drafting a 15-year Hudson River Management Act, which was passed by the New York State Legislature.

But his main job is law enforcement on the river itself.

Some years ago, for example, he learned that Exxon Corp.'s tankers were anchoring near Hyde Park and rinsing their tanks with river water, then transporting water without permission to the acrid island of Aruba, where it was used to help run a refinery. Cronin began tracking the huge ships. Sometimes, pulling his small boat alongside towering tankers to collect samples proved dangerous.

“It was a hairy business,” he recalled. “The discharge was probably about 25 feet above the waterline, pouring out like crazy, stinking of petrochemicals. We had to ease the boat back towards it to try to get a sample without inundating our boat or ourselves. One time the wind came up and just pinned the boat right against the side of the tanker.

“I had to put the boat in forward gear and I and another person had to run to the side of the boat, with the wheel unattended, and push ourselves along the tanker because we couldn’t go backwards because of the discharge. Crew members watched. They never yelled at us or said anything.”

Eventually, Exxon, without admitting guilt, settled an environmental suit, paying the fishermen’s association $250,000.

Other times, Cronin’s job is follow-up. In the early 1970s, a court ordered Westchester County officials to close a dangerous toxic waste dump in Croton, N.Y. The landfill had been pouring chemicals into the Hudson. But in 1985 when Cronin revisited the site, he found the dump was still operating.

On Christmas Eve that year, he got a tip that workers were going to pump toxins into the river the next day. Cronin found that the pump was all set up, but Christmas Day proved too cold for the pumping. A week later, the toxins were released. The information was turned over to federal prosecutors who brought a contempt of court order. The eventual settlement, reached this year, required Westchester County to encase the landfill, pay the fishermen’s association’s $52,603 in legal fees and put aside 150 acres as an ecological center.

The association also is suing two state prisons, charging them with repeated violations at their sewage treatment plants. It is fighting, as a potential danger to the fish population, New York City’s request to withdraw 100 million gallons of drinking water from the river.

There are other challenges. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of pounds of PCBs were dumped into the Hudson by industry before dumping was prohibited. They have settled to the bottom of the river north of Troy, N.Y. Removing these dangerous chemicals will be a major task.

Now, Cronin believes, regulating development along the Hudson’s banks must become a top priority.

“What’s happening now is a lot of residential construction is going on and it’s making a mess,” Cronin said, glancing at a huge map of the Hudson River valley. “Tons and tons a week of silt, soil and refuse are just washing off construction sites into the river and its tributaries. They level a piece of land and leave piles of soil and the rain comes and it washes right down the river . . . . The development pressures we face now are very very great on the river.”

Cronin was interrupted by a telephone call. He then regained his train of thought.

“My own view is this is not environmental work any more,” he continued. “This is a neighborhood watch program, and the Hudson is just part of the neighborhood.”