At Sea in the City is no grim tale of surviving the savage sea, but a quiet journey through the spaces and history of New York City’s archipelago. Author Dr. William Kornblum and friends sail a very old, decrepit Crosby Catboat from Long Beach to New York Harbor. His concern is that New Yorkers have turned their backs on their waterways. Life in gleaming high-rise condominiums keeps New Yorkers “physically and emotionally” detached from the important estuaries of their city. The purpose of his voyage, was to “make the waters of my own city into my home waters.” The author received the Merit Honor Award for his work on planning urban national recreational areas. He is well qualified to investigate the importance of city waterways to urban life.
At Sea in the City is somewhat like a maritime version of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. William comments on habitat, wildlife, and the impact of man as he sails the Crosby Catboat along the edge of the city.
The sociologist comments on the history of the diverse ethnic and socio-economic groups struggling to find their niche in this large group of islands. An example of this is the dune grass invading an open beachfront of Arverne. Black and Puerto Rican families were relocated to the beachfront shacks in the 1950s. These people were displaced again to preserve real estate values, leaving the beach area that remains open to this day.
The book cover is graced by the author’s old Crosby Catboat with tanbark sails, making its way before the New York skyline. Each chapter begins with a quote from Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Poe, or some other worthy person who reflects on the content of that chapter.
The maps included with each chapter are ambiguous sketches. Better maps that show what is water and what is land and where the reader is in relation to the journey would improve the journey for the reader. The description of locations along the route could have been supplemented with a few photos to help the reader see what the author saw.
Though not a page turner, this is a unique look at New York from the waterfront. Anyone planning an expedition through some portion of the New York archipelago will want a copy of At Sea in the City aboard. It is an information storehouse on the sociology, ecology, and history of this area.
At Sea in the City, New York From the Water’s Edge by William Kornblum (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2002; 232 pages)