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January 9, 2017

Book Notes - "Silent Beaches, Untold Stories: New York City's Forgotten Waterfront"

Silent Beaches, Untold Stories: New York City's Forgotten Waterfront

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Silent Beaches, Untold Stories: New York City's Forgotten Waterfront is a stunning collection of works of fiction, poetry, and art about the city's untouched places.


In their own words, here is the editors' Book Notes music playlist for the book Silent Beaches, Untold Stories: New York City's Forgotten Waterfront:


Silent Beaches, Untold Stories: New York City's Forgotten Waterfront by Elizabeth Albert, with fiction and poetry edited by Underwater New York (Nicki Pombier Berger, Helen Georgas, Nicole Haroutunian), collects historical narratives, archival images, contemporary art and new literary work about ten liminal New York City waterways, and is published by Damiani. We paired each of these ten waterfronts with a song, sometimes weaving in the book's stories and art, too.


North Brother Island: "Sea of Love" by Phil Phillips, Cat Power version

Today, North Brother Island is a bird sanctuary, forbidden to human visitors. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, though, it was the site of Riverside Hospital, where people sick with infectious diseases like cholera, smallpox, and yellow fever were sent. Mary Mallon, healthy but a carrier of typhoid fever, was quarantined there against her will in 1907. Elizabeth Gaffney's story, "Bodies by the Sea," imagines into Mallon's solitary life, an island herself on tiny North Brother Island, until she meets a nurse, Adelaide Offspring, and they develop a tentative love. Cat Power's haunting version of "Sea of Love," could be the melancholy soundtrack to their relationship: Come with me my love / to the sea…Do you remember / when we met? / That's the day I knew you were my pet…


The Rockaways: "Let's Go Surfing" by The Drums

"Let's Go Surfing" starts, Wake up / it's a beautiful morning. "It was such a beautiful, clear morning"—one of the characters in Antoine Wilson's "Sticks" says of 9/11. September 11th and Hurricane Sandy are both undercurrents in "Sticks," which uses surfing as a conduit to tell a deeper story about the people, history, landscape, and resilience of the Rockaways. Similarly, The Drums' cheerful, whistling song—jaunty and fun on the surface, invoking the rollicking feeling of waves in the same way that Wilson's staccato sentences do—is darker in its depths: I wanna go surfing / I don't care about nothing. By the end of each, though, there's been a turn: Jonathan Pierce of The Drums is singing, I'll never let you go—caring very much—and Wilson's narrator is boarding a plane out of New York, passing repurposed pieces of the Rockaways boardwalk in a fast food restaurant as he goes.


Blackwell's Island: "Down By the Water" by PJ Harvey

Amy Shearn's story "House from the Bottom" takes place on present day Roosevelt Island, where a single mother contends with her own ghosts as well as those of the island's past. Formerly Blackwell's Island, the city used the narrow swatch of land in the East River to house various institutions: a penitentiary, a smallpox hospital, the abysmal Blackwell's Island Lunatic Asylum. Given that Shearn's protagonist follows a child's howling to the water's edge and merges with the specter of a young orphan who was once interred there, the first lines of PJ Harvey's song "Down by the Water"—I lost my heart / under the bridge / to that little girl / so much to leave—are almost too on-the-nose to pair with the story and location, but then again, too perfect an opportunity to miss.


Sandy Ground: "Jesus Gave Me Water" by Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke has so many water-songs, but for Sandy Ground, this one seems apt. It is hard to imagine that the waterways of New York City used to be rife with oysters. In the 19th century, though, thriving oyster beds not only existed, but provided a livelihood for, among others, a settlement of free black oystermen. Driven north from Maryland, where they were not permitted to own boats, for them, Sandy Ground in Staten Island was a sanctuary. The oystermen were joined by freed and escaped slaves from other parts of the country, and built a prosperous, vibrant community. As the text on Carrie Mae Weems's powerful artwork paired with Sandy Ground reads, You became / a whisper / a symbol of a / mighty voyage / & by the sweat of / your brow / you laboured / for self / family / & other. By 1916, increasingly polluted waters put an end to the area's oyster business; residents moved on or adapted by taking on other trades. Although a fire destroyed much of what was left of Sandy Ground in the 1960s, the Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church remains as a testament to the strength and vitality of the community to this day.


Dead Horse Bay: "Water Fountain" by tUnE-yArDs

Barren Island, where once much of the city's waste was sorted and horse bones were processed into glue, was connected to mainland Brooklyn by landfill in the early 20th century. Today, it is Dead Horse Bay, a waterfront littered with horse bones and decades of trash escaped from the landfill. Dead Horse Bay has earned the nickname Bottle Beach; picking across it, one can find today's Coronas knocking up against what could be our grandfathers' fifths of whiskey and our great-aunt's not-quite-empty perfume atomizers. The waves of the bay push and pull the bottles, creating a unique, rhythmic waterfront soundtrack, not unlike the percussive chiming in the background of tUnE-yArDs "Water Fountain."


Coney Island Creek: "Watertown" by Frank Sinatra

It is hard not to choose the Beatles "Yellow Submarine" to match with Coney Island Creek, given that there is a real-life yellow submarine half-submerged in the waterway, but we are so intrigued by the Creek's past as a stop on Rum Row, where rum-running mafiosos like Frankie "the Undertaker" Yale, Lucky Luciano, and Vito Genovese smuggled liquor during Prohibition that "Watertown" by Frank Sinatra proved the more tempting a pairing.


The Gowanus Canal: "Head Underwater" by Jenny Lewis

One can see how Jenny Lewis's existential contemplation of her own mortality in "Head Underwater" -- I put my head underwater, baby / I threw my clothes away in the trash / I stood barefoot on the blazing concrete -- could easily be set on the banks of the Gowanus. All of the associations we have with the canal are there: urban, water, garbage, death. The Gowanus is infamous for its toxins (it was once known as "Lavender Lake"), which include mysterious white goo, black mayonnaise, and even gonorrhea. This last association -- to sex -- leads us back to the tossed clothing of Lewis's song, of course, but also to Ben Greenman's story "Oracle, Ocean, Opening," where the story's protagonist, Dan, hooks up with a woman in his car while parked on the shores of the canal. Greenman's story includes a line that perfectly captures the confused state of the Gowanus today: "a rancid canal that snaked, or rather wormed, through the neighborhood in which Captain Gus lived. People said that apartment prices were going through the roof, which seemed like a mixed metaphor, or at least a collapsed one."


Newtown Creek: "Red Tide" by Neko Case

Neko Case's "Red Tide" starts, There's a smell here that stands my hair on end, which can't help but make us think of Newtown Creek. The staggering list of pollutants that have been dumped or leached into the canal over the years is too long to recount here; one does not need to approach the often-psychedelically oil-slicked surface of the Creek too closely to catch a noxious whiff of the toxins. In Bill Cheng's story, "Unfathomable," the protagonist prepares to take on the Creek's demons; in the book's image of Ennead Architect's "Digester Eggs," a wastewater treatment plant, the sky, and its ominous reflection on the eggs, glows red.


Hart Island: "Silent the Voice" by Slapp Happy

Silent and dark, surrounded by dangerous currents, Hart Island is NYC's public cemetery, the resting place of over a million of the city's unclaimed dead. The dead have at times shared the island with the living, a reformatory for "vicious boys," a "lunatic asylum" for women, a Nike missile base, Phoenix House drug rehabilitation center have all at one time or another occupied part of its 101 acres. But the dead remain. They are packed into mass graves each containing 150 adults or 1000 babies. Many of the dead are buried at Hart Island, not because of indigence, but because the city was unable to locate their families or loved ones quickly enough. Some people have been buried there as a result of a bureaucratic error. Until very recently it has been next to impossible for families and loved ones to gain access to visit and mourn. There they lie in an island off the waters of the Bronx, where the East River opens into the Long Island Sound.

I imagine "Silent the Voice" as a conversation between the dead and the living. I think of it as a mother who lost her daughter, or perhaps between lovers. The song begins with cowbells that echo the harbor buoys. The rhythm has a seasick lilt. And then Dagmar Krause's voice, whispering to us and then calling out to the loved one, "If you could cover my body with flowers." "If I could imprint my soul with you eyes." Choked with frustration, desire, remorse. I think of the heart-broken people who are willing to go through such hurdles to visit to a forgotten island of mass graves, if only for a chance of some tiny measure of relief.


College Point: "The Jumblies," music by George Ingraham, from Nonsense Songs by Edward Lear

"Ave Maria" by Herbert von Nessler was Willhelm Steinway's favorite song. I found this on a concert playlist from 1903 following Ave Maria. It somehow makes me think of Steinway's friend and founder of College Point, Conrad Poppenhusen. Beginning in the 1850's Poppenhusen made a fortune from using Goodyear's vulcanized rubber recipe to make combs, corset stays and other products. He built a kind of utopian community for his employees surrounding his American Hard Rubber Manufacturing Company.


Silent Beaches, Untold Stories: New York City's Forgotten Waterfront links:

the book's website

New York Times review

The Brian Lehrer Show interview with one of the editors
Hyperallergic interview with one of the editors
WFUV's Cityscape interview with two of the editors


also at Largehearted Boy:

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List of Online "Best Books of 2016" Lists

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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