A Graveyard Of Commerce

October 3, 2011

Albany’s walled-off waterfront offers a boat launch, some casual tourism and raw sewage

The City of Albany was once the inland terminus for intercontinental water travel north into Canada or west into the heart of North America. But not anymore. The water highways that cross our City are still in place, neglected and barely maintained. But Albany itself has almost divorced itself from the Hudson River and denied itself almost any sort of benefits from water commerce.

Sure, there’s a few tourist boats, and a few tourist attractions. But a little bit of tourism is a sad substitute for real economic activity, that is, wealth creation. Besides, tourists are fickle, they don’t have to come see our hidden and neglected river if they have no desire to do so.

And as long as Albany continues to dump raw sewage into the Hudson River along the downstream parts of the waterfront, the South End can never reap even the minor benefits of tourism. How do I know the City is dumping raw sewage on my part of town? The Wife and I went to see… and smell… for ourselves.

Turntable Rail Bridge Opens For The Captain JP Tourist Boat From Troy Turntable Rail Bridge Opens For The Captain JP Tourist Boat From Troy

In the middle of September we got into our boats for a light paddle on the river. It was a warm sunny Saturday and The Wife needed exercise and the water was a tolerable temperature. So after we contemplated the Albany boat launch and the sunshine for a bit, we sped home to fetch our personal watercraft. Then we raced back and launched our boats into the brown, muddy Hudson.

From the shore everything looked tolerably well. Signs of the recent flooding were evident but most everything seemed back to normal. But as often happens when we go boating, when we got down to the water and paddled around things looked a whole lot different.

City Of Albany Municipal Boat Launch, After Hurricane Irene City Of Albany Municipal Boat Launch, After Hurricane Irene

The City of Albany municipal boat launch is much overused, barely adequate and hard to find. It’s a nice concrete ramp that is pitched at too steep of an angle, a common design mistake when building launches. The approach to the launch sits across the Corning Trail so that autos with boat trailers often have to jockey with runners and bicyclists trying to pass by.

Still, we are grateful that the City has something decent that the public can use to access the river. The problem is that on a warm calm weather weekend you have everybody lined up waiting to launch, including speed boats, ski do’s, small yachts, bass boats, kayaks and canoes. In addition several colleges use the launch for their long, narrow crew boats which are stored and maintained under the highway overpass on the other side of the running trail.

Short Trip: Albany Aqua Duck Turns Around At The Dunn Memorial Bridge Short Trip: Albany Aqua Duck Turns Around At The Dunn Memorial Bridge

Plus, everybody has to fight with that stupid Albany Aqua Duck aquatic tourist bus. I call it stupid because during summer months it comes through my neighborhood about a dozen times a day, pauses at the ML King statue to regale the whole neighborhood with their megaphone, and then speeds off toward the Capital in a cloud of burnt diesel. And don’t get me started on the nasty jerk who started that enterprise.

The Wife has another view. “Isn’t it nice,” she told me, “that people come from far away to see our City?” Yeah yeah sure grumble. My objection is that this commercial boat/truck has to keep a tight schedule, so when they use the public boat launch they rudely push everyone else aside who are trying to launch or come ashore. And they never apologize or say thank you. I say that Albany Duck should find or build their own boat launch so as not to inconvenience and endanger the rest of us.

Rail Bridge Pier Sheath Rail Bridge Pier Sheath

After we launched our boats we first took a close look at the turntable railroad bridge located a short ways north of the boat launch. With all the recent excessively high water the bridge operators have been quite busy. For a while they had to open the bridge for almost every craft bigger than a canoe.

The piers supporting the bridge have these big wooden sheaths made of thick wooden planks with telephone poles for studs. They resemble wooden ship prows tipped with iron. I’ve always assumed that this was done by the rail company that owns the bridge to protect the piers from the current. The bridge dates back to the 1800s and has endured quite a bit of battering from floods and ice.

From the shore the pier sheaths look fine, just the usual slow decay along the waterline. But if you paddle out to the other side…

Bridge Sheath From The Unseen Side Bridge Sheath From The Unseen Side

…you can see that the far side is near collapse. Some of this damage is several years old, but we could see it is now worse and the pier itself inside is crumbling. Too bad our government prefers to subsidize foreign auto manufacturers and foreign oil producers instead of our domestic rail system.

Most Of Albany's Waterfront Looks Like This Most Of Albany’s Waterfront Looks Like This

Sometime in the middle of the 20th Century our City of Albany leaders decided that Albany should ignore the Hudson waterfront as much as possible. Real water commerce was confined to the Port of Albany which is located on the far southern part of the City. Yet until a few years ago, the Port of Albany itself was neglected and encouraged to decline.

Once upon a time the entire waterfront was a teeming commercial zone, the reason why Albany exists. The old waterfront was also smelly crowded and dangerous and horridly polluted, a virtual unregulated free zone. But instead of fixing the problems, the City chose to kill the waterfront. so that no one can use it except passive tourists.

Today downtown is completely walled off from the river south of the boat launch. With the exception of passive tourism no one can use the river in Albany anymore. You may look at the river, maybe spend a little money if you want, then you may go home.

The Forbidding Concrete Dock The Forbidding Concrete Dock

Look at this thing located a short ways below the launch. It must have cost a fortune to build. It’s a dock for large boats, but why would anyone want to tie up here on that thing unless they had to? There are absolutely no boat related facilities behind it, not even a parking lot. Nor is there easy access to the City from there.

But this ugly concrete platform does indeed get used now and then, mainly because there are so few docking facilities left downtown. The other week the replica of the Half Moon was gingerly docked there, I hear they were giving tours again. To inspect this odd looking historical wooden ship when it’s tied up here, visitors have to clutch their way uneasily down the too steep stairway and gingerly pick along the narrow concrete platform.

Probably someone objected to walling off the waterfront back when they were making plans to do so. Thus this “docking facility” was added as a “mitigation measure.” Note the floating wooden dock, I guess that helps make the concrete more useful.

Continuing past that concrete dock thing there are more concrete walls with these mysterious doors, some of which dangle open. If you peer through one of the open doors with some light behind you, you can see the place where the water meets the land, tucked safely out of sight. No doubt this concrete wall was built to complement the almost constantly crumbling elevated highway 787 that squats behind it.

Tourists Inspect The USS Slater Tourists Inspect The USS Slater

Then we arrived at one of the few real substantial reasons why anyone would come down to the Albany waterfront, the USS Slater. This is probably the last functioning World War 2 Destroyer Escort ship left in the world. People come to Albany from all over specifically to see and tour this now unique artifact, which is listed on the Register of National Historic Places. (A boat is a place?)

Except that there is no way to safely moor the Slater permanently along here. In the icy months or when hurricanes approach, the Slater and the other tourist boats scoot across the river to Rensellaer, which has the harboring facilities that Albany does not bother to provide. As a result the Slater always has a temporary air about it, this despite returning to Albany every year for more than a decade.

USS Slater Waterline: Looking Good USS Slater Waterline: Looking Good

We noticed that the Slater’s waterline was looking pretty good. Several years ago The Wife and I had a conversation from our boats with one of the chief volunteers for the floating museum, who looked down at us from the deck rail. While talking with him we could see all too well from our vantage point that the ship’s waterline was dangerously decayed, so bad that The Wife wondered why the Slater was still afloat.

He explained to us that they were vigorously fundraising nationally and chasing grants to pay some incredible amount of money to affect repairs. He also explained how hard it was to find facilities willing to take on the project in a timely fashion, none of which were anywhere near Albany. It’s always great when citizen volunteers successfully carry out their planned improvements, but too bad they couldn’t be accomplished locally.

Just past the USS Slater is the seasonal berth for the Dutch Apple Cruise boat, a triple decker barge that gives regular river tours. While we were drifting about inspecting the Slater, we could hear a female voice over the Dutch Apple boat’s sound system repeatedly warn us “kayakers” to “watch out.” Eventually The Wife figured out that she was asking us to move out of their way, so we did. They took off past us without so much as a thank you. Of course.

The Big C Pipe, Mouth Of The Beaverkill The Big C Pipe, Mouth Of The Beaverkill

A short ways past the Dutch Apple we came to the South End of Albany and the river became very unpleasant. Sticking out from under the parking lot of the U-Haul building is the so-called “Big C Pipe,” or “combined overflow.” This is the mouth of the Beaverkill, which except for a couple of manholes and one aeration grate is completely buried underground between the Hudson and that exposed part of the Beaverkill that we call Washington Park Lake.

But as I’ve explained before, the Beaverkill is regularly used to dump raw untreated sewage into the Hudson that appears to originate from or near Albany Medical Center. The Capital District Regional Planning Commission (CDRPC) refuses to acknowledge this long time disgusting problem. I understand that these people, who effectively determine planning initiatives for the Capital region, don’t even show the Beaverkill on their maps of sewer lines and drains in the City of Albany.

But the Big C Pipe sticking out into the Hudson is real, so is the raw sewage. Approaching from the north upstream the air was okay. But as soon as we passed the pipe the terrible stink hit us like a wall of bricks.

Then, as we continued past the remains of wooden piers that probably date back to the 1800s, I noticed these odd things floating in the water. As we pulled up to Island Creek Park, the small heavily used waterfront park in the South End, these odd floating things began to coalesce into mats. The Wife, who has a better nose than I, had no trouble identifying this phenomenon.

Floating Mats Of Human Waste Near Island Creek Park

Floating Mats Of Human Waste Near Island Creek Park

“It’s poop!” she gasped and started paddling quickly away from the shore. I looked a little closer and sure enough this was half-fermented shit rocking gently in place atop the current. I’ve cleaned out enough blocked sewer lines to know all too well what I was looking at.

When confronted with such observed evidence of sewage pouring out of the Big C Pipe, the CDRPC officials airily claim that sewage collects along the South End waterfront from somewhere way upriver and, in their own words of explanation, “swirls around by The Port.” But we are not yet at The Port. And the stink that begins at the Big C pipe demonstrates clearly and without a doubt from where the floating shit originates.

We saw big mats of shit floating in front of the Island Creek Park fishing deck, which was oddly empty of people on a sunny Saturday. I can’t imagine anyone would have wanted to lean over the rail with a fishing pole for any length of time. It was such a distressing sight that I couldn’t take any more pictures of the floating mats of shit, and I hastily followed The Wife out of there.

The other line that CDRPC officials like to deliver is that the Big C Pipe is indeed a combination of pipes. I’m told that two other storm drains combine with the Beaverkill a short distance before it reaches the river. This, they like to claim, refutes the assertion that the Beaverkill is used to dump raw sewage into the Hudson. Problem solved.

The Stinking Aeration Grate For The Beaverkill In Lincoln Park

The Stinking Aeration Grate For The Beaverkill In Lincoln Park

But the Beaverkill is always badly contaminated with raw sewage way inland when it passes the aeration grate located in Lincoln Park across the street from Hackett Middle School. So you can’t plausibly blame the two extra underground storm drains for poisoning the Hudson along the South End. Nor can you blame the hurricanes, the raw sewage has poured out of the Big C Pipe unchecked for decades.

True, the recent spell of bad weather seems to have worsened the problem. But bad weather comes by now and then as a matter of course. The problem is always there and the occasional bad storm makes it dangerously worse.

By dangerous I mean cholera, typhoid fever and other waterborne diseases that are common in backward parts of the world where human waste is routinely dumped into waterways and into drinking water. A hundred years ago Albany was also ravaged by occasional epidemics, usually as a result of regular flooding. But because of modern sewage treatment facilities demanded by generations of 20th Century environmentalists, such diseases have become rare to nonexistent today.

A short ways downstream from here the Town of Bethlehem has the intake for it’s municipal drinking water. I hear they have to “treat” their water a lot. There’s good reasons why Bethlehem tap water tastes like dog spit.

Water Pours Out Of A Pipe From Under The U-Haul Building

Water Pours Out Of A Pipe From Under The U-Haul Building

A few years back I discovered exactly how the Big C pipe does indeed stifle development of the South End waterfront. City of Albany planners had, at that time, put out a call for suggestions from the public on how to improve the South End. This was part of the ongoing rebuilding of the wrecked parts of the South End, such as the building and renovations on lower Morton Avenue and the Jared Holt development.

Sure, I had suggestions. One of them was very simple, to put in a concrete ramp for launching only non-motorized boats on top of the mud flats at Island Creek Park. The City planners, to my absolute surprise, were delighted with my idea! “This is exactly the kind of low cost improvement that we are looking for,” I was told.

The Wife and I were all excited about the City building a launching ramp practically in our back yard… and then nothing. The planners who were thrilled with the idea went silent. Puzzled, I asked them what’s up with the non-motorized launch, and suddenly their attention spans were too short to focus on such things. I was silently kicked out of the loop again. Story of my life.

Old Dock Piers Left From When Boat Parking Was Scarce Along The Albany Waterfront

Old Dock Piers Left From When Boat Parking Was Scarce Along The Albany Waterfront

At the time I assumed the usual happened, that Albany mayor Jerry Jennings vetoed the idea partly because He doesn’t want visitors and tourists to discover the South End and start admiring the potential of our part of town. And I also assumed He’d vetoed the idea because it came from me. But it looks like much more than Jerry’s pettiness is at play here.

Threat of liability, I’ve observed, is the usual reason why public workers mysteriously go silent. I think the City planners were told by CDRPC officials to not encourage use of the Hudson River south of the U-Haul building because someone is bound to get sick from the polluted water. The resulting lawsuits and bad publicity would force the City to deal with the raw sewage pouring out of the Big C pipe… and with the sources of the pollution up on New Scotland Avenue. That would be unacceptable.

Floating Restaurant Near The Boat Launch

Floating Restaurant Near The Boat Launch

After we pulled our boats out of the water we decided to get something to eat at the floating restaurant located near the boat launch. That was nice, sitting up there looking down on where we were a moment ago. I’ll have to say the food wasn’t exactly superb, but it was better than I expected and not too overpriced.

We both had tried not to touch the water while entering and exiting the river, but inevitably our hands and feet got wet. Can’t avoid that. But when we got out we both noticed that our hands and feet were tingling. My ankles were itching something fierce.

We washed off in the restaurant bathroom immediately. By the way The Wife, who has had some medical problems this year, was specifically told to not go near the Hudson because of the risk of infection. The doctors would kill The Wife if they found out what she just did. Fortunately, the doctors didn’t see her paddling that day so she’s still with us.

The Only Tug We Saw That Day Had Nothing To Tow

The Only Tug We Saw That Day Had Nothing To Tow

Clearly there was something other than poop floating on the brown muddy water that day. The Hudson always has a layer of petroleum floating on it which you can’t see because of agitation caused by the current. But this was more than oil, this was chemicals.

Boating around the waterways of the region, we often encounter pipes without State permits that are surreptitiously flushing industrial waste into the river. Sunday morning is a favorite time to dump pollution. In fact, on this trip we encountered one of these polluting flush pipes a short ways north of the Big C Pipe underneath the U-Haul building.

Apparently, the South End doesn’t matter. That’s why everybody dumps on us. There didn’t seem to be any sewage spewing out of this particular pipe at that particular moment, but this was obviously an illegal Sunday flush. Apparently someone decided to take advantage of the recent hurricane flooding to lose their expensive to dispose of toxic waste.

The USS Slater And Albany As Seen From Rensselaer Across The Hudson River 

The USS Slater And Albany As Seen From Rensselaer Across The Hudson River

It seems to me that if more people could see the pollution along Albany’s waterfront then more people would care. The poisons that we routinely throw into our waterways have a way of eventually finding their way back to us, sort of like karma. Or to put it another way, the sins of our fathers will visit us unto the third or fourth generation. At least.

But it also seems to me that the sins of our fathers become our own much bigger sins because we accept them as inevitable. But as long as the river is walled off from our community, who cares? Our ongoing sins floating in the river are usually out of our sight so we don’t have to worry about them. Right?

Prior Post * * * Next Post