Let’s begin here, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, at the notional border between New York City’s Upper and Lower Bays. The bridge is an architectural marvel. Its stately towers are visible from all five boroughs. Its span, once the longest in the world, remains the longest in the Americas. Thousands of ships pass beneath the bridge every year.
We’re looking for a relatively small ship, a vessel called the Terrapin Island, which is passing by on a course for the Lower Bay. The Terrapin Island, with its bright red hull and industrially hard-edged white superstructure, looks like its could be a ferry or a fishing trawler, except that a long chunk has been cut from both sides of the hull, almost down to the water line. In that gap is a tangle of black hoses and pipes.
The Terrapin Island is a hopper dredge. When it’s dredging, all those hoses are slung over the side, sucking sand and silt off the bottom of the estuary. Right now, it’s performing the second half of its function. Guided by satellites, the Terrapin Island navigates out past Sandy Hook and the Rockaways. With pinpoint precision, it finds its spot. The bottom of its hold opens, and 6,400 cubic yards of disposed material drops to the ocean floor.
On the periphery of the city, at the littoral edge between water and land, a type of landscape architecture is reshaping New York at a monumental scale. It is difficult to see. It happens away from most people, far from the eyes of architects. Most of it happens underwater. It’s the landscaping that occurs when we mechanically lift and remove sand and sediment from one place and dump it somewhere else, an act best known as dredging.
The Terrapin Island’s destination is called the Historic Area Remediation Site (HARS). It’s an underwater dumping ground. Before it was the HARS, it was the Mud Dump Site, once the destination of some of the most toxic chemicals on earth, mostly dredged from the NY/NJ harbor. We can’t remove the noxious stuff, so the US Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing a project to cover it over with (amongst other things) the relatively clean byproduct of another Army Corps dredging operation, the Channel Deepening Project. The Channel Deepening Project is the most recent example of a centuries-old dredging tradition in New York’s harbor.