The daily menu at the Grand Central Oyster Bar contains as many as 30 different types of oysters. For the uninitiated — that is, the vast majority of New Yorkers who wouldn’t know the first thing about what makes a Kumamoto different from a Pemaquid — the restaurant helpfully offers a list of every oyster it serves. That chart, a couple hundred varieties long, includes names, geographical origins, and “characteristics” — words like “sweet,” “briny,” “metallic,” or “creamy.” The Mermaid Oyster Bar in Greenwich Village goes even further, comparing an oyster’s complexity to that of a fine wine. And all the phrases that we associate with the pretension and price of that culture — “musky,” “a sweet, melon taste,” “a hint of lemon zest,” “a spicy finish,” terroir — they’re all there.
Murray Fisher does not begrudge anyone the pleasure of eating oysters. He just hopes those oysters are farmed, because he’s got other plans for the wild ones. When the Billion Oyster Project, an organization Fisher cofounded, announced at a press conference in late October that it had won a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña addressed the crowd. She said she was excited about the project’s success because “first and foremost, I love to eat oysters, and I don’t like to pay the high price.” But when Fisher and his colleagues talk about covering the bottom of New York Harbor with oyster beds, they’re not looking at the bivalve as a foodstuff. They’re looking at it as a symbol, however tiny and improbable, of civic rebirth.
The Billion Oyster Project calls itself “a partnership of schools, businesses, nonprofits, and individuals all working together to grow oysters and make our city a healthier and more resilient place to live.” Its ultimate goal, using lessons from oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay, is to plant one billion live oysters at the bottom of New York Harbor by the year 2030. Oysters are what scientists call a “keystone species,” one that lays the foundation for and is crucial to the proper functioning of an entire ecosystem. They play a variety of critical roles in estuary habitats like New York Harbor: filtering pollutants out of the water, contributing to the viability of salt marshes, and acting as wave breaks.
But its founders insist the success of the Billion Oyster Project won’t just be measured by the number of oysters restored; it will be tied to the number of New Yorkers, especially young ones, who are brought into contact with their city’s waterfront for the first time. When I first heard Fisher talk about ecological awareness and waterfront access for everyday New Yorkers, I couldn’t decide if this notion seemed quixotic or totally pedestrian: we live in a city of islands. How hard can it be to get to a waterfront when most New Yorkers can’t access the mainland of North America without using a bridge or tunnel?
As it turns out, in the last century the Brooklyn waterfront has been put to almost every conceivable use except the enjoyment of the public. In the early 1900s, neighborhoods like Red Hook and Sunset Park were part of New York’s commerce empire, the domain of longshoremen. Mid-century, Robert Moses placed an impenetrable ring of highways around Brooklyn’s perimeter, turning the harborfront into a backdrop for passing drivers. Only in the last couple of decades has restoring public access to the waterfront become a significant citywide priority. And under the Bloomberg administration, the neighborhoods that reaped the benefits of waterfront reclamation tended to be among the city’s wealthiest.
This dynamic — more resources than ever, yet fewer ways for the average New Yorker to access them — is keenly felt by many Brooklynites during the Bloomberg era (and make no mistake: our new mayor notwithstanding, it’s an era we are very much still living in). When activists use phrases like “Right to the City,” they’re most likely to be focusing their attention on bread-and-butter issues: housing, schools, employment. But in New York, there is no right to the city without a right to the harbor as well.
Susannah Black, the Billion Oyster Project’s communications coordinator, compared seeing the city through its waterways to looking at one of those black-and-white drawings that, depending on where you focus, could either be two faces looking at each other or a vase. Viewing water, not land, as the city’s defining feature means coming to terms with New Yorkers’ dismal record of taking care of that water. Ecologically, planting a billion oysters to help clean it up seems like the very least we can do. But “How do we restore the harbor?” is only the first question that the Billion Oyster Project is asking. The next one is, “Which New Yorkers will have access to the waterfront — and how will we let them use that access?” Ecology, education, trying to stop the next Hurricane Sandy, spiritual awakening: it wouldn’t be New York without too much to do and not enough space to do it.
In the beginning, there was Crassostrea virginica. The Eastern oyster can be found in shallow, brackish waters up and down the East Coast; in fact, all Atlantic oysters from the Gulf of Mexico to Nova Scotia are members of the same species. The differences between oyster varieties have to do with geography and water conditions (northern oysters tend to be smaller and brinier). They are a remarkably resilient species, able to survive a wide range of temperatures and salinities. As filter feeders, they remove algae and pollutants from the water; a single oyster is capable of filtering 20 to 50 gallons of seawater per day. And they are most plentiful, Mark Kurlansky writes, “in intertidal and subtidal areas along shorelines where there is fresh water flowing from rivers that are rich in organic matter.” In short, New York Harbor was practically designed for the Eastern oyster.
Kurlansky’s book The Big Oyster is dedicated to making the case that New York was once the oyster capital of the world. Citing estimates that New York Harbor held half of the world’s oysters before European arrival, he writes that for both the native Lenape people and European colonists, oysters served a multitude of uses. Aside from eating them, Dutch and British colonists burned the shells for lime. Later, New Yorkers pickled oysters to ship around the country. By the end of the 19th century, the city was at the heart of what Kurlansky calls “history’s greatest oyster boom,” providing sufficient shellfish to feed New Yorkers at every income level and then sending the rest to Europe.
What turned oysters from being a working-class food, available for 25 cents a quart at street carts, into a luxury item absent from the city’s waterways? The pollution of the Hudson and East rivers played a huge role (in addition to chemicals and runoff from the city’s growing industrial sector, New Yorkers routinely dumped sewage into the river). Dredging up the harbor to accommodate larger ships further disturbed the city’s oyster beds. And overfishing — the massive, carefree consumption of an inexpensive local resource — played perhaps the biggest role of all. By the mid-20th century, wild oysters had all but disappeared from New York Harbor.
Pete Malinowski likes to use this Paradise Lost story when he talks about the Billion Oyster Project. As the BOP’s director, he gets to use it often. Malinowski grew up in an oystering family on Fishers Island, N.Y., a small island in Long Island Sound that’s almost in Rhode Island. His parents founded one of the first farms in the Northeast to successfully farm oysters after a series of parasites killed off most of the native population in the 1960s and ’70s. When he moved to New York City after college, Malinowski had no plans to stay in the family business. Thinking he’d take a job as a math or science teacher, he ended up teaching aquaculture at the New York Harbor School, one of the city’s most unusual educational institutions.
The Harbor School occupies a building on Governors Island that it moved to in 2010 (from its founding in 2003 until 2010, it was located in Bushwick). The island may shut down to the public during the summer, but even when it’s 20 degrees and snowing, school is in session — and the Harbor School’s students, who are in grades nine through twelve, take the ferry from Lower Manhattan to class every morning. In addition to a standard public school curriculum, students enroll in one of six career and technical education tracks: aquaculture, marine biology research, marine systems technology, ocean engineering, scientific diving, or vessel operations.
The school’s website talks in lofty terms about the school’s mission and values — public access to the waterways, environmental stewardship, etc. — but when Malinowski talks about the school’s benefits, he does so with an eye toward utility. “There’s a workingman’s knowledge and self-confidence that comes with accomplishing these tasks under duress that you don’t get from a normal class,” he tells me. Students as young as 16 or 17 are responsible for things like piloting boats and ensuring the safety of their classmates onboard — something that might strike outsiders as almost reckless. But several trained marine professionals go on every Harbor School boat trip to provide guidance and mentorship.
Malinowski told me that the idea for the Billion Oyster Project began when Murray Fisher, who helped found the Harbor School and is now the president of the New York Harbor Foundation, approached him with the idea of growing oysters off Governors Island. If Malinowski provides BOP with the expertise of someone who grew up oystering, Fisher provides the organization with its crusading spirit. A Virginia native who first came to New York on an AmeriCorps grant, Fisher told me he always knew he wanted to pursue an environmental career. Founding the Harbor School in 2003 allowed him to fuse this passion with an educational program.
For several years after the school’s founding, Fisher invited students to help him plant oyster gardens around the city every Saturday. As Malinowski got more involved at the Harbor School — first as a volunteer, then as a substitute, then as a full-time aquaculture teacher — Fisher decided Malinowski’s aquaculture background was ideally suited to scaling the project up. For Fisher, it was driven by a huge sense of mission: “I wanted a rallying cry,” he tells me. “Look back to this resource. The harbor that surrounds us is our path forward in this city.” The best way to raise awareness of that fact, he says, would be to replicate the Harbor School’s success elsewhere. “The way you will make learning more exciting and more relevant is if you put public school students to work with a purpose,” he told me. “Education through restoration.” You can’t have one without the other.
A few years before the Harbor School moved to Governors Island, Michael Bloomberg launched MillionTreesNYC, a public-private partnership to plant one million trees throughout the five boroughs. Fisher thought this same idea could apply equally to oysters and, for good measure, increased the target number a thousandfold. Malinowski provided 100,000 oysters from his parents’ farm, and starting in 2010, the two went about seeking partners, funding, and support. They hired Sam Janis, a former Harbor School teacher, to manage the logistics and operations of the program — a role that makes Janis the single most omnipresent person at BOP-related events. And in spring 2014, the project officially launched.
I spoke to Malinowski while we were out on the water with Harbor School students doing an oyster dive, or a boat trip to monitor the school’s oyster reefs just off Governors Island. Even on an outing close to shore, the benefits of letting the students run things became apparent. Our conversation was punctuated by the occasional student yelling “Wake!” soon after which the wake from a passing ship would rock the boat. The whole time, a loud, Darth Vader-esque breathing noise emanated from a small black box onboard. It was the sound of the students underwater, breathing through scuba gear as they checked on the school’s oyster bed.
That day, the students were laying a series of pipes underwater. The pipes will eventually carry a fiber-optic cable hooked up to an underwater camera, which will feed data on oyster and water conditions into a comprehensive digital platform. In addition to its reef off Governors Island, BOP operates one near the Brooklyn Navy Yard and plans to build a third in Jamaica Bay. When oysters are planted in these reefs, though, they’re fully adult and ready to live out the rest of their natural lives. What BOP does before that point, while the oysters are growing out to maturity, is at the real heart of the organization’s work.
It begins, ironically enough, with the city’s seafood restaurants. Every day after thousands of oysters pass through the mouths of New York’s diners, restaurants (including the Grand Central Oyster Bar) gather the empty oyster shells and donate them to BOP. This is because oysters’ ability to reproduce in the wild is dependent upon larvae successfully finding a hard surface, or substrate, to attach themselves to — an attachment they form for life. The easiest substrate for most oyster larvae to find is another oyster shell. This, Susannah Black explained to me, is why oyster beds are so vulnerable to die-offs. If too many shells are removed from the water, larvae lack the most readily available natural substrate.
BOP either hatches its own larvae in large, climate-controlled tanks on the Harbor School campus or gets them from hatcheries in the Northeast. The tanks provide food for the larvae, mostly phytoplankton, and after a couple weeks of growing, the larvae form a “foot.” BOP then places those oysters with “feet” in large, underwater tanks full of the shells they’ve collected from restaurants, in the hopes that they’ll form an attachment. This process is what makes oysters biologically distinct from other mollusks. Whereas mussels attach themselves to the ocean floor with a thread and clams burrow into the sand, an oyster’s foot secretes a substance allowing it to permanently latch onto the substrate. Once that’s done, these “baby oysters,” as Black is fond of calling them, enter a new phrase in which they’re known as spat-on-shell.
The adolescent oysters are then matched up with adolescent New Yorkers. Cages full of spat-on-shell are placed in various spots around New York Harbor to be cared for by middle-school science classes around the city. The amount of time it takes to grow out an oyster to full size is roughly three years, so taking care of the cages is a project that requires teachers to make a long-term commitment to BOP. The Harbor School provides oysters, installation equipment, monitoring tools, and a curriculum that’s tailored to the needs of NYC public-school students. Teachers, meanwhile, agree to undergo Billion Oyster Project training, take their classes to the oyster garden once a month, and upload data on water conditions and oyster health to a central server.
This innovation — bringing BOP’s restoration work “right into the heart of the biggest bureaucracy in our culture,” in Fisher’s words — is largely what makes BOP such an unusual organization. Once oysters have grown out to full size, they are transferred back to reefs like the one off Governors Island, where they begin to filter New York Harbor’s water and (hopefully) reproduce. But trying to restore New York Harbor is not, in and of itself, a revolutionary concept; plenty of environmental groups are trying to do something similar. Fisher’s idea of “education through restoration” is BOP’s ultimate goal. Restoring New York Harbor and providing young New Yorkers with what he calls “harbor literacy” are, in his view, inseparable projects.
Since officially launching this April, BOP has gotten good press and even a visit from a former president. Teachers from all around the city have contacted the Harbor School to see if their classes can participate. And the bane of all nonprofits, funding, has quickly become an issue. To meet its goal of $12 million over five years, BOP will have to call on a variety of grantmaking organizations, some of which focus on science and others on education, but rarely both. In late October, BOP announced that the National Science Foundation had given the project $5 million: a major first step, but still not even halfway there.
At the press conference announcing the NSF grant, some middle-schoolers spoke on what they’d gotten out of the project. One said that BOP had given her “a chance to commune with the sea life” in the harbor — oysters, but also barnacles, sand worms, and sea squirts. Then all those who worked on the grant proposal explained what they’d be doing with the money. Lauren Birney of Pace University, which partners with BOP to provide teacher training, said that 40 to 60 new middle schools will be able to participate in the curriculum. A representative from the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science mentioned an enhanced data-gathering system as something BOP and UMD will build together. And Good Shepherd Services, a Red Hook social services agency, is planning to add Billion Oyster activities to its after-school programming.
Still, the numbers that BOP has put up are daunting, simply because there’s so much work left to be done — and because the harbor has deteriorated so sharply from its initial state. Fisher said that 11.5 million oysters have now been planted in New York Harbor, a number that sounds impressive until it’s stacked up against the trillions of oysters that existed before European arrival. BOP has restored about an acre’s worth of reef to the harbor, compared to the 220,000 acres that once existed. The ultimate goal, one billion oysters, is ambitious but pales in comparison to the work being done in the Chesapeake Bay. And the campaign to clean up New York Harbor is still a relatively new one — real progress was only made once the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 was enacted. The harbor is cleaner than it has been in a century, but it’s still not that clean.
Christina Pugliese, a science teacher at Middle School 447 in Cobble Hill, knows that most of her students are not strangers to Brooklyn Bridge Park. Between its green spaces, paths for running and biking, and complex of new soccer fields, “they’re here all the time,” she says. “I can’t come here without seeing them.” Whether they’ve learned to take ownership of the park, instead of just seeing a space for idle recreation, is another matter.
Pugliese, who came to the park with her science class in late October to monitor “their” oyster nursery, is optimistic. As the science curriculum in New York City public schools has incorporated more hands-on experimentation, she says, students have begun to see how the area functions as an ecosystem and have even started to think about what their place in that ecosystem is. “Because this is their neighborhood,” she said — Brooklyn Bridge Park is the closest public waterfront site to MS 447 — “they take a lot of ownership over the changes.”
A trip to a Billion Oyster Project nursery offers students a chance to get out of the classroom — a break from the drudgery and memorization of a typical middle-school day. And the MS 447 students, when they arrived at the park’s Pier 5 to monitor their garden, stayed remarkably on task. As they sat on benches overlooking the East River, Pugliese handed out worksheets for each of them; the students made note of the day’s weather (it was 50 degrees and sunny), wind speed, tidal conditions, and water turbidity. Some students got into a debate over the amount of water turbulence — “Is there small chop or no chop?” “There’s chop.” “That’s not chop, those are just bubbles!” “Yeah, those are bubbles caused by the chop.”
Amy Goods, a special-education teacher, joined Pugliese on the trip and gave students step-by-step instructions. BOP nurseries have a simple design: they’re rectangular metal cages placed at the bottom of the harbor. To make them accessible, they’re attached by rope to the poles of the fence surrounding the pier. As Goods tugged on the thick rope that descended into the murky water, the students crowded around her, oohing and ahhing as the cage made its way up to the pier. Once the cage was ashore, the students, most of whom were visiting this site for the first time, got to work.
A typical oyster-monitoring session at a BOP middle school involves a mix of activities. First, students observe the oysters qualitatively: How do the oysters look, and how many spat-on-shell are attached to each one? What kinds of other marine organisms are also attached to the cage or the oysters? Is there any non-organic debris on the cages? After taking notes on all these topics, the students split up into groups to conduct experiments on the quality of the harbor water. Some of them monitored phosphate levels — the result, Goods told the class, of humans dumping things like detergents into the water. Others looked at the acidity, temperature, or turbidity of the water or measured the number of nitrates, which, if too abundant, can overwhelm oysters’ water-filtering mechanisms.
I asked Goods why she was originally attracted to the Billion Oyster Project. She responded that in most middle-school science curricula, there’s a gaping hole where experiential learning should be. Most schooling, she says, stresses “very linguistic intelligence. When you get the kids out in the field and doing these hands-on experiences, you start to see a different side of learning.”
As for whether BOP has the potential to turn the students into “citizens of the waterfront,” so to speak? Especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Goods says, BOP is capitalizing on a fact that is apparent to more New Yorkers than ever: the water is a natural force to be reckoned with, not just a backdrop for human enjoyment. Through BOP, “the kids are becoming literate with the ecology of the waterfront,” she says. “They’re getting to know things that they do at home that affect the water; they’re making connections. If it stopped right there, I think that’s an OK place to start.”
For some students, it does stop right there. After the class finished taking measurements, they got 20 minutes to run around on Pier 5’s meticulously astroturfed fields. But for a handful of the students, the Billion Oyster Project has led to new, more conscious ways of thinking about their place in a waterborne city. Kalif, an eighth grader wearing a Manchester United jersey, told me that he’d been coming to this park for years, mostly for soccer, and hadn’t thought much about the ecology behind it. But he said the BOP curriculum “adds another realm to it: knowing that we’re experimenting with something live, and you have to be careful with it … that this is something you have to take care of.”
Nico, a sixth grader from Windsor Terrace, told me that when the time comes to apply to high school, the Harbor School will be his first choice. He’s known this for a long time — he enjoys being on the water and told me that he snorkels often. But for much of his life, he thought these sorts of activities only took place outside the city. Nico’s first taste of the New York City waterfront was quite literally a taste: he got it at a restaurant near his Park Slope home, where he told me he developed a fondness for raw oysters. He said briny bivalves are less delicious now, though: “Once I found out they’re good for the environment, they taste disgusting to me.”
Running around with live mollusks in hand is not a typical thing to do in one of the city’s newest and most immaculately planned public spaces. Brooklyn Bridge Park’s first section opened to the public in 2010, and since then the park has grown out to its current 85-acre size. Pier 1 and Pier 6, the first two piers to open, feature walking trails, playgrounds, and leisure space (Pier 1 also includes a reconstructed salt marsh). Since then, the park has diversified: spaces for soccer, basketball, and bocce; a “beach” doubling as a boat launch; picnic areas and concession stands. Stunning views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges are everywhere.
Because of the park’s funding structure, though, it is not without controversy. Since Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki struck a 2002 deal to develop the site, Brooklyn Bridge Park has largely had to support itself. This is in keeping with Bloomberg’s general policy of placing parks under the control of nonprofits, funded mainly by private donations and housing revenue. Luckily, because Brooklyn Bridge Park is located in one of the city’s most sought-after neighborhoods, the park’s finances have outperformed expectations.
This has led to a roiling debate over the park’s future. The de Blasio administration, citing Brooklyn Bridge Park’s solid financial footing, has suggested building affordable housing next to it. Many area homeowners object to this idea for the effect they fear it will have on property values. But others, including some of the park’s pioneers, are making a different case against new housing. Brooklyn Bridge Park, they say, should not just be a recreational space, but someplace New Yorkers of all economic levels can see something approximating nature. Even if not deliberately, it’s an argument that channels BOP’s focus on “harbor literacy” over human gratification.
Red Hook is not far from Brooklyn Bridge Park as the crow flies, but a BOP outpost in that part of the borough raises radically different questions about the future of Brooklyn’s waterfront. For starters, there’s the spot where students gathered, a small patch of grass right behind the Red Hook Ikea (the store’s giant, triangular blue-and-yellow sign cast a visible shadow over the grass). Instead of Lower Manhattan, the students were looking out at Erie Basin, an enclosed space ringed by shipping containers, cranes, and boats. This was not a gleaming Bloomberg showpiece; it was a working harbor neighborhood that, for all its undeniable charms, has indisputably seen better days.
During the first half of the 20th century, a series of ports and terminals along Upper New York Bay — Brooklyn Army Terminal, Bush Terminal, and the Todd Shipyards — made Sunset Park and Red Hook the center of Brooklyn’s shipping industry. An estimated half of all East Coast cargo to Europe departed from Brooklyn during the World War II years. However, by the 1950s, containerization, a process with drastically lower costs but much higher space demands, started to replace break-bulk as the preferred method of cargo shipping. Newark Bay and Elizabeth, N.J., could provide companies with space that Brooklyn couldn’t, and the industry largely decamped to the other side of the Hudson.
Red Hook maintains a single container port that’s a major part of the New York area’s shipping network. But the neighborhood now draws outsiders for very different reasons: the only Ikea in the five boroughs, the only Fairway Market in Brooklyn, and small-batch producers making everything from coffee to beer to key lime pie. The biggest draws of all are Red Hook’s sea air and stunning views of the water. The question of whether those views can be turned into true public spaces is one that many city administrations have grappled with.
The neighborhood’s irregular street grid and physical isolation, nearly a mile from the nearest subway and cut off from the rest of Brooklyn by the Gowanus Expressway, mean that no one just stumbles in by accident. Red Hook will probably never become the kind of magnet for luxury real estate that other waterfront neighborhoods are (the Bloomberg administration had plans to rezone the area into an upscale, mixed-use district, but abandoned them around the time of the financial crisis). According to Angela Khermouch of Lalire March Architects, this makes Red Hook a useful lens through which to view the changing uses of the Brooklyn waterfront.
Khermouch has a longtime interest in waterfront reclamation. She says that despite nostalgia for the neighborhood’s industrial past, no one expects the area to return to its former state. The ideal going forward would be a thoughtful application of mixed-use development: some combination of recreation, small-scale industry, and ecology. Red Hook’s tightly knit community, she says, was put off by the approach Ikea took when it opened in 2008. Aside from a promise of local jobs that never panned out, “there’s that park on the waterfront. It is a great park, but a lot of the community responded poorly because it doesn’t have any working docks. … The idea of it being purely recreational, but not speaking to the past of this neighborhood.”
Red Hook’s maritime past, Khermouch explains, means it’s especially difficult to formulate a single, comprehensive plan to revitalize the area. The harbor itself is controlled by a combination of state and federal agencies, while most piers and docks are owned by private developers. Many spots along the water are subject to seemingly arbitrary restrictions. At Louis Valentino Pier, a popular waterfront space, it’s forbidden to dock large boats because it would block the sightlines to the Statue of Liberty. And because Red Hook is still largely zoned for industrial use, it’s hard to get permission for the kind of ecological restoration work that the Billion Oyster Project does.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which hit Red Hook with a fourteen-foot storm surge and flooded nearly every part of the neighborhood, this may be changing. Khermouch spoke about an increasing awareness among city planners that low-lying waterfront neighborhoods need what’s called a “soft edge,” or a buffer zone between the harbor and the built environment. Parks, landscape architecture, and tidal areas — anything that can be flooded without doing real harm to the heart of the city — are all examples of soft edges because they embrace, rather than block off, the water. Oyster gardens serve a similar function.
Even before Sandy, using oysters as a soft edge was a popular idea among landscape architects, who called the process “oyster-tecture.” Some state and city officials got onboard after the storm, as the oyster’s power to serve as a wave attenuator became better known. Still, Malinowski told me that the regulation has yet to catch up. Despite the known environmental benefits of oyster reefs, oysters are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, not the Environmental Protection Agency. They’re what’s known as an “attractive nuisance,” or an item that poses a risk to the unwitting public (in this case, as unsanitary food). Private citizens who want to plant them have to go through a lengthy permitting process. It’s hard to imagine any neighborhood growing the soft edges it needs when the barriers to participation are so high.
Of course, the eighth graders who trekked out to Red Hook from Middle School 88 in South Slope weren’t thinking about any of these questions. They just wanted to get out of class and have fun. Jack Wasylyk, the BOP liaison at the school, explained that he’s a longtime aficionado of boating culture and waterfront awareness. The BOP curriculum hasn’t actually been integrated into any of MS 88’s science classes yet. The students who came down to the water that day were all volunteers. Still, Wasylyk told me that when he first heard about the project a couple of years ago, establishing a branch at his school seemed obvious.
Wasylyk isn’t the only adult who came to BOP because of a past interest in marine biology, boating, or maritime culture. Michael Seymour, a math teacher who joined the MS 88 students on their trip, said that his Long Island upbringing introduced him to the complexities of waterfront ecology (“I was part of a clam club,” he told me). Susannah Black, BOP’s communications director, is a Manhattan native who speaks about coming into contact with New York’s waterborne side in almost reverential terms. Taking schoolchildren on the harbor, she said, “you could see kids waking up to the physical world around you. I wanted to be part of something that would bring kids into that awareness.”
The day of the Red Hook trip, Sam Janis came by boat to meet the class at Erie Basin, bringing plastic buckets, monitoring tools, and extra oysters. As his small boat entered the basin and sped towards the dock, the students lined up along the fence to watch him come in. Wasylyk, sensing what his students were thinking, quickly told them, “We’re not going to go on the boats today,” which elicited a groaning “Awwwwww!” Once Janis got off the boat, he started briefing the students, many of whom had never done oyster gardening before, on why they were there.
“This city was built on the oyster,” he told them. “In order for them to survive and do their thing and help the harbor, we need people to come in and watch them. So you guys are like oyster farmers slash scientists.” Like Amy Goods did with her Brooklyn Bridge Park class, Janis stressed that oysters’ jobs are made harder by substances humans dump in the water. Wasylyk chimed in, “What’s in the water that we don’t want?” and the students immediately shouted back, “Poop!” “Nitrogen,” Janis said. “Really, we’re concerned about nitrogen. That’s what poop is — it’s too much nitrogen.” The students giggled.
After Janis fished the oyster cage out of the harbor, the students guessed how many were inside (the consensus was about 50) and got to work measuring nitrate levels and water temperature. One girl touched a shell, squealed, and ran away to join her friends. A boy picked a clear, squishy crustacean called a shore shrimp out of the oyster cage and started running around with it. After a few minutes, Wasylyk told him, “Mohammed, I think the shrimp has had enough excitement for the day.” Mohammed threw the shrimp back in the water and joined the students gathered around the cage, pulling out oysters and trying to figure out which ones were alive.
Three girls, all wearing hijabs, were sitting on the grass away from the rest of the students. One, named Suraiya, explained to me that her family had only come to the U.S. from Bangladesh two years ago, and she had never seen oysters before. “It’s not gross,” she told me. “I just don’t like touching it. It’s fine if I see it.” (Many of the students spoke Bengali among themselves.) The other two girls, Nasrin and Asfi, explained that they lived off Church Avenue and occasionally came down to the water for recreation or soccer, but never to examine the environment — and certainly never to Red Hook. I asked them how they felt about this strange neighborhood, severed from the rest of Brooklyn by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and filled with old ships, decaying warehouses, and the hulking Ikea. “We want to spend the whole day here,” Nasrin replied.
Later on, Wasylyk told me why he thinks the Billion Oyster Project is so ideally suited for middle-school science classrooms. The early teenage years, he said, are when children start to develop the hobbies and interests that they’ll carry with them as adults. He said, “I guarantee you a lot of these kids have never had their hands on marine life in New York until today,” but his goal isn’t to train future marine biologists as much as it is to instill a sense of wonder in his students. And that fascination begins, he says, with “a raw desire to play with something foreign and weird. … They just want to get down here and get their hands dirty and hold crabs and show each other crabs, and there’s a gross-out factor that they constantly go through, but there’s this quiet fascination right after the gross-out where they really look at it.”
More than any broad, conceptual ideas about saving the environment or mitigating climate change, this sense of experiential learning is at the heart of the Billion Oyster Project’s success. From there, Wasylyk says, it can just take a small nudge to get students to the bigger picture: that the waterfront is an immense, complex ecosystem; that it must be stewarded and not just passively enjoyed; and that the city as we know it wouldn’t exist without it.“The memories will pop up again when they are exposed to more marine biology, and they’ll realize they’re constantly making connections,” he told me. “‘Oh yeah, oysters. We have those in New York. We don’t eat them, we take care of them.’”