Temperance Fountains

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

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Tompkins Square Park. Photo by Erik Baard. 

by Erik Baard

I was recently wandering through the slush of Tompkins Square Park for a vegan cherry pie when I chanced upon a fountain west of the dog run. It was topped by post and lintels, four austere friezes each bearing what I immediately recognized as Victorian Era feminine virtues: Hope. Faith. Charity. Temperance.

Temperance? That tipped me off. This fountain was a bit of gentle 19th century civic persuasion to not surrender to the animal spirits loosed by alcohol. Let cool, clean waters heal you.

This Temperance Fountain stands at the heart of what was once the “Little Germany” neighborhood. Stereotypes about the “idleness, imposture, [and] crime” of 19th century Irish and German immigrants panicked the upper crust of New York City society, who associated the immigrants’ supposed failings with drunkenness. A repugnant Nativism and religious bigotry arose, often linked to suspicions that Catholics were loyal to the Papacy and not America. Legislative measures to encourage teetotalism infamously culminated in Prohibition’s gang wars. A few sympathetic (albeit perhaps equally prejudiced) Progressive clerics and women of means strove to uplift the new, alien masses by providing an alternative to booze: reliable drinking water.

Generations of New Yorkers since Dutch colonization of Manahatta had fouled the potable springs and ponds at their feet with garbage and sewage, and so instead drank cider, beer, and hard liquor mixed with water. Immigrants participated in this pollution, and the loss of fresh, local water was a living memory for established New Yorkers in the mid-19th century.

Temperance societies — often affiliated with enlightened causes like Women’s Suffrage — grew through the latter part of that century. The activist women and philanthropists like Henry D. Cogswell (dentist to the California Gold Rush) funded Temperance Fountains, often topped with statues depicting Charity. Today few remain,  though another is in nearby Union Square Park. Another, in Washington, DC, bears the same inscription of virtues as the one in Tompkins Square Park. According to the Washington Post, a California Senator once derided the fountain as that city’s “ugliest statue.”

But in a sense, you drink from a Temperance Faucet at home every day. The temperance movement, alongside disastrous fires and a cholera epidemic, was instrumental in the creation of NYC’s world renowned waterworks. The completion of the Croton Reservoir Aqueduct in 1842 made the our city’s first such fountains possible, and continued lobbying by temperance groups helped NYC stretch its water projects into upstate mountains.Maybe the teetotalers  had a point, if not a pint: the Catskill town of Neversink, where HarborLAB’s reservoir paddling program is located, just ended Prohibition in 2015.

 

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Naked Gobies in Newtown Creek

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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Naked Goby. (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.)

 

by Erik Baard

Skinny dipping in the Newtown Creek Superfund Site might seem unwise, particularly in February, but it’s a way of life for naked gobies (Gobiosoma bosc). These very small, bottom-dwelling fish of the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf states are extremely common yet rare to see. That’s a shame because gobies — one of the most diverse families of fish, with over 2,000 species — have rich and fascinating lives packed into typically less than four inches and four years.

Ecologists for city, state, and federal agencies did encounter naked gobies in early studies to profile the life and pollutants of what became HarborLAB’s home waterway. They discovered an abundance of goby eggs at the mouth of the creek but not further in, indicating that spawning happened where cleaner East River waters swirled in with each tidal cycle. No surprise given that naked gobies and their eggs and spawn are often found in the fish-protecting screens covering intake tubes at the nearby Ravenswood Power Plant. Bear in mind, however, that this is opposite of the natural state of affairs. Fish normally lay eggs and spawn in sheltered areas outside the swift main channel of waterways. The East River is dredged, constricted by landfill, and edged with bulkheads that make for even faster currents. The slower-moving four-mile stretch of the Newtown Creek should by rights be the East River’s nursery.

As it is, only adult “gobies were prevalent in the mid-section of the Creek,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service report linked above. Still, what a testament to this species’ hardiness, given that the creek bed (commonly described as being like “black mayonnaise”) is sedimented with toxins and stripped of naked gobies’ natural habitat of oyster beds and salt grass clusters. Females prefer to lay their amber-colored eggs into empty oyster shells. In the Newtown Creek, they make do with rock, crumbled concrete bulkheads, partly interred plastic trash, bottles, and other debris. In the winter, they bury themselves into that poisonous black mayonnaise.

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(South Florida Water Management District)

Naked gobies feed on worms and small crustaceans, which concentrate in their tissue the toxins of a century of oil spills, refinery and tannery effluents,  and illegal dumping.  Cloaked by the muck and the murk, these “naked” prey fish for better known species like striped bass, eels, and bluefish are still taking no chances. The species is scaleless and camouflaged in green and brown blotches. Their eyes are close together, atop the head. At a glance they look like lizards. The young are translucent.

Naked goby pelvic fins have evolved to fuse into suction cups, a neat trick for anchoring themselves. Scientists have noted that gobies can remember how to navigate complicated obstacle courses for at least 40 days, and judge and remember spatial relationships, useful for hopping from tidal pool to tidal pool. Some cousin species of goby have also evolved complex behaviors and symbiotic relationships. For example, one species climbs waterfalls that to human scale is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest three times over — check out this video! Others groom the parasites off larger fish. Another enjoys an “Odd Couple” relationship with a large burrowing shrimp. The fish and crustacean cohabitate and deposit eggs in the same burrow. They touch each other (with tail and antennae respectively) constantly to know if the other is agitated or retreating, relying on each other’s complementary senses. And we are still discovering new species of goby!

 

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Naked Gobi range. 

“Lady Ganga” and Her Voyage to Save Lives.

Those who HarborLAB seeks to serve above all are the youth of New York City. Our core mission is to instill in them a love of socially responsible science. No young person should lose his or her mother, or one day her own life, to a preventable killer like cervical cancer. Sadly, millions of women worldwide die from this disease each decade, and many millions more are left in pain and unable to have children. Men suffer from similar cancers.

The cause is the human papillomavirus, which infects most sexually active adults in the U.S. at some point in their lives, and is preventable with a safe vaccine. This shot, which can be given along with other routine vaccinations, is most effective when administered before the patient becomes sexually active. Some express worry that taking this measure cautiously early — with preteens and early teens — will encourage promiscuous behavior, but only doctors and parents need know the purpose of this one vaccine among several. This is a life-saving, moral application of science and it’s available to all families in New York City. Click here to learn more. Tragically the HPV vaccine not as available globally.

Stand up paddleboard athlete, kayak guide, and mother Michele Frazier Baldwin dedicated the last months of her life to a record-setting 700-mile voyage down the Ganges River to raise awareness and funds so that girls raised in poverty can be vaccinated. She asked that donations be made to the Global Initiative Against HPV and Cervical Cancer. A film is being made from raw footage of that meaningful adventure, with all profits going to the cause she championed. You can help by contributing to the Kickstarter campaign for the film, “Lady Ganga,” by Frederic Lumiere.

We honor Michele Frazier Baldwin’s life, paddling accomplishment, and great cause. We also respect, and advocate for, the moral application of medical science to save the lives of young people just as we respect, and advocate for, environmental science to save the lives of humans and other species with whom we share the Earth.

 

 

 

Survey: Help the NYC DEP Improve Our Water!

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Help the NYC Department of Environmental Protection improve the watershed and estuary by filling out its Strategic Plan Update Survey.

It’s been two years since the NYC DEP released its Strategy 2011-2014 plan and list of 100 initiatives.  The DEP has claimed success on many of these fronts in subsequent progress reports. With your input, the DEP will issue a revised strategic plan. This is your chance to help the DEP prioritize its goals, both for the near term and longer-range strategic shifts.

Those who built our water system thought BIG and they worked for generations unborn. It’s time for us to do the same. HarborLAB will soon be the first group to offer educational boating for the public in our highland reservoirs and estuary reaches. We hope you take the time to let the DEP know what matters to you from this encompassing perspective.

Click here to complete the survey.