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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

SMELL: The secret beaches of Manhattan


Riding the Q train through Midtown one Sunday night, I noticed a small mound of sand on the seat beside me. Ah, someone returning from a day at Coney Island, I thought, struck by the fact that in our city you can travel from sandcastle to skyscraper in just enough time for your bathing suit to dry.





Many New Yorkers don’t realize that it’s not necessary to travel to Coney Island to dip one’s toes in some sand. There are actually two sandy beaches right on the island of Manhattan—one on the East River and the other on the Hudson (though you might not want to build a sandcastle on either). 



The first beach—visible only at low tide—is at the end of East Twentieth Street, where it meets the East River (not actually a river but a saltwater estuary). After you cut through a parking lot under the FDR Drive, you’ll find yourself in Stuyvesant Cove Park. Joggers bounce past; men sun themselves on the boardwalk. The smell of rose hips fills the air. 




If you approach the railing and look down, you’ll notice a triangle of sand and some old dock pilings. The air smells of tar and saltwater and seaweed—and the waftings of Chinese takeout from a woman sitting on a nearby park bench. 


Leap over the fence and all of a sudden your toes are sinking into warm sand. You can even beachcomb! On the day I visited, I found a seashell, a small crab, and a piece of sea glass (estuary glass?). 


Add your bare footprints to the duck prints. 


Close your eyes and listen to the waves lapping—mingling with the thrum of the FDR drive just behind you.

Looking back toward the shore, you’ll notice a large rusty pipe jutting out from beneath the boardwalk: as it turns out, storm water from the city’s gutters flows out onto this beach. Suddenly standing barefoot in that white sand doesn’t seem quite so magical. Leap back over the fence and try your luck across town. 





Manhattan’s other sandy beach is in on the freshwater Hudson River, in Inwood, at the very end of Dyckman Street, tucked between a marina and an exit ramp off the Henry Hudson Parkway. An old mulberry tree shades the beach, and Canada geese wade in the shallows.

Goose droppings and crushed mulberries mingle in the gritty sand with sea glass (river glass?) and, on the day I visited, even a clamshell.



The breeze here smells lazy, like river water and plants—with the tracings of marijuana from a group smoking up in a grove that overlooks the beach.



There’s some sort of quasi-habitation or junk pile under some tree roots off to the side, but that doesn’t seem to concern anyone on this lovely morning.



Sit on one of the benches under the trees and watch an old man dancing on a rectangle of nearby grass, a harmonica around his neck, shaking a bouquet of maracas. The parkway roars past overhead, but it's no match for his music. He’s grinning at the water, the Palisades, the geese, and anyone who happens to know about this little beach on our big island.