With a fishing rod in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the young man in a grey hoodie and jeans balances on a narrow slab of concrete under train tracks on the banks of the Hutchinson River.
The freshwater river runs ten miles north into Westchester, and ends just south of his fishing line as it blends with the waters of Eastchester Bay, to flow into the East River and Long Island Sound. Even with a massive cleanup of the Hutchinson, overturned cars still line the riverbed, their engines and wheels home to flora, fauna and frogs. The river is one of the only bodies of water in the U.S. named after a woman—noted seventeenth century political gadfly Anne Hutchinson—although it’s almost always men who fish on its southern shores, and its nickname, “The Hutch,” exudes masculinity.
An Amtrak train passes overhead, teeming with Sunday night passengers on their way to Boston or Manhattan. A canoe with two fishermen floats past Goose Island, a quarter mile Northeast across the river.
“The sunset is nice but the sunrise is even better,” says the fisherman as he flicks his cigarette and reels in an empty line.
It doesn’t feel like the Bronx here, only five miles from the rough neighborhood he left earlier this year, where trees grow through cracks in sidewalks and the only rivers run through the sewers underfoot.
He waits for the last of the weekend’s trout or bass to bite before night falls and the tide forces him back.
Another fisherman yells from down the bank that they ain’t biting.
The fish rarely bite.
Brian Scott, twenty-three, has never felt such peace as on this cool autumn day in Co-op City. He defines his life before moving here as one tragedy after another, and Co-op City—the massive complex of high-rise residential towers behind him—as the remedy. After losing his father and falling into poverty in Florida, he spent his teenage years in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx, five miles south of Co-op City. Desperately poor, in an apartment where seven people would fight over one bed, he turned to selling drugs.
Besides selling narcotics, Scott robbed people, had bouts of homelessness, a police record and a stint in a Bloods gang subsidiary called the East Side Guerilla Brim Hat Boys—to whose streets he will never return. Before having a child with his girlfriend earlier this year, and eventually moving into her parent’s apartment in Co-op City, Scott had been stabbed eleven times and shot once, emerging from a near-fatal coma as “a different man,” he says.
But tonight, with his face to the wilderness and his back to the high-rise, he is just a young father fishing at dusk.
In the morning, he will walk from his apartment to The Children’s Place, a store within Co-op where he has found work stocking shelves. After his shift he will return to the riverbanks. He has found employment, shelter and occasionally fish all within Co-op City—the largest cooperative housing development in the world. Sixty thousand residents live here, spread through thirty-five high rises and 236 duplex townhouses. It has its own schools and police, and huge strip malls that rival the biggest in New Jersey.
Since the Lenape Indians roamed this swampy marshland near the banks of Hutchinson River—too far from Manhattan to be valuable real estate, too soft and slushy to consider building or growing crops on—it was mostly ignored until the late 1950s. In the 1960s, decades before Scott was born, developers tested the land by building a popular theme park called Freedomland U.S.A., which featured re-enactments of major events in American history. Despite its success, it was torn down in 1965 and construction of the great City of Co-op began.
Designed to stem the flow of white flight from the Bronx, Co-op City was imagined as a safe haven from the city outside. Later, as the seventies and eighties turned much of the Bronx into a bastion of poverty and addiction, it became a refuge for Hispanics and blacks fleeing the “burning” streets. Today it’s multicultural. To buy a share residents need good credit and a clean record, making this a private island for the working and middle class—an oasis boxed in by I-95, the Hutchinson River Parkway and the river. It is Brian Scott’s own little oasis. In Section 5 of Co-op City, where he lives, works and fishes, the buildings overlook the River and Pelham Park, a picturesque New England scene that seems out of place within the confines of New York City.
Freedomland was remembered last summer with a plaque near where its entrance had been, memorializing “The World’s Largest Outdoor Entertainment Center.” While there was once a snack bar modeled after San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, and a Chicago Fire street scene which endlessly burnt to the ground, Freedomland had little room for the history of black America. Still, Scott found his first sense of peace here, near what were once the parking lots of the late Freedomland.
Section 5 of Co-op City has a few nicknames: The Fifth City; Five; The City; or as Scott likes to call it, The Country Club. Its cluster of high rises—thirty-two stories tall—are separated from the rest of the city by a street that snakes past the Co-op power plant and under the Hutchinson River Parkway. “Five” is its own small island within an island. The high-rises are connected by streets like Einstein Loop, Palmer Avenue and Erdman Place. The southernmost street, Erskine Place, leads to a cul-de-sac beside basketball and handball courts to the north and train tracks to the south.
A few brazen fishermen sometimes drive their cars past the cul-de-sac, over the curb and onto the dirt road that leads to the banks of the river, where Brian Scott now stands. Hidden in the brush to the left, two Section 5 residents have padlocked their fishing boats to a tree trunk.
To the right, a steep path leads down to the embankment and under the train tracks. A fisherman may share this vantage point with a resident taking in the view, or teenagers looking for a safe place to get high or make out. During high tide, it’s a tightrope of concrete above the water. Low tide opens up the spot onto a pebble beach.
Scott can almost smell the saltwater of nearby Orchard Beach, the “Bronx Riviera,” over the calm waters, through the trees and down another highway.
There are the geese swimming around Goose Island.
The familiar sound of a train overhead. Frogs, crickets.
A faint memory of the concrete life before, remembered and then receding with the tide.