Worth Saving: An Essay on Urban Conservation

Worth Saving

By Daniel Merino

Stepping out of the borrowed, fading green sedan, I am immediately enveloped by sparkling sunlight and a sweet cold wind blowing from somewhere inland. It is eight am on a Sunday morning. I am in search of waves. I gingerly pull my surfboard out of the back seat of the little Honda and begin to perform the winter surfer’s shuffle, straining into a thick rubber wetsuit as my toes freeze and I do everything I can to keep my eyes trained on the ocean. Over the low cement seawall and down the sloping beach of grayscale red and green cobblestones, a gorgeous wave breaks and lumbers towards the shoreline. As we surfers say, it’s on.

This forgettable beach is a far cry from the dramatic cliff-lined coast of California where I first learned to surf. As the crow flies, I am less than five miles from a major metropolitan city on the east coast of the United States and the human touch is everywhere. The coastline is crowded with jetties, seawalls, rip-rap, and old dock pilings. A faded red tanker ship heads east at the deceptively slow-looking pace of big things that move quickly. The ocean tries hard to reflect the brilliant blue sky above but manages only a silty blue-green.

Far down the beach past the graceful curve of a small bay scattered with American beach grass, black grass, and common reeds, looms a major character in the story of this place. The sewage treatment plant, one of the largest in the US, is an imposing collection of square brick buildings and tall white towers. Thirty years ago, that plant was one of many reasons not to go in the water, but after a citizen-run effort leading to a government-mandated cleanup of the waters, the main risk of surfing here is no longer infection from fecal coliform bacteria. Today, I just have to worry about the occasional broken Modelo Especial bottle and the sharp-shelled periwinkle snails. That is plenty safe for me. The second I enter the chilly water and start paddling toward the horizon I am cross to the other side, a place far away from the sirens and skyscrapers and low flying planes overhead.  

I am sorry, but I can’t tell you the name of this magical place – it is possible I have given away too much already – for that would break rule number one the surfer’s code: “Do not blow up the spot,” or, translated from surfer, “Don’t ruin special places by telling everyone about them.” You could probably figure out where this fickle surf spot hides in plain sight, but the thing is, the story of this little stretch of coastline is one that could be replicated many times across America. The problem is that it hasn’t.

For the vast majority of the last 250 years, the water here was not safe to swim in. Development and pollution didn’t help things, but it was the discharge of raw or barely treated sewage directly into the water that was the main cause of the dangerous levels of bacteria along most of the coast in the area. Even with the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, very little action was taken, and it wasn’t until a coastal community sued the municipal water district in the early 80’s that change began. The US Government got involved, mandating that the water quality be improved, and the topic became a central issue of a Governor’s race in the late 80’s.

$4.5 billion and 30 years later, the sewage system has been modernized and on all but the heaviest of rainstorms, the water is now safe for foolish souls like me to play in. The sewage is still released into the ocean, but it is now well treated before being pumped far out to sea where the currents and waves dissipate our waste. In this case, dilution is the solution.

As I paddle under the crashing waves, trying to get far enough out so that I can rest and prepare to do what I came here for, I forget about the cityscape I woke up in this morning. I do not pay attention to the planes overhead or the gangly dredge, diligently digging out some channel in the bay. Sitting and waiting for a wave, the sunshine warming my face, I am no longer a part of team people. Where just a few minutes ago I was a piece of civilization, subject to social norms and laws, now I am in the natural, wild world, a world ruled by physics and biology and not much else. I have switched sides and now sit, a mere 100 feet from the shoreline, with the full weight of the Atlantic behind me. The slightly darker blue-green lump of a wave rises out of the deep water offshore, I stroke quickly to match my our speeds and once I feel the moment where the ocean takes control, I stand.

As a surfer, beaches like this are a godsend. Portals to the natural world, hidden in the midst of human sprawl, are what keeps nature-loving city dwellers like me sane, but these places are all too rare. Fundamentally, this is because of the main question of environmentalism – where do we spend the limited resources available for conservation and restoration – and how that question has been traditionally answered. The old guard aims for perfect or nearly so, and has written off many places they deem too far gone. Of course, many organizations do incredible work protecting wild places in urban lands, but in the grand scheme of things, the effort expended for these places is far smaller than it should be and it seems that problem is one of perspective. It took a lawsuit, government mandates, a gubernatorial race and billions of dollars to allow me to enjoy the waves today, but even with the planes rumbling overhead, the barges and tankers passing by, and the sewage treatment plant standing guard down the beach, this little slice of nature is plenty big enough to get lost in. Sandtiger sharks have made a comeback in recent years and patrol the shallows hunting for menhaden and striped bass. Two osprey circle far overhead, riding the winds in search of lunch just as I ride the waves in search of bliss: we both need what we are looking for.

I don’t know if the osprey found what their meal, but I found mine. Two and half hours later I stumble back onto the beach and find a small patch of sand that the dropping tide has exposed. The wind is still blowing offshore and the waves are still spinning down the beach, but I got what I came for. What do we save and why? There is of course value in protecting those rare, pristine lands, but what about the broken, rotten, polluted places? As I look around the beach, it is not just for surfers. Families run with their dogs, a fisherman is slowly walking, orange bucket in hand, down towards the little bay in search of calmer waters. A group of older guys riding loud, chrome and black motorcycles pull up to the seawall and turn off their engines. We are all here because through this little window can be felt more than enough of the wonder that only nature can provide.

As a scientist I spoke to the other day said, “It has seemed to me for many years that a lot of environmental effort has gone into preserving beautiful places, but the industrial areas, people never thought about doing something about those. We shouldn’t write these people off and we shouldn’t write off these places.” And he would know, he was the head of the scientific advisory panel that for over 30 years oversaw the cleanup of this place. And that cleanup worked. There should be nothing wonderful about the little stretch of coastline, but for all the years of human abuse, it still shines proudly when given a chance.

As I walk slowly back towards the car I pick up an old balloon and a crinkled plastic water bottle that were left here on the beach.  When I ask a grinning middle-aged guy carrying a longboard if he got any good ones and he replies “Yea, a couple fun ones, and since they put in that shower now I dont have to smell like I surfed here after I surf here!” I take his advice and walk over the stainless steel shower and rinse off. It’s not perfect here and it never will be. But this place, like so many other places that we humans have ruined, don’t need to stay that way.

This beach is beautiful and peaceful and wild and good. Quoting to me on parting, the scientist reminded me once again: “You dont want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” I’m glad he didn’t let that happen.