There is nothing more wonderful than the delight of an enthusiastic child. Of the all children who came out to Hunts Point Riverside Park to try Tenkara Fly Fishing for the first time Adrian, age 8, was by far the most over joyed with the prospects of getting a bite.
“I really want one of these,” he said holding out his loaner fly rod. “I want to catch fish.”
Adrian picked up the basic skill required to cast his line out over the Bronx River. A first time angler from a profoundly urban neighborhood he seemed to have exceptional patience in coaxing the artificial fly into behaving like a real insect. Small schools of minnows followed the track of the fly as he dragged it through the water. And every once in a while a larger dark form would rise up from the depths and make a faint at his feathery lure.
“I did you see that?” Adrian exclaimed in a puff of breath. “I almost got it!”
On this warm Saturday afternoon in early fall the striped bass and other small fish in the Bronx River seemed to tease the possibility of getting caught, but none took the bait. The crowd gathered for the Back to School Fair hosted by the Hunts Point Alliance for Children included a hip-hop DJ that thumped out a deep bass rhythm that easily radiated through the water and scattered most of the swimming creatures far from shore. But all the same every child and a few eager adults flirted happily with the notion of landing a big one. As they cast their lines again and again they marveled at the joy they experienced trying to make a direct connection between themselves and natural world along a thin nylon thread.
I’m very new to fly-fishing, but I found myself as the resident expert. On a mission to make first contact with the local residents of the Bronx in New York City I took advantage of this event that drew hundreds of neighborhood children to the banks of this restored urban waterway. In the hopes of inspiring these young people to look at the environment just a few blocks from their homes I tried to engage their minds and bodies in a different way and perhaps encourage them to see that even within their bustling city there is a natural setting for them to enjoy.
For decades this urban river had been a place polluted by garbage and industrial runoff, a clogged artery which deprived the beating heart of a great city of life affirming free-flowing water. But under the diligent care of my friend Majora Carter and a dedicated cohort of concerned citizens the Bronx River was transformed into a tree-lined corridor fully capable of sustaining life in a thriving ecosystem. And now after a few years of positive growth and development through aggressive clean-up projects along with the creation of supportive infrastructure, the Bronx River is turning another corner on its recovery to become a place of recreation that among other things includes fishing for families in the community to enjoy.
“Now that they can have the experience of a beautifully maintained park, effective storm water management and an effective air quality management system, all these things help to support our understanding that nature is something that’s important and needs to be protected,” Majora told me. “For me it’s as much about the waterfront as it is places near the waterfront that inspire people to think about nature. Having deliberate opportunities for people to be physically and actively engaged with it in something like fly-fishing is truly important.”
As an urban revitalization strategist Majora understands that community engagement is critical to the creation of strong neighborhoods. Having worked to restore the Bronx River she has helped to establish a more healthy natural environment amidst the asphalt and concrete of the city. With the vital resources of grass, trees, clear air, and fresh water local residents can enjoy the pleasant surroundings of the place they call home and can be encouraged to not only maintain them but to make other improvements to nearby businesses, such as restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops and boutique retail. Majora insists that a vibrant community is much more likely to attract financial investment for the development of real estate as people aspire to live in an area that is pleasant to live, work and play.
Though most community planners tend to build housing first Majora believes that it is better instead to begin with environmental protection, the development of parks, the creation of communal green space, etc. In a place where low-income families can support efforts to make their homes more beautiful they are much more likely think about how they might create jobs and opportunities for themselves. Where there is a park to attract visitors and avid users members of the community have an incentive to stay and contribute to the creation of a thriving enclave as healthy and sustainable as the river that runs through it.
So here I am with my fly rod and a curious mind eager to explore all that the Bronx River has to offer. Like young Adrian I’m excited about the prospects of catching fish, but there’s more to it than that. Casting a rod over the water puts me in sync with the natural rhythm of this wonderful environment. Even in the city the presence of fish, sea birds and other wildlife are solid indicators of the river’s full recovery and the possibility of creating a thriving urban neighborhood that is just as healthy and capable of sustaining life for decades to come.
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