The Hackensack River is approximately forty-five miles long. It rises in southeastern New York just west of the Hudson River and flows briefly southeast and then south, crossing the New Jersey state line into Northern Bergen County. It then takes a meandering course through suburban New Jersey flowing through River Edge, Hackensack, and Teaneck, the town I lived in from ages two to eighteen. As it reaches the Meadowlands the river widens, forming side streams and wetlands, as it continues flowing southward past the western edge of Jersey City before emptying into Newark Bay where it is joined by the Passaic River. Numerous bridges traverse this river, which is something I did not consider until I read an article about the changing landscape of the Hackensack. I have crossed the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson river connecting Northern Manhattan to Northern New Jersey, hundreds of times, and each time I am dumbstruck by the engineering ingenuity and sheer manpower it took to erect it. But when it comes to many of the bridges traversing the Hackensack, the suspended slabs of concrete are not so much outstanding as they are just another feature of the landscape. The bridges that cross the Hackensack make it look easy, like the road took light a leap over a puddle before moving on, barely noticing a river which once shaped the development of Northern New Jersey.
When a new house is built in Teaneck, New Jersey, everybody talks about it. On Saturday afternoons middle aged women with short highlighted pony tails, militantly swinging arms, and shape up sneakers powerwalk the quiet streets of Teaneck and discuss the new builds and which architect the owners chose and whether they should have opted for brick instead of stucco and how the pool will be inappropriately close to the street. Recently the construction gossip has been almost entirely devoted to the rising mini mansion which replaced three houses on Sussex Avenue. I too find myself preoccupied with the completion of this house, but not for its size as much its classification. This house is undeniably a house on the banks of a river. The back of the house is made up of large windows and glass doors that open onto to a wide wooden porch with stairs that descend to a yard that stretches down to the river. There is even a dock jutting out, mostly over boggy land with the last half dozen planks finally hovering over the murky water. Prior to the house’s construction, when you looked at the river from the viewpoint of a parking lot used to access a walking trail, you would see still grey water bordered by swampy, reed dominated land on both sides, and in the distance, right before the river bend, the unremarkable brown and beige back of the otherwise flashy Riverside Mall. Just on top of the reeds you can see white glossy channel letters that spell “Saks Fifth Avenue.” There is the odd duck and, once in a while, a Kayak, but other than that this view has not changed much in recent memory. But now there is another prominent feature in this landscape, namely this looming brandy colored brick and glass house. The first thing I thought when I saw the back of it, positioned not twenty feet from the river, was that this family must be new to the area because they had transgressed an unwritten but deeply ingrained code of conduct, one I didn’t even realize existed until the owners of this house broke it, namely that: we don’t pay attention to this river, and we especially don’t emphasize it. But recently I have wondered why no one else in Teaneck thought to build a dock. It is as if no one realizes this is a town with a river running through it.
The Hackensack River was formed when a finger of the Wisconsin Glacier retreated, prodding and compressing bedrock along its way, resulting in the formation of the river valley. This newly ice-free fertile wilderness was soon populated with wooly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, giant sloths, and six-foot-long prehistoric beavers who all lived in an immense forest of tamarack and Atlantic white cedar which covered most of the land along the river. Not long after this major geologic event, the first humans arrived. The Lenape tribe settled by the river, which they named Atchensehaky or “River of Many Bends.” The river provided the Lenape with abundant runs of shad, herring, and striped bass. When Europeans first sailed up the river in the early 1600s they renamed it the Hackensack. They created a prosperous European settlement and pushed the Lenape off the land they had called home for thousands of years. With the influx of Europeans came a rise in boat trade, turning the river into a kind of commercial highway, which also brought pirates who used the shelter of forests to base their attacks. To prevent this the British set fire to the tamaracks and cedars which did little to stop the pirates but did much to rid the area of its forests. Some time later the Hackensack river played a pivotal role in aiding the North American colonies during the Revolutionary War. In 1776, after suffering devastating losses in the battle of Brooklyn, General George Washington led his troops towards Manhattan with the British in pursuit. On the morning of November 20th 1776, British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis led an army of 2,500 soldiers across the Hudson into New jersey for an attack against Fort Lee. Washington hastily directed his 2,000 troops in retreat across the Hackensack River thereby avoiding a potentially disastrous entrapment on the Bergen Neck, the narrow piece of land between the Hudson and Hackensack Rivers. Later in the war, the Hackensack River also served as a protective barrier for Washington’s army as they camped in the nearby hills. This means that George Washington is, on at least two accounts, indebted to the Hackensack River.
Teaneck, New Jersey has one of the largest Jewish communities in the United States. On the Jewish New Year, which usually falls in early to mid-September, the Jewish community participates in the ritual of Tashlich: part of the annual process of repentance whereby people cast their sins from that year into the river. The Tashlich prayer details this symbolic discarding and is meant to be recited while overlooking a natural body of flowing water. Many people also throw bread into the water to embody the act of discarding. On the Jewish New Year hundreds of Jewish families gather in Andreas Park in Teaneck to toss clumps of stale challah and sandwich bread into the river and watch the ducks relish in the feast of our sins. Except the last time I went to the river for the New Year there was nothing “flowing” about it. The part of the river which boarders the fence surrounding the park was lead colored and lumpy with a few empty one-liter Coke bottles and Doritos bags resting on top. The running joke was that we were no longer technically allowed to use it for the Tashlich ritual as flowing water was a necessary condition for fulfilling the obligation. The bread did not float away and there were no ducks around to eat it. That evening, the dark listless river was speckled with soggy wads of stale kosher bread.
In the late 1700s the port towns of New York and Newark saw major population booms. River trade turned into road trade and dozens of drawbridges traversed the river. Before long rail trade routes zigzagged across the Meadowlands. As the population grew and industry thrived the Hackensack River became the receptacle for an ever-increasing amount of waste and, as a result, waterborne disease became widespread. During the industrial revolution in the 19th and early 20th centuries factories deposited untold gallons of untreated waste into the river and today there are hotspots of chromium, mercury, PCBs, and other contaminants.
In the late 19th century, in response to the increased demand for fresh water, the Hackensack Water Company commissioned a network of pipes which, during times of drought, nearly drained the river dry. By the end of World War One the company could no longer meet drinking water demands and so, in 1921, the Oradell Dam was built, creating a reservoir. Before the creation of the dam, the clear river flowed strong and steady, keeping the salty waters of the Newark Bay from spilling more than a couple miles upstream. But as soon as the dam was constructed, the lower watershed, an ecosystem that had been a freshwater lowland forest for fifteen millennia, was transformed into a tidal estuary. The abrupt change in habitat eradicated the few surviving clumps of tamarack and cedar that had not been axed. Wild rice and cattails also disappeared and, by the 1940s, the opportunistic common reed had blanketed the wetlands. During this time, the Meadowlands were used as regional garbage dumps for the Erie Railroad hopper cars. The trash heaps were burned, sending thick sheets of smoke across the skies, further contaminating the waters. By the 1960s most of the lower river was a turbid hypoxic dead zone where only the hardiest species could survive, such as the mummichog, a small killfish found along the Atlantic coast that is exceptional in its capacity to tolerate severely polluted ecosystems. The mummichog is also abundant in superfund sites across the United States, such as Virginia’s Elizabeth River, formally the site of a wood treatment facility and the Navy sludge dumps.
Eventually, three more reservoirs were created. Today it is not the Hackensack Water Company but United Water New Jersey that provides drinking water to over one million residents, making the Hackensack’s upper watershed one of the most urbanized drinking water resources in America. In 1989 United Water built a state of the art water treatment facility to neutralize the polluted runoff entering the reservoirs. The river experienced somewhat of a recovery in the late 2000s due to the decline in manufacturing and the enforcement of regulations outlined in the Clean Water Act. Recreational fishing has seen a modest resurgence but, as signs by fishing spots explain, there are serious health advisories against eating fish caught in the river; catch and release is encouraged. The river is still the recipient of urban runoff, municipal sewage discharges, and runoff from hazardous waste sites.
There is a tennis court on the bank of the river which my family refers to as “the river court.” When we play tennis on a Sunday evening in the summer we always play on the river court. It is by no means the newest or nicest of public tennis court in Teaneck. In fact, almost all of Teaneck’s tennis courts have received recent renovations except for the river court. But there is a charm to a court by the river, especially on a summer evening. The air is thicker, the dusk more tangible, the silence more pronounced and if you play for long enough you might catch a Maraschino sunset. On one of these summer Sundays I was playing tennis with a friend from high school. Our ritual was to put a sort of supposedly harmless wager on the games, but this evening we were halfway through the set and still hadn’t settled on any terms. This day was particularly hot and muggy, one of those days where even the smallest semblance of a breeze feels like a blessing. Sweat was stinging my eyes and seeping through my pulled-back hair and pooling in my ears and the tip of my pony tail kept sticking to the back of my neck. The air felt almost too thick to be breathable. “I wish we had a pool to jump into,” I moaned as I squeezed my eyes shut trying to suppress the sting. When I opened them, my friend was grinning in that annoying “I know something you don’t” sort of way. I had known him for a good four years and it took me all of five seconds to guess where this was going.
“No way. It’s toxic.”
“You’re probably not going to die from swimming in their once.”
“Well I don’t see why I should risk it.”
“Come on, we haven’t found anything else to put on the game.”
This guy could be unbelievably unrelenting. It was too hot to argue and besides, the water didn’t look as murky as usual. What with the sun reflecting off the water it almost looked tempting, and the score was tied at 3-3, so it was anyone’s game. And so, I consented. As luck— and my lack of composure in scored tennis matches—would have it, I lost the game and immediately began to complain about the sickening color of the river and the chunky consistency of the bank. But after having to acknowledge the relentlessness of my opponent for the second time that afternoon, I agreed to dip my toes in. I removed my sneakers and crept towards the water, my feet sinking into the sludge. I reached the edge of the water and skimmed my toes across the surface. And then, as I really should have known would happen, I felt hands on my back and, before I could retaliate, was propelled forward into knee deep water. There was a lot of splashing and pushing and then we were both swimming in the river. As I opened my mouth to yell something about how I was going to die or turn green or grow another arm I realized how cool the water felt. I was taking a refreshing swim in a river after a grueling tennis match. Soon enough I was not only dunking my head but was diving down into the murky water and floating almost motionlessly on my back like I was in an aqua blue resort pool, until I heard my name called. I bolted upright to see my younger brother and his friend standing over us holding their tennis rackets.
“What are you doing?” My brother was clearly amused. Losing a bet not longer seemed like a good excuse to be doggie paddling around in a noxious waste site and so I said nothing. Fairly mortified, I scrambled out of the water. To this day my brother maintains that it was the strangest thing he has ever seen. A couple weeks later the friend who I had been playing tennis with and had encouraged this whole episode sent me an article he had found in the local paper. It was about the toxicity of the Hackensack River and it advised avoiding the lower river because contamination levels were dangerously high. He followed this link with “LOL.”
I remember walking home from school with my sister one day in early spring. The sky had a washed-out dullness to it, as if someone was increasing its opacity, as we approached the grassy triangle where we would play kick ball and capture the flag. It was my favorite time of year when the trees were just beginning to display delicate pink cherry blossoms that only lasted for a few days before they succumbed to the breeze and blanketed the ground. But according to the memories I had recorded from previous years, the sky was supposed to be a deep blue when the cherry blossoms emerged. I maintained my upward gaze as I said to my sister, “You know, the skies used to be more blue,” doing my best to sound sorry that I was the one to break the news. I had just learned about pollution in school and how the smoke stacks which lined every highway in New Jersey were making the air dirty. I related this development the way I had heard my parents talk of buying candy bars for twenty-five cents or getting milk delivered in glass jugs in the morning. My sister, who might have been eight at the time, sighed like this was something she knew would happen eventually. Nothing more was said. I felt, maybe for the first time, an active thoughtfulness in having consciously tried to record, in memory, the day the skies stopped being blue, and then I felt old. The skies were blue again the next morning, of course, but I don’t remember feeling relieved about it.