Hoboken on the Half Shell

Making a comeback. Hoboken, 2021. (photo: Timothy Karr)

Oysters!

I spotted these clusters during a walk with my teen-age daughter near Hoboken’s Sinatra Park. They were exposed by a recent low tide. I confirmed them as genuine items after scrambling over a barricade and down to the waterline for close inspection. Eleanor, who’s frequently embarrassed by her father’s enthusiasms, coaxed me back to the path for fear a passing friend might take notice. But not before I took a few photos of these little and, for a century, rare local beauties.

Oysters are woven into the history of New York Harbor. When Henry Hudson sailed into the estuary he encountered a Lenape tribe that maintained oyster beds on both sides of the river. The Dutch who settle “Manahatta” named Pearl Street after the massive Lenape oyster middens that lined the East River. According to author Mark Kurlansky, shells were piled so high that the Dutch used them as pavers, giving the street its name.

By the 18th Century, New York Harbor oysters were renowned worldwide for their variety and sweetness. Those grown in the Gowanus Canal (yes, that canal) were particular favorites. African American businessman Thomas Downing ran Downing’s Oyster House at the corner of Broad and Wall Streets. The oyster cellar was a favorite spot of the city’s elite during the early 1800s. But oysters were not just for the well-to-do; they were common to the diet of working-class New Yorkers, an abundant and thereby cheap source of protein, iodine, calcium, and iron.

By the early 20th century these beds had disappeared from the Hudson estuary following decades of industrial pollution and sewage runoff. They’re now making a comeback thanks to the efforts of groups like the Billion Oysters Project, Hudson Riverkeeper, and NY/NJ Baykeeper (look them up and throw them some support).

Oysters contributed to the pristine ecosystem that the Hudson estuary once was. They’re their own river keepers: When Oysters feed they filter nitrogen from the water. When there’s an excess of nitrogen algae blooms form, depleting oxygen from the water to levels harmful to other marine life. The more oysters in a marine ecosystem, the less nitrogen. The less nitrogen, the healthier the water is for other species. During its heyday, the Lower Hudson had more than 200,000 acres of oyster beds. According to Kurlansky, that was enough to filter all of the water in the harbor in a matter of hours.

Ann Fraioli, director of education for the Billion Oyster Project, said: “When you put oyster reefs back in the water, biodiversity flocks to it.”

While the Billion Oyster Project focuses repopulation efforts on the New York side of the Hudson — owing to New Jersey State restrictions against oyster cultivation — this cluster along the Hudson’s west bank indicates Hoboken oysters are doing it for themselves.

All things media, online & off, but mostly on. Timothy Karr advocates for universal access to open networks at Free Press and Free Press Action Fund.