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Restoring grace to a river dedicated to an American hero

Hutchinson River Restoration Project volunteers gather garbage on the shore of a Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary clean-up site. (LINDSAY MINERVA/The Bronx Ink)


Ten years ago, Eleanor and Giles Rae began a journey to search for a house and instead found an unexpected new mission in life.  The couple spent many hours driving on the Hutchinson River Parkway to City Island, Giles Rae’s hometown. In the process, they became fascinated by the history of the parkway’s namesake, Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan who fought religious orthodoxy and was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century.

Eleanor Rae’s look back at over 400 years of American history brought her to the present: the Hutchinson River.  Hutchinson’s battles against the establishment inspired Rae, 77, to clean up part of the river that was filled with garbage. Her goal was to restore the river dedicated to her newly discovered hero.

Three years ago, Eleanor Rae helped found the Hutchinson River Restoration Project together with other board members, the youngest of whom is in her 50s. Rae, the current president, acknowledges that the group doesn’t fit the stereotype of environmental activists.

“We are pretty ancient,” she said. “We would love to have young people be active.”

But their age hasn’t stopped them from cleaning up the river. On a sunny mid-September day, volunteers stood along the shore of Eastchester Bay on the 420th anniversary of Hutchinson’s birth.  Gray and white hair stuck out beneath their matching red Hutchinson River Restoration Project hats.  Eleanor Rae’s enthusiasm was contagious.  The clean-up crew was ready to gather up glass bottles, cans, plastic bags, wrappers, PVC pipes, lighters, and condoms scattered around Goose Island.

The small island, which is home to a colony of nesting birds, is directly across the river from Co-op City.  It was one of the seven Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary clean-up sites.  By the end of the day, the group had filled nearly 70 large black garbage bags.

Dressed in rubber boots and red life jackets, Rae and 34 other volunteers paddled up river in red canoes that were supplied by Pelham Bay Park, the largest park in New York City (it spans over 2,700 acres).

But the group’s mission was larger than just restoring the five-mile river that runs from Scarsdale in Westchester County and flows south through the Bronx where it empties into Eastchester Bay at the most southern tip of City Island.  The nonprofit organization also wanted to honor Anne Hutchinson’s legacy.

The courageous Puritan stood for religious freedom, the right to assembly, and freedom of speech.  In 1642, she ultimately settled in the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx.

Toby Z. Liederman, 75, one of the original founders of Hutchinson River Restoration Project and current coordinator of the Anne Hutchinson Year project, sees Hutchinson as the first feminist in American history.

“Anne Hutchinson has made her place in herstory, standing for separation of religion and government, religious freedom, tolerance, the right to dissent, freedom of assembly, free speech, and women’s rights, all of which have become part of our American Constitution and Bill of Rights,” said Liederman.  “She had the courage to stand up for her beliefs, even when there were personal consequences.”

Over four centuries later, Giles Rae, 76, was part of the clean up effort that day.  Sitting at a table full of pamphlets and maps, he said he cared about the river.  “We are here to bring awareness to the Bronx and the people affected by the river,” he said.  “People should have access to water.”

“I can see Goose Island from my house,” said Rochell Thomas, a Co-op City resident and clean up volunteer. “It’s disgusting.”

In 1999, the Hutchinson River was designated one of the most polluted rivers in New York State, according to testing by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.  Several years ago, the government agency told Eleanor Rae that the river was too silted for its research vessels to enter and do water monitoring.

The Hutchinson River Restoration Project studied the 2011 Harbor-Wide Water Quality Monitoring Report for the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary, and the group contacted the New York City Department of Environmental Protection in September to ask why the Hutchinson River was not being monitored for water quality.  She said a DEP spokesman offered the “old excuse” of it being difficult to bring boats into the waterway. But  she told him she saw two large tugboats with loaded barges making the trip without difficulty just the day before.  In an email response, a DEP spokesman said,  “DEP is currently working closely with the state to establish water quality monitoring protocol for the Hutchinson River.”

In August, a white-painted, wooden motorized dinghy, donated by 82-year-old board member Jack Ullman, was christened the Anne Hutchinson. Violet Smith, a Hutchinson River Restoration Project board member, even dressed up as the historical figure.

Piecing together a costume, she wore Eleanor Rae’s black doctoral graduation gown that hung in her closet unused for years since receiving her PhD from Fordham University in contemporary systematic theology.  Rae said they had fun re-creating history.  To complete the 17th century look for the celebratory launch, the outfit was topped off with a white apron and collar.

The boat was small and modest.  But those traveling aboard the Anne Hutchinson understand it is making a larger statement.  With the Throgs Neck Bridge in the distance, Ann Hutchinson motored up and down the river, collecting one trash bag at a time onto its bow and restoring grace to the river.

On the crisp, bright autumn day, this unlikely group made a dent in cleaning up the pollution of the sanctuary and resurrecting the memory of an American heroin.  “When will our goals be accomplished?” Eleanor Rae said.  “Not in my lifetime but many years down the road when we can say hooray.  Right now, we have little hoorays along the way.”

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