Editors’ note: This is part of a series, “Op-Eds From the Future,” in which science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write Op-Eds that they imagine we might read 10, 20 or even 100 years from now. The challenges they predict are imaginary — for now — but their arguments illuminate the urgent questions of today and prepare us for tomorrow. The opinion piece below is a work of fiction.
There are legitimate concerns over the health and safety of those who venture illegally into the flooded no-go zones of Old New York searching for salvage and sustenance. But closer examination of the issue raises more questions than it answers: Should access be restricted at all? Who — if anyone — benefits from these regulations?
“The dead don’t need this,” Albert Turner tells me, the motor of his trawler puttering softly as we idle over the former intersection of 86th and Central Park West. His eyes scan the horizon for drones, one hand waiting on the throttle. “The dead don’t need any of this. Why are the Coast Guards out here harassing the living people of this city when they could be helping them instead? Don’t they have anything better to do? I’m just trying to feed my kids.”
The debate over the recent increase in what coastal authorities have dubbed “illegal trespassing and salvaging operations” in the no-go zones of flooded New York has been heating up again in the wake of record-smashing Hurricane Carla — as it does with every major climatologically-boosted megastorm that rakes the region. When a hurricane churns the water around, that’s the best time to ease your skiffs and outriggers beneath the barbed wire — or so the locals say.
You never know what you’ll find bobbing around in Times Square, washed free by the tides. And when the things you find — like copper wire, tarnished jewelry or old mobile phones with their stores of unplundered rare earth elements — could be worth enough to keep dinner on the table for weeks at a time, it’s worth the risk of jail or a hefty fine to many, including Mr. Turner. As he explains, it’s not like most of them can afford to pay the fines anyway.
There are legitimate safety concerns to be raised over the scavenging. The water lapping at our hull has that peacock-feather sheen — and that same rust-and-diesel stink — familiar to anyone who has taken a ferry through the more legitimate routes bisecting what’s left of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Jagged metal reefs can rip through the hull of a dugout as easily as paper. If the rigging of your boat gets tangled in the cold gray fingers of Prospect Park’s treetop waste, then you’ll be stuck there until the Coast Guard hauls you in aboard a raft made of pink violation slips.
But life here has never been easy, and the designation of the entire area as a protected national memorial site in 2159 was a deeply misguided piece of legislation from the start. It was signed into law by government officials in the nation’s capital of Minneapolis, many of whom belonged to the privileged scions of families who had the financial cushion to leave the District of Columbia and Manhattan before the waters even reached Riverside Drive. And it was always meant as a symbolic gesture to win the hearts of voters in Kansas City and Dallas — never as something that the living, breathing citizens of the five boroughs could reasonably be expected to arrange their lives around.
The rest of the country’s brief, mawkish love of New York stretched just far enough to allow it the status of martyr, a symbolic bumper sticker for all we’ve lost and continue to lose to the rising tides. That balloon burst several years ago, long after the Manhattan sea wall collapse but before the Midwood great white attack. And now the rest of the nation wonders why anybody is allowed to continue living here at all. Should federal aid continue to be given to those who remain in the watery wasteland? What about their children? What about the skyrocketing cancer rates, the overtaxed, underfunded teachers in their weather-beaten yellow sloops? Why not force those who remain to relocate to the relatively dry northern shores of the Bronx, as my own parents and so many other families did years ago?
Albert takes us north up Broadway as the moon wanes, careful to ease into the shadows if the buzz of a drone or distant helicopter gets too loud. His children sing an old folk lullaby softly on deck as we slip between the canyons of looming apartment blocks, lamps burning yellow in windows six and ten and fifteen stories above the waterline: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine? Could you be mine?”
The coasts have been a problem for over a century, ever since the global temperature ticked past 3°C and the poles gave up their liquefied ghosts. A political cartoon from the late 2030s shows a flock of vultures labeled “FREELOADERS AND FAMINE REFUGEES” perched, beaks agape, atop the Chrysler Building’s dome, the waters around them filled with bobbing skulls. In the years since, there has been great confusion in the national heart and soul over whether our flooded cities should be enshrined as somber cemeteries, squatted upon and protected like a dragon’s hoard from refugees who might wish to settle there, or razor-wired off and forgotten completely, left to nature as you would a Chernobyl or a San Francisco.
The needs and wants of the people still living in these forgotten and forbidden cities have been largely left out of the discussion. Instead, a few widely publicized, extremely expensive bandages have been slapped over the issue, the wound underneath hidden and earmarked for examination at a later date. And the draconian federal regulations over the waters of N.Y.C. seem to do more harm than good.
Who is punished by these laws? Who catches the brunt of the blow? Even though Mr. Turner seems to blow off the risk of fines and penalties, the impounding of his trawler or his imprisonment for any length of time would leave his children orphaned and destitute.
Consider the outcome of the recent case brought against David Collins, the C.E.O. of Drowned Gotham, a company whose stated purpose was to take tourists “on a guided experience through the submerged ruins of some of New York City’s most well-remembered landmarks.” Mr. Collins ran the lucrative illegal New York tourism company in defiance of local authorities for years, evading detection and capture for far longer than anyone believed was possible. The young entrepreneur has been fined $50,000.00 and put on probation; the three locals Mr. Collins hired as guides are still waiting in holding cells for their court dates, charged with three counts each of criminal trespassing and criminal mischief. (At the time of this writing, neither Mr. Collins nor anyone else associated with Drowned Gotham has offered to pay their $7,000.00 bail.)
As I consider what would happen to Mr. Turner and his children if he suffered the same fate, we weigh anchor near the ridge of Fort Tryon Park. With most of the surrounding area submerged, the Cloisters on their hilltop look more like a forgotten monastery than they ever did in the days before the flood. Mr. Turner strips down to his underpants, hands his oldest boy the pile of clothes, and gives us all a nod. “Keep your ears out for buzzers or choppers,” he tells me before slipping beneath the water.
Who benefits from the enforcement of these regulations? Is it merely an issue of public health, or a last throw by those who long ago turned this city into a playground for the privileged and the powerful? There’s so little left to scavenge in the Drowned Apple. The museums are empty, their treasures moved to safety a hundred years ago. There’s nothing left of value.
Or is there?
The blueprints for Baldur Equities’ proposed “multipurpose floating recreational and residential area” fall just outside the borders of the memorial zone. Venice-on-the-Hudson would be completely legal, a respectful distance from the memorial sites, a way for the right kind of people to slowly begin recolonizing all the valuable real estate lost in the flood. If it’s a success, presumably there are more on the way. After all, even beneath the liquefied remains of two sizable ice caps, New York is still New York. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
Mr. Turner breaks the surface as smoothly as he went in. He hands his daughter a shrink-wrapped carton of instant ramen, then hauls himself back onboard, slick as one of the Central Park otters. He grins and brandishes something at me: a bottle of beer, its label rotted away, its glass mossed over with algae. He pops the top. We dangle our feet over the deck’s edge and pass the bottle between us, still listening for 3 a.m. drones.
Brooke Bolander (@BBolander) is the Locus and Nebula Award-winning author of “The Only Harmless Great Thing.” Her short fiction has been shortlisted for the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, Theodore Sturgeon and Shirley Jackson Awards.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.