Archipelago New York: The Story of a City, Told Through Its Islands

Thomas Halaczinsky on board Sojourn | photo courtesy Thomas Halaczinsky
Thomas Halaczinsky on board Sojourn | photo courtesy Thomas Halaczinsky

Despite the fact that we’re surrounded by water, many New Yorkers have never had much of a connection to the sea that surrounds Manhattan and Long Island like a string of clues left behind by the receding glacier that created our constant surroundings.

Filmmaker and photographer Thomas Halaczinsky, who splits his time between Brooklyn and Greenport, has been fascinated by the archipelago spreading east from the island the Lenni Lenape Indians called Mannahatta, or “land of many hills,” since he arrived in the city in 1991, an immigrant from Germany who saw this place with fresh eyes.

Mr. Halaczinsky has been documenting this world with his camera since 2012, sailing from island to island on a 30-foot O’Day sloop named Sojourn, culminating in the publication this year of “Archipelago New York,” a chronicle of his travels.

When Mr. Halaczinsky arrived in New York in the early 1990s, he was shocked to find that most New Yorkers didn’t give a thought to the decaying waterfront at the periphery of their city lives.

“New York City is an island city, like Hong Kong,” he said. “At the time, there was no Google Maps, and people didn’t really look at the geography of the city much. But coming from abroad, coming to the city having looked at maps, I was totally aware of the geography.”

At the time, he was living in Tribeca, and he passed a nautical chart store there on his way to the subway each morning.

Block's map of his 1614 voyage, with the first appearance of the term "New Netherland"
Block’s map of his 1614 voyage, with the first appearance of the term “New Netherland”

On the wall in that shop was a chart drawn by Adriaen Block, the first Dutch explorer to document the string of islands heading east from New York City, after whom Block Island is named.

“One day, I chatted up the guy who worked in the store, and discovered a whole bunch of islands,” said Mr. Halaczinsky. “I started to think about making a film about this island world, but I couldn’t sell it.”

During this time, New York was gradually awakened to the value of its waterfront, in part through books like William Kornblum’s “At Sea in the City” and Phillip Lopate’s “Waterfront,” and through the city’s efforts to revitalize its waterfronts as recreation areas for its citizens.

Mr. Halaczinsky had learned to sail as a young man in Germany, but when he first came to New York, he couldn’t find anywhere to even get on board a boat. On a trip to City Island in the mid-1990s, he arrived just as the last boat rental shop was closing down. But he had friends with boats, and enlisted them in his explorations, before ultimately finding his cruising sloop, named Sojourn, in New Rochelle. With Adriaen Block’s explorations in mind, he set out on a “post-colonial exploration” of his own.

“His was the first-ever map drawn of New York, Long Island, and up the eastern seaboard to Block Island and Rhode Island,” said Mr. Halaczinsky. “His storyline became a very good orientation for me, and I started by following his route. He had been stranded on Manhattan. His boat Tiger, which he came on from Holland, had burned down right off of Mannahatta Island, and he built a new boat, Onrust (Dutch for Unrest), supposedly with the help of the natives living on Mannahatta. This lends itself to a storyline for me. I’m a European. He’s a European. But I’m not looking at it like an explorer in the 1600s, who would be looking at how to make the land and people useful to yourself. I looked at what came afterward.”

Adriaen Block actually described this string of New York islands as an archipelago. Mr. Halaczinsky estimates there are about 70 islands in this stream, but that number is constantly in flux, as barrier islands connect and disconnect from the mainland, as new islands are created with fill and old, low island succumb to erosion and rising tides.

Thomas Halaczinsky's photograph of the Staten Island Ferry in New York Harbor
Thomas Halaczinsky’s photograph of the Staten Island Ferry in New York Harbor

Many of the islands surrounding New York City were originally used to separate people.

Before Ellis Island opened in 1890, recent immigrants would be quarantined on Hoffman Island or brought to an infirmary on Swinburne Island far in the outer reaches of New York Harbor. The mentally ill were housed in psychiatric wards on Welfare Island, now known as Roosevelt Island, while prisoners are and were incarcerated on Rikers Island in the East River, while the country’s largest potter’s field is on Hart Island in the Long Island Sound.

“They’re dark and somewhat mysterious, and some of these islands have really fascinating stories,” he said.

In his travels, Mr. Halaczinsky found Fishers Island, which is in Southold Town but only publicly accessible via a ferry from New London, Conn., one of the most beautiful places to visit, but he was equally enamored with Broad Channel Island in Jamaica Bay, a little island right off of the runways of JFK International Airport, where a fishing community of several thousand residents still live in houses built on stilts to withstand the constant tidal fluctuations.

Thomas Halaczinsky's photograph of the Manhattan skyline from Jamaica Bay
Thomas Halaczinsky’s photograph of the Manhattan skyline from Jamaica Bay

Mr. Halaczinsky spent the summer of 2012 on Broad Channel Island, plotting the Archipelago project. Jets would land and take off right over the island every few minutes, but he insists “you blank it out after a little while.”

At home in the middle of the marsh, he said the islands were home to a dizzying array of bird species, with the skyline of Manhattan peeking through the fog in the distance.

Mr. Halaczinsky said Broad Channel Island had no police force during Prohibition, and many houses there still have trap doors in the floors where rum runners would bring in illicit alcohol.

“Mae West performed on Broad Channel Island during Prohibition time,” he said. “It was literally an island isolated from the others, where people went to have fun.”

Thomas Halaczinsky's photograph of Fishers Island in the fog.
Thomas Halaczinsky’s photograph of Fishers Island in the fog.

Mr. Halaczinsky said he’s still drawn to the mystery of Gardiner’s Island, which is in private hands and inaccessible to the public, and to Plum Island, long the home of a storied animal disease research center that could soon become open to the public.

“Hopefully it will be preserved and not turned into a golf resort,” he said. “Plum Island is fascinating. It will become part of the center of our attention.”

“Archipelago New York,” published May 28, 2018 by Schiffer Books, is available in bookstores now.

Mr. Halaczinsky’s photography in connection with the book is on display through July 9 in a group show at VSOP Projects, 311 Front Street in Greenport, and is also the subject of a solo exhibition through July 21 at the Brooklyn Waterfront Museum.

Mr. Halaczinsky will also give talks about the book at the Oyster Bay Historical Society on July 19 at 7 p.m., at the Southold Free Library on July 28 at 11 a.m. and at the South Street Seaport Museum on Sept. 6 at 6:30 p.m.

More information is online at archipelago-newyork.com.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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