By Albert Amateau
It’s 32 miles around the shoreline of Manhattan and Cy Adler knows every inch of it.
Teacher, writer and environmentalist, Adler is the founder of Shorewalkers, Inc., a not-for-profit walking and environmental group dedicated to exploring the metropolitan area shoreline on foot.
Over the past 18 years or so, the Shorewalkers’ signature spring event has been a walk around Manhattan as close as possible to the water’s edge. It starts at the Battery on an early May morning — walkers join or drop out along the way — and ends about 10 hours later after passing through more than 15 city parks and a few mean streets.
Earlier this year, Adler’s guidebook to the event, “Walking Manhattan’s Rim — The Great Saunter,” a 175-page paperback, was published by Green Eagle Press ($13.95) with a foreword by the folk singer Pete Seeger and an introduction by Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe.
The book, with maps and photos, provides a historic and geographic profile of the Manhattan shoreline interspersed with glimpses into Adler’s environmental opinions and adventures.
In an interview last week, Adler expanded on his explorations along the metropolitan area shoreline and his adventures on the Great Saunter and beyond.
“We started the Great Saunter in 1984 or 1985 just to see if it could be done. There weren’t many walking groups then and the shoreline was a lot less accessible than it is now,” he said. “We started doing our longest walk on June 21, the longest day of the year, but it was too hot so we changed the date to May.”
Adler has missed a few Saunters over the years but he has walked at least part of the route about a dozen times. “I’ve done the whole thing from beginning to end about four times,” he said. “The only one who completes it every time is Robert Johnson, from Newark. He’s very fast.”
The obstacles have varied over the years. Construction in Battery Park City and along Hudson River Park has forced the Great Saunter to take some detours. The former rail yards between 60th and 72nd Sts. where the Trump project is under construction was a stretch where Shorewalkers had to crawl under a fence until recently when the new Riverside Park South opened to the public.
But heat has been the most daunting problem,
“I remember one Saunter when it was 94 degrees — in May,” said Adler. “I knew it was 94 because the temperature was flashing on Yankee Stadium as we were walking past it down the Harlem River. By the time we got to 86th St. in Carl Schurz Park I was feeling woozy. I made it to 34th St. and collapsed. I was walking with Joe Vitrano [a longtime Shorewalker] and a girl, Monami, he had just met. They called a cab and took me home. It worked out very well for them. They eventually got married and they have a couple of kids.”
Adler’s list of acknowledgments in “Walking Manhattan’s Rim” is long. But he makes special mention of Minor Bishop, an architect and early member of Shorewalkers who often leads the second half of the Great Saunter down from Inwood Park along the East Side shoreline. Walt Wright, another leading Shorewalker, was the organizer of the 2003 Great Saunter and is expected to coordinate the event next year.
“We get as many as 300 people at the beginning of the Saunter and about 30 or 40 finish it,” Adler said. Shorewalkers has a mailing list of 1,000. “But not all of them go on the walk and not all of them pay the $20 annual dues,” he said.
Adler was born in 1927 “in Brooklyn on a kitchen table, so I’ve been told.” Appropriately for a man who likes to be in sight of the water, he went to sea as a young man.
“In 1952 when I was a student at N.Y.U., I was living in a cold water flat on the Lower East Side paying $15.50 a month rent. But I got restless and wanted to see the world.” Adler said. “I went down to the National Maritime Union [then in Chelsea] to try and get on a ship. But there were a lot of sailors in town — it wasn’t that long after the end of World War II. They told me to try a Norwegian ship, and I did. We left from Stapleton, Staten Island. It was a tramp steamer going around the world. Going across the Pacific we didn’t see land for 29 days, but we only got as far as Manila.”
Adler recalled that he then signed onto an American vessel as a wiper [an engine room job] to get back home. “On the way back I got into a fight with a crazy sailor — he was my roommate actually. He bit me and took a piece out of my chest near the neck. There was no doctor on board and by the time we got to San Pedro I was running a high fever. I almost died but I still love the sea.”
But he had seen enough of the world for a while and went on to take a degree in mathematics. He has taught math, physics and oceanography at various CUNY and SUNY schools, including Borough of Manhattan Community College, and at New York University and New School University.
In a digression in “Walking Manhattan’s Rim,” Adler tells about an oceanographic research firm with offices on Nassau and Fulton Sts. that he ran in the 1970s. “My company, Offshore Sea Development Corp., used Pier 17 as a biological research platform,” he said. “We lowered plastic crates of bivalves (oysters, mussels and clams) into the East River and observed their growth and vitality for over a year. We found that they grew well, though some of them died off in the warm months, probably due to lower quantities of oxygen in the waters.” Adler also holds patents on several maritime industry processes. “I was a millionaire on paper for about six months,” he added.
Adler is a prolific author. Before “Walking Manhattan’s Rim,” he published “Walking the Hudson: Batt to Bear,” in 1998, about a proposal to link 56 miles of trails from the Battery to Bear Mountain. He is also the originator of a proposal to create the Great Harlem River Park in the Bronx and Manhattan. Most recently, Adler had a July 14 article in the Daily News on the early promoters of Central Park.