I am very familiar with highways. For the past 12 years I have called Houston, Texas, home, where highways are by far the easiest and most-used mode of transportation. So I also know that the speeds those roads can afford also come with a certain insulation from the places through which they pass. You can drive through the same neighborhood every day for years on end without ever knowing or understanding anything about it.
I have driven over the Throgs Neck Bridge many times, usually traveling from my grandmother’s house on the north shore of Long Island to various New England destinations. Until very recently, I was hardly aware that each time I traversed the bridge, I passed directly over the campus of the nation’s oldest and largest maritime college.
SUNY Maritime sits on the tip of the Throggs Neck peninsula in the southeastern-most corner of the Bronx. Maritime is not a military academy, but it draws on some of the core tenets of military schools while aiming to prepare graduates to enter professions in the merchant marine industry, built on the non-naval shipping of public and private goods. On a recent trip over the bridge, after passing through the tollbooths on the Bronx side, I peeled off my well-worn route toward New Haven and exited at Pennyfield Avenue.
The avenue feeds a small cul-de-sac at the Maritime entrance. Passing through I was greeted by a friendly campus police officer who jotted down my license plate and ID numbers before raising the gate’s mechanical arm and directing me to a Visitor’s parking lot. (Pedestrians are free to enter the campus unimpeded, while all vehicles must register with the SUNY police.)
I was just in time for the 10am campus tour. Joining me was a reserved prospective lacrosse player from central Long Island and his parents. I was flooded with memories of my own college visits: students apathetically observing the campus and listening to the guide while their overzealous parents asked continuous questions. My tour at Maritime was no different.
The campus is only a few hundred yards wide, but the natural peninsula extends almost a mile into the Long Island Sound. Guided by our tour guide Ameera, we worked our way south, cooled by the wind that whips across the campus, through various academic buildings, a dormitory, the dining center (known as the mess deck), and athletics facilities. Most buildings on campus are no more than three or four stories tall and on the older side; those facilities, including the dorms, sport long, dark hallways with thick metal doors that appropriately reminded me of the bowels of a ship. These are joined by a few more modern buildings, including an upperclassmen dorm and a new LEED Silver-certified academic building, as well as a structure that outdates all the rest — Fort Schuyler. Situated at the convergence of the Sound and the East River, Throggs Neck was an ideal location for a military fort to protect the rapidly growing harbor during the early 19th century, and the military infrastructure still remains today.
Fort Schuyler and its partner Fort Totten just across the water in Queens were built following the War of 1812 to protect New York against a naval attack via the Long Island Sound. Fully outfitted with gun turrets and cannon mounts inside ten-foot-thick walls, Fort Schuyler provided nearly 360 degrees of protection across Sound and the East River. The landside of the fort is reminiscent of a medieval castle. A drawbridge spans a small moat and two outer walls insulate the fort from attackers.
Schuyler remained in full use as a training facility and hospital through the Civil War, but it never saw military action. Following the war, a number of projects to modernize the fort’s artillery proceeded on and off until funding dwindled. Soon after, in 1875, the New York State Merchant Marine Academy was founded. The academy initially existed onboard retired naval ships docked around New York Harbor, but after Fort Schuyler was officially listed as “abandoned” by the US Army in the late 1920s, the future use and control of the peninsula became contested ground. A young Robert Moses, as chairman of the New York State Council of Parks, wanted to turn the fort into a park. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt had other plans and awarded the land to the academy. Over the following decade the WPA rehabilitated the fort. The shore-based campus finally opened in 1938 and was incorporated as one of the first State University of New York schools a decade later. This adaptive reuse sets Fort Schuyler apart from most of its New York area counterparts: while many forts have simply been preserved and incorporated into parks, like Fort Totten across the way, Fort Schuyler currently houses SUNY Maritime’s Stephen B. Luce Library, a number of administrative offices, the Maritime Industry Museum, and a recently opened tug and barge simulator center available to Maritime students and professional mariners for training exercises.
Crossing the drawbridge and proceeding through the tunnels to the inner courtyard, I was struck by how handsome Fort Schuyler is. The courtyard, known as St. Mary’s Pentagon, features a few trees, a flagpole, and a lush, green lawn. Above the windows facing into the pentagon, elaborate bronze reliefs of ships detail the development of ship technology, from oar-powered sailboats of the first century to the advent of massive ocean liners in the 1900s. The fort’s tranquility is paradoxical given the intention behind its construction, not to mention the massive bridge that looms above.
We passed through the library, furnished with wooden tables from the college’s first mess deck, and briefly took in the museum. I stood at the helm of an imaginary ship on the model navigation bridge and checked out the wall of honor to Maritime alum Scott Kelly, currently on a one year mission at the International Space Station.
One of the most striking features of the museum was the collection of model ships on display, including the half dozen permutations of the college’s training ships. The current iteration, the Empire State VI, was out at sea, returning from Summer Sea Term. During the school year, the 565-foot converted cargo freighter is docked at Maritime’s pier to give students hands on experience, harkening back to the days when the school existed exclusively onboard.
The Empire State VI’s days may be numbered — the university successfully petitioned the US Congress to acquire a more modern training vessel by the year 2020. While the shipping industry that made New York long ago shifted out of the city proper, the merchant marine remains vital to the city and state’s economy. In fact, as the global oil trade has increased in recent decades, colleges like SUNY Maritime have reemerged as crucial training grounds for licensed mariners and naval engineers. Today, the maritime industry contributes $100 billion to the US economy and supports 500,000 jobs. While the ship is primarily used for training at Maritime, its utility is not limited to Throggs Neck. The federal government occasionally activates the vessel in times of crisis, most recently following Hurricane Katrina, to help provide relief services to damaged facilities and infrastructure.
In addition to Fort Schuyler, there’s another major infrastructural presence on campus: the Throgs Neck Bridge. The northern ramp of this late 1950s Robert Moses project stretches across campus in between a row of frat-houses-turned-faculty residences and the western side of the fort. While the Throgs Neck Bridge is not as iconic as some of its associates in the greater New York area, it attains a unique kind of majesty when viewed from campus. I’ve often viewed bridges in profile and while crossing them, but I’ve seldom stood directly underneath. The bridge provides shade for an obstacle course used for training exercises and, during my visit, a pair of hulking, spandex-clad men working out. Standing below eight lanes of traffic, I was surprised at how quiet the bridge seemed. If anything, it emits a gentle hum that blends with the echoes of the Sound meeting the East River to produce a calming drone of white noise. Although the bridge can be seen from almost any viewpoint on campus, tour guide Ameera said most students are entirely indifferent to its presence.
Ameera is in the civilian program, which makes up about 15% of the student body; the remaining majority fill the regiment cadet program. Cadets are required to live in the dorms, wear a uniform, and take on a strict schedule. Over the course of their four years, they gain privileges — permission to grow their hair grow longer, keep a radio in their room, or travel off campus. Upon graduation cadets earn a US Coast Guard License as a Merchant Marine Officer. Ameera mentioned that she commutes almost an hour to campus everyday from Rockland County; civilians are allowed to live off campus, but cadets are required to live in dorms for their first two years. In the fall she intends to start a commuter club to help the 25% of students who don’t live on campus adjust to college and make friends. Some travel from as far away as Dutchess County.
Though the school has a large commuter base, including most of its faculty, I gathered that the university’s connection with the adjacent neighborhood of Throggs Neck was particularly strong. (While Robert Moses dropped one of the g’s for the bridge so it would fit better on road signs, residents honor the original spelling of the peninsula.) Throggs Neck is a fairly typical low to middle class suburban neighborhood and the area is still home to many Irish-Americans who settled the area as a fishing community.
I noticed a fair number of non-students on campus exercising, fishing, or sitting along the water. A swath of kids participating in one of the college’s summer sailing camps toted life preservers down to the pier; rec classes in the athletics facilities are open to the community. Other than these fleeting moments of interaction, it seemed like the non-college-affiliated public did not necessarily have much of a relationship with the students. Though I visited during the summer when there were few students on campus, Ameera confirmed that community engagement is limited. I surmised that this was due in part to the rigidity of the regiment program and its restrictions on leaving campus. If students want to get off campus and explore the city, they can easily hop the Bx40 bus right outside the gate and head towards Manhattan rather than investigate the surrounding neighborhoods in the Bronx. The bus is about a 25-minute ride to the Westchester Square-East Tremont Avenue subway station, where the 6 train connects to Grand Central Terminal in 40 minutes or less.
As I made my way back to my car I took in the unique sights the campus had to offer: on the eastern horizon City and Hart Islands floating in the Sound, to the west the Manhattan skyline tucked behind the Whitestone. While most colleges boast about their campus’ distinctive beauty, SUNY Maritime undoubtedly corners the market in this respect. You may not find the picturesque collegiate quad or the quaint university library, but the rare views of the city and the Sound cannot be compared. Whether to workout on the obstacle course, visit Fort Schuyler, or simply enjoy a waterfront park nestled deep in the Bronx, SUNY Maritime is not to be missed.
Ben Pardee is an urbanist, hip-hop enthusiast, and yogi. He is a project assistant on Urban Omnibus and blends his deep Texan pride with Yankee sensibilities.
All photographs by the author unless otherwise noted.