22 February 2016

Fishers Of Bicycles

If you grew up in Brooklyn during the 1960s and early 1970s, as I did, you heard stories about the Gowanus Canal.  One such tale held that it was the Mafia's necropolis:  Under the cover of night, hitmen hauled bodies from car trunks and tossed them into the turbid water.  The sheer number of such corpses, according to the legend, accounted for the foul smell that wafted from water as lifeless as the bodies submerged in it. 

A variation on this urban myth said that one reason why the "mob" chose the canal as its graveyard is that the chemicals in the water dissolved those bodies, effectively making their benighted owners disappear from the face of the earth.

While I must admit that I don't find such stories wholly implausible, I must also add this bit of historical fact:  Mesopotamians built the earliest known canals about 6000 years ago, while modern sewer systems have a history of not much more than a century.  Thus, almost any body of water could turn into a dump for everything from agricultural offal to industrial waste.  Really, just about anything that any person or company wanted to dispose could end up in a river, lake, ocean or canal.  

Yes, anything--including a bicycle.  A onetime riding buddy confessed that a bike he no longer wanted and couldn't sell "ended up" at the bottom of Jamaica Bay.  I have no doubt that thieves similarly disposed of bicycles they couldn't fence or simply didn't know what else to do with.  And I'm sure that more than a few people have tossed bikes into the nearest stream along with household trash.

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Apparently, the latter fate seems to befall two-wheelers in Amsterdam.  So many bikes piled up in Amsterdam's canals that, by the 1960's, they were scraping the bottoms of boats, according to Diane Kleinhout.  She is a spokesperson for Waternet, an agency in charge of keeping the canals clean.  In the agency's attempt to clear out bikes--as well as scooters, wheelchairs, shopping carts and other wheeled items--Waternet employs bike fishermen.

Yes, you read that right.   The job of Richard Matser and Jan de Jonge is to use a huge hydraulic claw to trawl the canal's waters and base for the old bikes and other debris.  Their job has been compared to sticking your hand into a sink full of sudsy water and groping around blindly, with your fingers, until find a spoon or whatever you were looking for.  When the "fishermen" find a bike, they pull it out of the water and load it into a barge behind the claw.  Eventually, the bikes and whatever else the "fishermen" pull up will go to a recycler.

De Jonge says they "catch" about 15,000 bicycles a year.  Given that there are about two million bicycles in Amsterdam, that is a small percentage. Still, no one knows why that many bikes end up in the city's waterways. Some are attributed to thieves.  Ironically, in a city where, it seems, everybody rides bikes, two-wheelers don't get the same reverential treatment that American bike enthusiasts lavish on them.    Utility bikes can be bought for very little money; repairing them can cost more, so--according to one theory--people simply chuck them.


  1. I can understand why wheelchairs might end up in the canals. We thought Amsterdam would be the easiest to navigate with a wheelchair not the worst! It tempted us to dump the wheels and struggle on legs!! Not surprised that we never encountered another wheelchair outside of the Reichsmuseum, they must already be sleeping in the deep. Exhausted me so much that I never got to unfold my bike and savour the citie's bike-ability.

  2. Coline--What a shame you never got to cycle in Amsterdam! And I'm sorry about your partner's experience. Thanfully, I'm not in a wheelchair, but it's always seemed to me that Europe is generally more difficult than the US for handicapped people to navigate.

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