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Luis Melendez: A Life in the Harbor

By Susannah Black
March 23, 2016

This is the first in a series of Billion Oyster Profiles, which will tell the story of the Billion Oyster Project through the people who have shaped and been shaped by it.  BOP is not primarily about oysters, but about people.  Luis Melendez is close to the heart of it– in recognition of which, at this past Harbor School Awards Dinner, he was given the Peter Matthiessen Award for Leadership in the Marine Environment.  His story is an excellent place to start.  

This piece is transcribed from an interview; it’s been very lightly edited for continuity.  Thanks to Robin Bates of the Moore Charitable Foundation for providing interview questions and inspiration.

A Mariner’s Beginning

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In 2003, when I was in 8th grade, Murray Fisher walked into my third period class; I believe it was my math class.  And he took a few minutes to talk about the school he was starting up, called the Harbor School.  One of the things that he said was that we would be out of the school building once a week, at different parts of the Harbor, and that stuck with me.  I never was on a boat, never was anywhere near the Hudson or the East River; the only time I saw the river was when I was going over it, taking the J train into the city.  And so I was like, oh, this sounds great.  He asked at the end of his presentation whether anyone was interested in the school and like four kids raised their hands and I was one of the four, and he took us out in the hallway; he spoke to us.  I was part of the first graduating class, attending from Fall of 2003 and graduating in 2007.

When I started out, I don’t even think I knew that Brooklyn was on an island, that Brooklyn and Queens were together.  As far as I knew, everything was connected. I saw the river but I didn’t know too much about it.  I mainly stayed in Brooklyn.

The summer before I started Harbor School I joined this program at the East River ApprenticeShop.  We would row Whitehall gigs in Greenpoint.  From Newtown Creek we rowed out into the East River, and then we’d go up or down the East River doing water quality testing.  One of the times we went out, one of the instructors talked to us about the geography of New York– “That’s Manhattan, this is Queens”– and that was the first time I was like, “Oh, that’s how this works.”

The on the water activities were what made Harbor special.  As a student, in middle school, and in my transition to high school,  I struggled a lot in classes, in my academic classes.  But when I was on the water, it was a whole different feel.  I actually knew what was going on, I was quick at picking things up, and at a certain point– well, you always keep on learning, but once I had a sense that I knew what I was doing, I would make sure to pass all my information down to my peers, my other classmates, make sure they were getting everything, that they were understanding everything that was happening.  

 

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One of the most key moments was definitely on [South Street Seaport’s 1893 sail training schooner] Lettie G. Howard.  I sailed on it and I loved it so much I became an intern; every summer I signed up for Summer of Sail, a week long program– that’s actually how I met Aaron [Singh, head of Harbor’s Vessel Ops program and Luis’ mentor, boss and friend.]  He was driving Lettie and we were doing overnights and day sails.  But then I spent a week traveling with Aaron from Pier 79 all the way to Philadelphia. That was… heading out to the Atlantic, sailing through the night, seeing no lights because we’re out on the ocean, seeing dolphins… that was while I was a rising sophomore, so that was a pretty big experience for me, a pretty big deal.

Back then there were no CTE programs. Our first year we had a field class, Intro to New York Harbor, where we would go to different parts of the Harbor, do water quality testing; we’d also go to different parks, too– Prospect Park, Central Park; we’d do the same thing; water quality testing; talk about the interaction between the Harbor and manmade structures. I don’t know if I can choose just one teacher that stood out to me– to be honest, all of them did.  The thing I grew to appreciate about Harbor School was that you weren’t calling teachers by their last names– it wasn’t Mr. Arezzo, Mr. Heller, Ms. Fraioli; it was Roy, Noah, Ann– and all the teachers seemed to be very committed– and it’s still true to this day, because most of them are still around, still part of the Harbor community in one way or another– they were so invested, they believed in the mission; you can tell, when they talked, or got us excited about going out into the field– it was genuine.  It wasn’t like they were forced or they were just there to work or earn a paycheck or whatever.  So because of that, it drew me in even more.  That helped shape me into the person I became. I remember thinking during my senior year that at some point in life I would want to come back and help teach, and that’s exactly what I’m doing now.

A Career Path Tied to the Harbor

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Right now, I am the assistant waterfront director for New York Harbor Foundation and New York Harbor School. I’m in charge of maintaining and operating all the Harbor School vessels, I’m in charge of maintaining the waterfront, the piers, the ramps, gangways, making sure everything is OK, I’m in charge of safety.  I also help out with Work Based Learning for Vessel Operations, help out with internship placements; I go to sites, talk about Harbor School, get them interested in working with us; I’m in charge of placing the interns and assisting Aaron with monitoring and making sure they’re doing a good job at their internship sites, which is great for me, because I love working on the water, and now I’m helping the Harbor School students find jobs– especially the ones who, like me, love working on the water.  

I’m still figuring out what I want to do ultimately. At some point down the line I might want to be an engineer.  But whatever I do I want to make sure that it’s still tied to the Harbor.  I’m still working it out.  But the instinct to pass stuff on is definitely ingrained in me, and that’s definitely because of the Harbor School community.  That’s one of the things I was taught.

I got a job with New York Water Taxi when I was sixteen.  I was a rising senior.  So as soon as I graduated Harbor School, I decided I wanted to work in the [maritime] field. I liked what I was doing, and I just wanted to work, at that point. Half a year later, I decided I wanted to go for my Captain’s license, because of what I was doing, and most of the captains at Water Taxi all knew that I was capable of doing it, they were kinda like pushing me for it.  I decided I wanted to become a captain, got my captain’s license at the age of 19.  Actually spent my 19th birthday in the captain course.  Celebrated with those guys, too.  Became Harbor School’s first captain.  

I started out working at Water Taxi when Tom Fox was still running it, before he retired.  Tom definitely served as a mentor.  He would come down– not just for me, for everyone in the company, right?  You think about your traditional CEO, you think someone who’s in the office somewhere off in meetings.  Tom would actually come down on the weekends, Saturday and Sunday, at the peak of the season, every weekend, he never missed a weekend– he would come down, muster everyone, and give us a talk about the company, give us a talk about us going out there, how much he appreciated our work, and it helped boost morale.  That was one thing I never took for granted, when Tom would come down and give those talks.  For me, especially at that age– I was sixteen years old– that helped me out.  I always thought that was a great thing.  The captains, too, who encouraged me– there were so many.  Definitely Mike Pellizi.  He actually used to work here for a while, helping Aaron out as a substitute for a year.  

What made it easy for Tom to come down was that his office was at the Red Hook site.  Now, the way Taxi is growing, there’s several offices, there’s a field staff, and then there’s us– we’re the marine department.  Now I’m mentoring kids also– not just kids at Harbor School; at Water Taxi, I’m talking to deckhands; one of the first things when I meet a new person for the season, I try to ask them what are their interests, what makes them interested in working at Water Taxi.  To the extent that we can understand what their aspirations are, I want to see if I can help them in any way.

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Anyway, after I got my captain’s license, I decided I should probably go back to school.  I went to Kingsborough and took some marine technology classes, but I kinda already had my license and felt like I should focus on something else.  I’d always had an interest in science, so I switched my major to Biology.  I came back and spoke to Roy [Arezzo, who had been his Living Environment teacher at Harbor, and who is now the head of the Aquaculture CTE program] about it.  Roy gave me some advice, and then after that at some point Roy and Brendan had a conversation about me; Roy knew that I was interested in biology and a job opening came up for a lab technician in the aquaculture department with Pete. So they gave me a call and asked me if that was something I’d be interested in.  And I said yeah, I would love to go back and work for the school, sounds amazing.  So I got that job, and was also working as a captain for the school.  At that point I kinda didn’t know what I was doing in the lab, so I picked up a lot; the seniors that year helped me out a lot.  The junior class, too.  We were all learning together.  Over the next few years I became the hatchery manager; I helped Pete in the lab, and I was also responsible for growing the algae and the oysters, setting the oysters.  And I also started picking up oyster shells for the Billion Oyster Project.  Well, at that point it was mainly for aquaculture class; we needed the oyster shells to set the oyster larvae on.  Then after that I shifted over to just working with Aaron doing vessel operations.

I transferred my credits to LaGuardia and I’m still in school now, took some semesters off, figuring out the plans.  I’m trying to piece all my experience and my interests together.  I’ve started doing diving, finishing my course with Lenny and Zoe; I’ve got Vessel Ops, did Aquaculture for a few years… Once I find a way to tie everything together, that’s where I’ll end up heading.

Maritime Crosstraining

The one piece of advice I’d give to current Harbor School students is to take advantage of everything Harbor School has to offer.  Especially now– Harbor School is offering so much, with all our different CTEs.  I feel like Harbor students shouldn’t just say they’re part of one CTE and focus on that– or even if they are, they should take as much advantage of that program as they can.  So that might mean staying after school, working with other CTEs, being a part of other clubs– there’s so many things going on after school and before school.  As long as you’re involved, you’ll learn so much.  There are so many talented people at Harbor School and in the Harbor Foundation.  Gotta do crosstraining.  

There’s so much more I’m working on in this area– I definitely want to become a dive instructor, working with Lenny and Zoe on that.  Have to finish my open water first! I want to become better at engineering, mechanical engineering; I’ve been spending a lot more time working with Brendan– who’s such a great source of information.  I want to head over to spend some time with Rick, understand building ROVs; work with Mauricio on sampling because I did that during Aquaculture too.  Want to keep up with Aquaculture, want to help spawn oysters and set them; most of the oysters we have on the reef now were from my era, so every time we pull one up and they’re huge and they’re growing and they’re great, I feel like a proud dad.  And I don’t just want to amass all these skills.  I want to help do that with the students, make sure that we’re all learning together, and that all these skills are being passed on to them as well.

The best part of my current job is working with students actually.  I mean, I drive a boat seven days a week and that’s amazing and I never get– till this day I’m not tired of it.  But to be able to have students driving the boat and to be able to have students working on deck–!  I tell them all the time especially when they come out on the weekends– they love it so much they come out to do maintenance on the weekends; sanding, oil changes, draining out the bilge–which is miserable work, but they do it, they don’t complain.  I tell them all the time, they help me out, I feed off of their energy, they’re so excited, and that makes me excited.  That’s my favorite part.

Upcoming Work

My to-do list now includes making sure that our vessels are operational, that we’re ready to go before April for the season, because we’re getting ready to start work in the Harbor.  So that means paint jobs, training– doing first aid and CPR with the Juniors, training the Sophomores on Indy, that means just doing ins and outs, line handling.  Making sure that everyone who’s placed in an internship is on track with their assignments and their paperwork.  And working with some Sophomores who’ve been volunteering their time, getting them enrolled in Work-Based Learning.  And then identifying internship sites; summer internships.  There should be a summer internship for every student who wants one.

Everybody is so happy to work with Harbor School.  That change has happened in the last few years.  Having people host Harbor School back in the day was a little bit difficult because it was new, they didn’t know about us, they didn’t know about the training.  But now Harbor School has a reputation for doing well, training young adults, so everyone loves the idea of hiring Harbor School students.

Friends and Colleagues

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I’m in touch with a lot of my friends from Harbor still.  Juana Garcia became a captain at Water Taxi last year, which is great, first female captain at Water Taxi ever, so just helping her out through that process was great.  And she’s a mother of two.  So when we catch up, we’ll have these occasional talks, she’ll ask advice about getting into this slip, and then I’ll ask her about the kids.  

One of my other best friends, Kareem Abraham, he’s a captain there, he drives all their vessels– he drives Water Taxis, the Shark, and he’s their main captain for the Zephyr, which is a huge 600-passenger vessel– it’s an amazing boat.  They both graduated in 2007.  Kareem, though, had a baby in 2006, before he graduated.  So he was able to be a dad, work at Water Taxi, graduate high school– he’s such a solid individual.  He’s always been positive.  Whenever I feel doubt about anything, definitely marine related, I always go to him.  

Who else?  Hassan Barksdale, another one of my best friends, he just became a second mate, all his paperwork is in, he’s getting ready to go back out to sea [on a container ship.]  There’s a world of shared experiences.  They all serve as my support system, as far as the marine life goes.  Kareem sometimes has his daughter in the wheelhouse while he’s driving, her mom will come bring her to visit dad working; she’s ten now.

The sense of community is one of the things that drew me back to Harbor School.  Most of the teachers who taught me are still here.  When I started working here, they started calling me colleague– “hey, colleague!”– it was so cool.  The way they made it seem was that it was something I’d earned.  That felt great.

A Connection to the Harbor

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My favorite place in the Harbor would be tough to say. I’m all over the Harbor.  Well, every time I’m on the water– I work for Water Taxi on the weekends– my favorite thing is just being in the Harbor in general.  Especially during the winter, there’s not a lot of boats out, and it’s very peaceful and tranquil to be out on the Harbor when there’s not that much traffic, it’s just you, I start thinking about how populated New York City is but yet I’m the only one on this boat, with the open Harbor around me.  It’s the opposite of the J train, the opposite of my morning commute.  Sometimes I reflect, I see where I’m at now in terms of where I used to be, what I thought I would be when I grew up.  I never thought I’d be on the water, driving a boat, being a captain, teaching…

My favorite spot wouldn’t be a pier or anything like that. It’d be kinda in the Deepwater Range, where you have the view of the Brooklyn Bridge, the entrance of the East River, you see the lower Manhattan skyline, you have the Statue of Liberty behind you, you have Jersey, you have Governors Island, you see Brooklyn– you see everything.  That’s my favorite part of the Harbor.  Deepwater Range. You see everything.  

The Billion Oyster Project

Back when I started [working at Harbor in] 2010, it was just me and Pete growing oysters in the lab to plant along the Governors Island reef.  That was Billion Oyster Project.  It was me and Pete and aquaculture, and using vessel ops and the SCUBA divers to drop the oysters in the water.  It was a Harbor School operation.  Once a week I would go pick up maybe one or two bags of shells from Oceana.  It was a small operation.

To see it go from there to serving middle schools in the city, having oyster gardens that I pass when I work at Water Taxi– I see some of them on the piers, which is a great thing to see… having the project expand, more restaurants, more shells, an official shell curing site.  And the hatchery… well, we’re still testing systems out, but in the past our capacity for oyster larvae was about five million, and we have twenty million now– it’s amazing, just to see the project grow, to see the Harbor Foundation grow.  

I’m still amazed with everyone that’s joined the project, and how much it’s expanded.  It’s not just a Harbor School thing any more.  We’re serving more students, in middle schools.  I did some middle school training [when I first started out].  I would go out in Red Hook with Good Shepherd, work with their [after school] program, exposing them to oyster gardening for the first time.  It’s also introducing them to New York Harbor, letting them know, you know, you’re on an island.  This is your Harbor. This is not just a degraded water body, it’s a resource, with living organisms down there.  There’s life there.