Will Doig  |  salon.com

A month ago, sewage in the Hudson River nearly canceled New York’s first Ironman swim. Yet last week, there was Martin Strel jumping into the water at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. The gregarious 57-year-old Slovenian has swum the lengths of the Amazon, Yangtze and Mississippi Rivers, so this particular 2.2-mile jaunt was really no big whoop. The swim, from Liberty Island to Battery Park City, was part of an effort to call attention to urban waterways (and partly, just for kicks). But something about the scene felt all wrong. Watching Strel crawl through the choppy gray water astride the steely Manhattan skyline, with exhaust-belching ferries and barges churning by, he looked too pink, too soft, and just too human to be there.

Centuries of boat traffic, heavy industry, sewage runoff and toxic dumping have ingrained in us the idea that urban waterways are not places for people. Even as cities have rushed to the water’s edge over the past couple of decades, building elaborate waterfront parks and esplanades, few have taken the next logical step: encouraging residents to dive in. “Twenty-five years ago, I bought a pair of wire cutters and cut a fence and declared the L.A. River legally open,” says Lewis MacAdams, president of Friends of the Los Angeles River. “But legally, no one is supposed to be in the river. It’s still on the books as a $500 fine or six months in jail. {…}