Sunday, October 7, 2007

High Toxicity at Newtown Creek Nature Walk

The Morning Rowing Team. Photos by Rob Buchanan

"East River" is something of a misnomer. The slice of water that divides Queens and Brooklyn from Manhattan is actually a tidal strait, the cord that links the Long Island Sound up north with salty Ocean water. Depending on the time of day, the tide presses either north or south at a steady speed--in some parts even at 5 knots. Rowing downstrait in a 25-foot long vessel called a Whitehall Gig, the tide can either be a blessing or a curse. "It's like walking down an escalator versus walking up an escalator," Eric, a classmate in the class Lang on the Hudson, said.

Eleven of us, adventurer and professor Rob Buchanan included, began at 10:10 in the morning last Friday on 96th Street, pushing two Gigs across a busy intersection underneath an overpass, to the banks of the East River. Assisted by Mary Nell of the organization East River CREW, we hooked each boat up to the davit on the bank, a metal crane with a revolving arm. We cranked them slowly into the water. Then we cruised south, through Roosevelt Island's east channel, passing a nice park on the island, an immense power plant, Matthew Barney's black tug-boat of a thing and the lush green bluffs of Hunter's Point. Finally, we turned into Newtown Creek, the most polluted landscape in all of New York City.

Here, it smells of rank crude oil. Large buildings and rusty old equipment flanked us as we rowed into a vortex of industrial infrastructure. The water here is at some of the lowest Federal standards, polluted with bacteria, chemicals, oil-spills from the likes of ExxonMobil and the other industrial plants and factories that weed out this waterfront. The area seems remote, a place where the mob might hold executions. But there were signs of life: The Raven spraypainted on a wall, a small motor-boat suspended over the water on two davits, an old man talking on a phone outside the back door of a large warehouse.

"That's The Raven's fixer," I told Brett, the other rower in our boat.


"That's The Raven's fixer," I repeated. "He hooks him up."

We passed the Pulaski Bridge and Eric, from the afternoon class, waved down. Brett, a poet in baggy dress pants, a wife beater and a ripped up, brown bandana to mop up his long brown hair, and wearing violet sunglasses, offered the middle finger. He probably didn't recognize him.

We landed at a long concrete wall past 30 or so yards from a staircase leading into the water, beside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Control Plant, which churns up and treats 240 million gallons of polluted water a day. Laura and Mike Hofmann, volunteers from the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee, watched us row by and tie the boats up. We entered a long, wide walkway different shades of concrete, a tranquil space indeed, and milled over to the water fountain along the wall. Looking out to the water, we watched a rusty claw grab up a totalled car and drop it onto a barge filled with two big trash heaps.

For the past five or six years, a few local organizations--the Monitoring Committee, the Newtown Creek Alliance and Riverkeeper--have been working with the City Councilmember in charge of the waterfront, David Yasky, to develop the area into an educational and serene public grounds. Here was one product of the $3.7 billion venture, paid for by homeowners in Greenpoint: the "Nature Walk." The space was designed by George Trackus, and Mike said it was fashioned like the shape of a boat. We headed down another passageway with high, curved walls, made a 90 degree turn at a juncture which looked like a gun turret, then gasped at how this narrow, curved, concrete walkway perfectly framed the Empire State Building.

We headed back to the giant steps, walking through the gravel strewn concrete walkway and passing some foliage, echinachea, currant, rosehip (high in Vitamin C and good for tea, apparently), even what we thought were blueberries. "You gotta squeeze em!" said Samson, an afternoon classer who joined us. If they were white inside, these were blueberries, he explained. But if they were red, then they weren't. Another classmate squeezed a berry between his thumb and index. It was a red purplish color.

Christie Holowacz, the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee liaison, joined us around a concrete table with a design of the East tidal strait's many arms and fingers in the New York area. A few minutes ago, Bill Shuck, a member of the Newtown Creek Alliance, rowed up on a little boat and joined us. We drank water and asked some questions about the area. This all started when RiverKeeper would patrol the area. Once, a factory took a huge load of broken pallates, wood things used for shipping, and dropped them in the water. Some patrolmen came up to a pallate, took a picture of its bar code and issued the factory a legal letter stating that their actions had broken the city's environmental laws.

It started small, Bill said, but refurbishing the watefront has built into a movement--development efforts are surfacing at the Bronx River, Gowanus Canal and more. At Newtown Creek, the sewage treatment plant is the largest in the city, hosting four, giant, silver domes, which to Rob looked like Eastern Orthodox Churches. "They work like a stomach," Christine said. Water comes in, methane gas chews it up and eats it and swirls it around. Voila! The domes and ambient noise of trash compacting aside, projects are springing up around here, like a tall office building under construction.

The students were tired from a day of rowing, but the sights were a visceral reminder of reality. Maybe it was far away from home, maybe this place isn't yet the kind of tranquil environment we would turn to in the studying hour. But when our waterfronts are scarred by pollution and decrepit infrastructure, clearly we have to do something about it--and thankfully, a small contingent of folks care. Here's how Bill sums the projects up: "People taking back what's really a resource, not an eyesore."


New School Free Press said...

ok, i'd say you got in touch with the spirit of the place. now, a few nits to pick: you describe east river as umbilical that feeds the sound, but the sound has a much larger opening at its eastern end--the race. boats are lowered from davits, not divets. we went down east, not west, channel of roosevelt island. 'gowanis' is spelled gowanus. ok, that's it!


Petrockstar said...

corrections appended