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Breaking windows, on the Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Recent controversy, and there’s always controversy, revolving around the Newtown Creek Superfund project has been swirling. Here’s the situation, which requires a bit of prologue for the uninitiated.

The Federal EPA has listed Newtown Creek as a Superfund site, which makes them the executive power responsible for its cleanup according to a bit of legislation called CERCLA. The EPA named several corporate entities as “PRP’s” or “Potentially Responisble Parties” who are culpable for the despoilment of the environment hereabouts. These PRP’s are the usual suspects – Oil companies, Gas Companies, a refinery. There are five of them, all conglomerate entities which absorbed one historic property or another over the years – ExxonMobil, National Grid, etc. There’s a sixth party which hasn’t been “officially” designated a PRP, which is the NYC DEP, a governmental entity responsible for (amongst other things) the sewer system of New York City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As you’d expect, every one of the PRP’s wants to get out of this Superfund thing having spent as little as is possible on the cleanup. This is normal, and logical. The Corporations have an army of lawyers, and so does the DEP. Finger pointing is also normal in a situation like this, just as it would be for children who broke a school window while playing baseball. The corporate PRP’s are in the position of having to protect their shareholders from undue costs, as is the DEP in the case of taxpayers. Again, broken school window, baseball. The difference between government and corporation, however… well, the corporate manager will accept the fact that he’s cooked for breaking the pane and that it’s cheaper to just fix the window and get on with the business of earning money, while the government will try and tell you that the window shouldn’t have been there in the first place but the school they built needed windows by law so you just have to accept the broken window until next spring when the “new and better placed window bill” will be heroically sent to an indifferent Albany… and that after a sixteen year period of committee hearings… and… terrorists… and… Basically, they pass the buck down to the next election cycle. I’m prejudiced, I guess, as I always worked corporate and understand the internal processes a lot better than the intentionally Byzantine workings of government officialdom.

This is where the Federal EPA comes in, in their executive function. All of the PRP’s have contracted with environmental testing firms to perform the schedule of analysis which EPA requires in order to design a remedy for the environmental situation on the Newtown Creek. When the remedy is codified, it will be contractors hired by those self same PRP’s which will do the actual work, under Federal oversight. Meantime, everybody is blaming everybody else for whatever they can, hoping the other guy gets stuck with paying to fix the busted window.

A recent presentation offered by the NYC DEP discussed a process called “Ebullition.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Coal Tar Sludge is pretty ugly stuff, if you’re alive. It’s a by product of the gasification of coal, a product of what was once called “pneumatic chemistry.” National Grid is a multinational conglomerate that owns the holdings of what was once Brooklyn Union Gas in New York City. BUG had a massive manufactured gas plant at the border of Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint. In the waters of Newtown Creek found off the National Grid bulkheads, NYC DEP’s environmental contractors observed an astounding 18 feet of coal tar sludge in the sediments of Newtown Creek. Natural processes – springs and ground water entering the bed of the waterway from below, for instance – cause bits of this coal tar sludge to migrate out of the sediment bed, which is called “Black Mayonnaise.”

The environmental types refer to this sort of thing as NAPL, or Non Aqueous Phase Liquid. That’s a fancy way of indicating that oil and water don’t mix, as the coal tar sludge – like petroleum – remains distinct from the water column surrounding it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Pictured above is one of those bubbles of NAPL, or Coal Tar sludge which found its way to the surface of the water via the ebullition process. Surface tension breaks the bubble and begins to spread it into a disc. Presuming it doesn’t end up coating a bulkhead or rock somewhere between here and the East River, by the time this coal tar sludge reaches the east river it will just look like a bit of oil spread out over an area of several feet.

The NYC DEP, and their contractors, presented findings which suggested that as much as 5,000 KG of this stuff migrates up from the bottom sediments annually. They offered that in comparison, the combined sewers operated by DEP (which along Newtown Creek are amongst the largest in NYC) only deposit 27 KG of solute into the water. They also spent quite a bit of time critiquing the corporate PRP’s Contractor’s methodologies and procedures. After the presentation, it was time for questions and I asked a few pointed ones.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Is this 18 feet of coal tar sludge an ongoing or historic event? 

“Good question” was the answer.

Given the fact that DEP has been paying fines on the combined sewers to the Feds since 1983, coincidentally the same year that DEP was created, you must have good records of what’s been flowing out of your pipes since then. That 27 KG number, how does it compare historically with those records?

“We’ll have to get back to you.”

I’m certain that – historically – some of that coal tar and petroleum in the sediment bed must have been carried into the water from upland sources via your pipes, when you observed this 18 foot high wall of coal tar sludge, did you notice if any of your out falls were nearby?

“The sewers have never carried oil, it’s illegal”

But what about the 1950’s when Greenpoint’s aquifer was on fire, and the sixties when manhole covers were erupting on gouts of flame, and the 80’s when it was discovered that petroleum fumes in the sewer pipes were above the upper explosive limit?

“Sir, I don’t know what you think the DEP has done to you, but on behalf of the Agency I’d like to apologize”

That’s called “crackpotting” btw. and that pissed me off.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Are the folks who run oil companies a bunch of bastards? You bet. Global Gas conglomerates are not operated by nice guys either, nor copper refineries. Know how Rockefeller made his money? Wasn’t by being a cool guy. Anybody in a position of real power is by definition “kind of a dick.” Obama would pull your tongue out and strangle you with it if he had to, but he doesn’t because there’s thousands of people who work for him that are specially trained to do so. Just because you work for the Government it doesn’t mean you’re some sort of altruist.

I cannot count the number of lies I’ve been told by employees of the NYC DEP over the years. Promises made last only as long as a Commissioner’s term, or a Mayor’s. Saying that, this is just one tiny sliver – the political and managerial department of the Agency – of an enormous 6,000 person organization which manages and polices the reservoirs, runs 14 sewer plants, possesses a small navy, handles air and noise environmental issues citywide, and has a $1.2 Billion budget. I’ve known people who work for the DEP that are amazing, and I’ve also met the political gasbags.

This is not some little mom and pop operation, the DEP.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Thing is, what the DEP management team is trying to do is to reduce their exposure to having to pay out for the cleaning up of the so called “Black Mayonnaise” which sits 20-30 feet deep in the Newtown Creek, and I can’t say I blame them. Like any entity, corporate or otherwise, they will have to pass the costs of this operation on to their customers.

Unlike a corporation, which would be put into a competitive advantage should it be forced to raise prices and drive customers to a competitor’s cheaper products, there is unfortunately only one City government to be found and you just have to pay the taxes that they inflict. There is no political will to raise water taxes in NYC after a roughly 400% rise in rates which occurred during the 12 years of Michael Bloomberg’s administration… so… do the math. The DEP people will say and do anything to avoid culpability, or delay the inevitable as long as they can and pass the buck to some new Mayor or Commisioner.

Crackpot me? Don’t piss off the photographer, doc, I’ve got pictures to back my side up.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There’s a saying which was passed down to me by my Dad and Uncles who had served in the military – “It’s a big shit sandwich and we all have to take a bite, so grab a napkin.”

Since the Superfund listing for Newtown Creek was made public, a humble narrator has been prophesying that the most interesting part of this story wasn’t going to be the oil companies trying to snake out of town and deny responsibility. Simply put, that’s the expensive way to go for them, as the courts and Feds will just stack fines up on them which they’ll have to pay IN ADDITION to the costs of the cleanup. It’s simpler, and cheaper, to cooperate. Nope, since the beginning of this tale I’ve been saying that “the fascinating part of this story will be watching the vertical silos of power in NYC’s government struggle and writhe against a higher authority.” Local authority, even that juggernaut in lower Manhattan, legally collapses before that of the Federal Government.

The EPA said that they’re willing to consider DEP’s Ebullitions study, and it’s data, but won’t be basing their decisions on either local government or corporate side’s assertions. The same DEP official who “crack potted” me in the earlier discussion mentioned above, upon hearing the EPA pronounce the substance of this statement, announced to a room full of people that DEP’s data “is just as good, if not better, or far better than EPA’s.” This is from the same official who claimed that it wasn’t going to be Superfund that cleans the Creek, rather DEP’s Long Term Control Plan – which is being designed by the same “ass coverers” and bureaucrats who haven’t done squat about it since the agency was created in 1983 by merging several smaller municipal entities which were responsible in the first place for dumping raw sewage into the waterway every time it rains.

Anyway, that’s the whole Ebullition thing for you, and a bunch of PRP’s who broke a window while playing ball. The one who threw the ball, the one who hit the ball, and the rest of the field. Meanwhile the window is hanging wide open and it’s raining into the school.

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Bulkheads of the Newtown Creek, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Last week, you saw a post about a Hindu statue found in a fairly obscure spot in Maspeth along the Newtown Creek at this, your Newtown Pentacle. Mentioned in that post, a couple of my Newtown Creek chums and I were out in a small boat and performing a bulkhead survey. What that means, and it’s something we Newtown Creek Alliance types do periodically, is that we do a close up observation of the armored shoreline. Armored is apt, as the Newtown Creek’s littoral zone is almost entirely covered in a variety of maritime structures which are referred to as “bulkheads.”

Some are designed for docking ships and boats, or tying up barges, others simply as barriers.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Most of the shoreline along the Creek has lost its occupation over the last century, as business adopted a truck and automobile based model for shipping cargo. Lack of maintenance and the corrosive forces of nature have caused the bulkhead structures all over the Newtown Creek to decay. Some have collapsed. When a bulkhead has actually fallen apart, as seen above and below, it is considered to have become “habitat” by environmental officialdom.

Close inspection reveals what sort of life forms have taken up habitation in the cracks and fissures of what were once amongst the most valuable maritime bulkheads on Earth.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

All sorts of colony critters – lichens, molds, algae – are seen, for instance. They infest the flood zone, which is exposed and hidden by the tidal cycle. Wooden bulkheads along the Creek generally date back to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. This wood would have been treated with something like Creosote Oil to guard against infiltration by insects and smaller parasites. Creosote Oil was a by product of the gasification of Coal, one of the many, many commercial products which emanated from the pursuit of so called “Natural Gas.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A bit higher up in the tide line, and a rip rap shoreline. Rip Rap is basically a series of small boulders and large rocks which are dumped along shorelines. The good news about this sort of tidal liner is that it offers a tremendous amount of surface area for the aforementioned colony creatures to attach to, as well as macro organisms like barnacles, clams, and oysters to grab onto. The bad news is that there’s a lot of concrete included amongs the rocks and boulders, and as concrete decays the lime in it causes the water’s ph to rise and become acidic.

There’s also lots of “mystery pipes” that emerge from the shoreline hereabouts, as depicted above.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The National Grid company, which operates an LNG distribution and storage operation at the former Brooklyn Union Gas Manufactured Gas Plant site in Greenpoint, doesn’t allow docking at its bulkheads. Accordingly, they erected a wooden shield all along the edge of their property. This sort of thing is actually a gigantic box driven into the mud that is filled with rip rap. The wooden planks provide ample attachment sites for colony critters and filter feeders.

This is a part of the Newtown Creek which is referred to as “The Turning Basin” and it is an engineered wide spot designed to allow a tug and articulated barge enough room and depth to be able to safely reverse course on the otherwise narrow waterway.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A close up of a colony of Mussels attached to the National Grid bulkhead. One of NCA’s science people, a certain radical biologist, coined the term “Kidneys of the Creek” for filter feeders like this. Each mussel is able to process “x” number of gallons of water, and remove “y” amount of solute from it. Of course, this means that the Mussel itself becomes a concentrated blob of toxicity, but the sort of Mussels you commonly encounter on Newtown Creek aren’t the species which are part of the human food chain.

On the Creek, it’s the fish and crabs. The fish and crabs which people catch, and then eat, that they gather from Newtown Creek. Yes, you did just read that. The Federal EPA has confirmed this fact.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

You encounter masonry rising out of the water, which is capped by concrete, in many spots. This particular spot is about three miles from the East River. There are lots and lots of apertures in the shoreline here, and lightless chambers and flooded voids which recede beneath the “land’s” surface. The word “land” is in quotation as the area which touches the water, with just a few exceptions, was primevally a swamp or at best a flooded marsh. There is no true land, certainly on the Queens side, for a good half mile back from the present day shoreline. It’s all landfill, of the 18th and 19th century variety mainly – rubble, domestic and agricultural waste, ashes and cinders from furnaces and residential hearths. The areas around Grand Avenue, Maspeth Creek, and Dutch Kills, were largely reclaimed in the early 20th century and the ground is filled with more modern crap.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Nearby the Maspeth Avenue Plank Road, Brooklyn side, a bulkhead of the same variety enjoyed by National Grid is in the process of collapsing and you can discern the internal structure of the thing. A creosote oil treated wooden box filled with rip rap. Self seeded, the plants you see are thorned and I can attest that those spikes will easily find your tender skin if you venture close enough.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A little further to the west, on the Brooklyn side foundations of what was once called Penny Bridge, nearby the pipe which ExxonMobil returns water to the Creek which was extracted from their Greenpoint Oil Spill remediation efforts. I cannot tell you why anybody decided to hang razor barbed wires from bits of cord, but this improvised filtering technology does seem to be removing “floatable” pollution from the water in an admirable fashion.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A Bulkhead Survey is something we Newtown Creek Alliance folks do from time to time, in pursuance of our mission to “reveal, restore, revitalize” the waterway. It’s a lot more fun than sitting in a bunch of meetings and arguing with regulators and corporate types, I can tell you. We don’t do the former it all that often, whereas the latter seems to be at least once every couple of weeks, but there you go.

My job in this sort of endeavor is to sit sideways in the boat and take a series of pictures, one shot is popped off every time I count to five mississippi, depending on how fast the boat is moving.

Ideally, we go out at low tide, when all the poisons hidden in the mud hatch out and stand revealed beneath the burning thermonuclear eye of God itself – along the lugubrious Newtown Creek.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

December 28, 2015 at 11:00 am

horrors and marvels

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My beloved Creek, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Pictured above, Newtown Creek.

This is a section I refer to as DUGABO, or Down Under the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge Onramp. On the left side of the shot is the Allocco family’s aggregates recycling yard in Greenpoint, on the right is the SimsMetal recycling facility in Long Island City’s Blissville section. Today’s post will be taking us eastwards from DUGABO into oil country.

Technically speaking – all of the Brooklyn side of the Newtown Creek, from the Pulaski Bridge east to Meeker Avenue was once oil country, home to a series of Standard Oil (SOCONY) refineries and distribution facilities. The industry’s footprint in the area began to shrink as early as the 1950’s, and refining on the Creek literally stopped in the middle 1960’s.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Literally “DUGABO,” the Greenpoint side on the left shows the tanks of Metro Fuel, a bio fuel company which actually performs some refinery operations in the modern day. On the Queens side, you’ll notice the Tidewater building. Tidewater was a pipeline company that challenged Standard Oil’s monopoly on shipping petroleum using the railroads. Tidewater was destroyed and taken over by Standard. The Standard Oil company then bankrupted the railroads by switching its nationwide distribution system over to pipelines rather than rail cars – despite having spent a couple of decades trying to convince Congress and everyone else that pipelines were inherently unsafe and uneconomical to operate.

You’ve really got to love John D. Rockefeller.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A bit further east, you’ll notice the tanks of the BP Amoco yard nearby Apollo Street in Greenpoint, which sit on part of the footprint of the Locust Hill refinery.

This is roughly the dead bang center of the Greenpoint Oil Spill, the second largest such event in American History. The BP Amoco yard is a distribution hub, with its product brought in from refineries in New Jersey and beyond by articulated Tug and fuel barge combinations like the Crystal Cutler, which is pictured above. The digester eggs of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant are visible in the shot above as well, as is Manhattan’s iconic Empire State Building.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A bit further back, that’s Meeker Avenue’s street end on the left or Brooklyn side, and Blissville’s Calvary Cemetery is just out of frame on the right. The former site of Penny Bridge, which looms large in the memory of long time residents of both boroughs, would have been right about the center of the Newtown Creek. Penny Bridge, of course, was replaced in 1939 by Robert Moses. Moses had to work around some pretty big land owners when building it.

On the right hand – or Queens side of the photo – that brick building is part of the former Queens County Oil Works of Standard Oil. The Petroleum facility in Blissville is actually a bit older than Standard, believe it or not. That’s where Abraham Gesner erected the first large scale petroleum refinery in the United States, the North American Kerosene Gas Light company, which imparted to “coal oil” the brand name Kerosene.

When Standard Oil bought Gesner’s operation, the company made the brand name “Kerosene” so ubiquitous that it became an American colloquialism, and it defined the product in the same way that Xerox or Kleenex define photocopies or facial tissue.

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Upcoming Tours –

September 20th, 2015
Glittering Realms Walking Tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, click here for details and tickets

gorgeous concealment

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My beloved Creek, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Last Thursday, the Open House New York organization organized two boat tours of Newtown Creek. Back to back, there was one that embarked at 5 and one at 7, and the two tours were sold out. Open House NY asked Newtown Creek Alliance to participate on the tours, and your humble narrator as well as our Project Manager Will Elkins were onboard and on the microphone. Pictured above, the Donjon Towing vessel Brian Nicholas manipulating a series of barges at the City of New York’s Newtown Creek dock, which is occupied by the SimsMetal corporation.

Tom Schadt, who is the Project Manager for the Newtown Creek Group at the Newtown Creek Superfund Site, also participated, and everybody’s friends at the NYC DEP sent along engineer Frank Loncar. Tom Schadt discussed the environmental science his company, Anchor QEA, is conducting for the Superfund “Scoping Period” and Fran Loncar talked about the NCWWTP and DEP’s efforts at ameliorating the effects of the Combined Sewer system that the DEP inherited from the agencies which preceded it (the Bureau of Sewers of Brooklyn and Queens as well as other historical Municpal entities). Will Elkins of Newtown Creek Alliance discussed some of the shoreline restoration and environmental projects NCA has underway.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As is my habit on boat tours of the Creek, once my section of the narration was accomplished – which is a historical overview and accounting of the various issues affecting the waterway – I handed the mike over to the other speakers and raced down to the bow of the boat to get some photos. The shots in today’s post were gathered at the end of the second tour, which was – quite obviously – well after the burning thermonuclear eye of God itself had ducked behind that western horizon offered by the shield wall of Manhattan.

Pictured above, the aggregates recycling yard of the Allocco family, with the DEP’s Newtown Wastewater Treatment Plant’s digester eggs in the background.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Further east on the Newtown Creek, that’s Blissville in Queens on the right, and the petroleum district of Greenpoint on the left. The fuel tanks are the BP Amoco yard on Norman Avenue, right around Apollo Street. That’s the former boundary between the Sone and Fleming and Locust Hill refineries of the Standard Oil company and was once the home of the Standard Oil Company of New York – better known to modernity as Mobil Oil.

It’s also the epicenter of the Greenpoint Oil spill, which is actually a completely separate “thing” from the Superfund designation which the rest of the Newtown Creek enjoys.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Futuristic, the National Grid corporation’s Liquified Natural Gas tanks are found even further east, all the way back at the border of Bushwick near Varick Avenue and Lombardy Street. All of the shots in today’s post were captured while onboard the OHNY boat, and are handheld. Can’t tell you how much I wish it was possible to use a tripod for these kind of shots, but camera support is actually fairly useless when the platform you’re standing on is moving at around five knots. You have no other choice than to open the lens up as far as you can, and jack the ISO up as high as possible, as you still have to use a relatively quick shutter speed to avoid motion blur.

It was exceptionally dark, but that’s Newtown Creek for you.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Tours –

September 13th, 2015
Poison Cauldron Walking Tour
with Newtown Creek Alliance, click here for details and tickets

September 20th, 2015
Glittering Realms Walking Tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, click here for details and tickets

Written by Mitch Waxman

September 8, 2015 at 11:00 am

pastures and meadows

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Back in the saddle again.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On April 18th, a Saturday, I’ll be leading my first public Newtown Creek walk of 2015 for Newtown Creek Alliance. It’s all about celebrating Earth Day (which is actually the 20th) and we’ll be taking a short walk down a long creek. This is also a 100% free tour, and we’ll be meeting a few interesting people along the way.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Newtown Creek Alliance’s motto is “restore, reveal, revitalize” and my role in the group is designated by that second word – “reveal.” Recently, my tour partner Mai and I counted up all the folks who have come out with me to Newtown Creek over the last few years – whether by bus, van, boat, or on foot – and were staggered to realize that we’ve guided a bit more than two thousand people around the place.

Holy Moley, I guess we must be doing something right.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This tour will start in LIC, visits a few spots along the East River, will proceed to DUPBO (Down Under the Pulaski Bridge Onramp) on both sides of my beloved Creek. We’re going to head over to the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant Nature Walk at the end of the thing. The only thing physically challenging, in the least, that you will encounter are several flights of steps on the Pulaski Bridge. Regardless, closed toe shoes are highly recommended.

Come with, on April 18th, 2015 for a free walking tour of Newtown Creek in LIC and Greenpoint with Newtown Creek Alliance? Click here for your free tix and registration.

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repellant yard

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Down by ye olde Maspeth Plank Road.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The folks at Newtown Creek Alliance have a project underway, one which will rehabilitate the street end adjoining the Maspeth Plank Road and provide the first intentional point of public access to the waterfront in Queens. My role in the project is to do a couple of walking tours and raise awareness of the effort, so I swung down on one of the work days to grab some shots. Pictured is the National Grid site in Brooklyn with the Manhattan skyline behind.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The fellows who were doing the actual work should receive some sort of medal for working in the muck and yuck found hereabouts. 58th road ends at Newtown Creek after a sharp fall off in elevation, and all the industrial debris and trash which rolls downhill ends up here. Normally, the plank road site is inaccessible due to muddy and or weed choked conditions. The NCA crew has already done a tremendous amount of cleanup and groundskeeping here, and they got the NYC DEP to come in and clear out a mud choked drainage sewer just last week.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Of course, the story with Newtown Creek always carries one back to sewage. Most of the industrial pollution in the Creek is historic in nature, and other than a few bad actors, most of the modern day businesses found along its banks at least try to follow the rules and be responsible to the environment. That is, of course, except for the City of Greater New York – which allows billions of gallons of untreated sewage to flow into it every year.

Today is Earth Day, by the way.

There are three public Newtown Creek walking tours coming up, one in Queens and one in Brooklyn and two that walk the currently undefended border of the two boroughs.

Poison Cauldron, with Atlas Obscura, on April 26th.
Click here for more info and ticketing.

DUPBO, with Newtown Creek Alliance and MAS Janeswalk, on May 3rd.
Click here for more info and ticketing.

Modern Corridor, with Brooklyn Brainery, on May 18th.
Click here for more info and ticketing.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

soothing diagnosis

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Want to see something cool?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There are three public Newtown Creek walking tours coming up, one in Queens and one in Brooklyn and one that walks the currently undefended border of the two boroughs. I have another iron in the fire, which I’ll tell you about later this week. As you’re reading this, I’m likely on a boat with the Working Harbor Committee’s Education program, showing off the harbor to a group of high school students.

Plank Road, with Newtown Creek Alliance, on April 19th. This one is free, click here to get on the list.

Poison Cauldron, with Atlas Obscura, on April 26th. Click here for more info and ticketing.

Modern Corridor, with Brooklyn Brainery, on May 18th. Click here for more info and ticketing.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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