The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for May 9th, 2012

The Smelling Committee

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

As long time readers will recall, in the fall of 2010, the Newtown Creek Alliance and the Working Harbor Committee received a grant from the NYCEF fund of the Hudson River Foundation to conduct 4 boat tours of Newtown Creek. The plan was to do two ticketed tours for the public (the tickets were available at a steeply discounted rate), one for educators, and one for “the elected’s” of the watershed. The first three went off without a hitch, but the fourth was postponed due to the tragic helicopter crash on the East River which occurred just as we were about to board the boat.

Last Friday, the 4th of May, we accomplished the fourth tour with a modern day “Smelling Committee” onboard.

from “Annual Report of the Department of Health of the City of Brooklyn for the year 1895”, courtesy google books

Whereas, Complaint has been made to the Governor of the State of New York during the year 1894 by the citizens and residents of the Town of Newtown and the City of Brooklyn, relating to the existence of public nuisances on or near Newtown Creek, jeopardizing the health and comfort of the people in the vicinity thereof, and the Hon. Roswell P. Flower, Governor of the State of New York, did thereupon, on the 2d day of August, 1894, pursuant to Chapter 661, of the Laws of 1893, require, order and direct the State Board of Health to examine into the alleged nuiscances, and to report the result thereof…

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Important to the mission was attendance of officials from both sides of the Creek. The “center of gravity” for the advocacy of the Newtown Creek has historically been in Greenpoint, but that doesn’t mean that the folks on the Queens side haven’t been paying attention. Pictured above are Michael Gianaris and Jimmy Van Bramer, and both were anxious to visit this hidden part of their districts.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As luck would have it, we passed by one of the many workboats which have been operating along the Newtown Creek of late. These workboats, hailing from Millers Launch on Staten Island, are carrying contractors and employees of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency who are collecting samples of the so called “black mayonnaise” sediments for laboratory analysis.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

You cannot fix something unless you understand it, and the EPA has scheduled an exhaustive “scoping period” during which a series of such tests will be performed. Since January, I have personally witnessed dozens of such operations- ranging from towing a sonar buoy up and down the waterway to establish a subsurface topographical map, to the group onboard this vessel who seemed to operating a hand operated dredge to bring materials up into the light.

Notice that the folks directly handling the sediments are wearing protective garments.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A Newtown Creek Alliance member, Phillip Musegaas of Riverkeeper fame came along to inform about and describe the legal and policy issues surrounding the Greenpoint Oil Spill, Superfund, or any of the myriad points of law which surround the Newtown Creek. That’s Phillip on the right.

I should mention that Council Member Stephen Levin of Greenpoint was onboard as well, but was forced to stay in the cabin and deal with urgent business in his district via phone.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A decision which I’ve been keeping to is to not bring “civilians” all the way back to English Kills on these boat tours, but this “Smelling Committee” was no mere interested group and accordingly we entered into the heart of darkness- God’s Gift to Pain itself. This is as bad as it gets along the Newtown Creek, a stinking and fetid miasma poisoned with sewage and urban runoff surrounded by waste transfer stations.

In the distance is one of the largest CSO’s in the entire city, and the Montrose Avenue Rail Bridge of the LIRR’s Bushwick Branch.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Not just elected officials were onboard, of course, representatives of a veritable alphabet soup of three lettered agencies were also invited. Additionally, local leaders- such as Tom Bornemann from the Ridgewood Democratic Club (pictured above, in sunglasses) accompanied the tour. The microphone was passed amongst us, with Kate Zidar (NCA’s executive director), Michael Heimbinder (NCA’s chair), Laura Hoffman (Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee), Phillip Musegaas (Riverkeeper), Penny Lee (City Planning), and myself narrating at various legs of the trip.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Pictured above are Assemblyman Joe Lentol of Greenpoint, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, Working Harbor Development Director Meg Black, Council Member Diana Reyna of Brooklyn, a gentleman who I’m embarrassed to say I can’t identify, and State Senator Michael Gianaris.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Smelling Committee of 2012 encountered a Newtown Creek swollen by days of rain, replete with oil slicks and “floatables” contamination. The term floatables is used to describe everything from stray bits of lumber and tree limbs to cast off plastic bottles and wind blown trash carried in the water, by the way. The trip was 2 hours in length, and accomplished onboard a NY Water Taxi vessel. It left from Pier 17 in Manahattan at four in the afternoon and returned at six, proceeding some three and one half miles into the Newtown Creek and required the opening of the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Along the way, sites of legal or popular interest were pointed out- including the future of the Arch Street Yard, the Hunters Point South development, SimsMetal, the Newtown Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant, the Greenpoint petroleum district, the Blissville Oil spill, the Greenpoint Oil Spill, the Phelps Dodge site, the Kosciuszko Bridge, the CSO issue, the role of Newtown Creek as a mass employer, the maritime potential of the Creek and its potential for eliminating a significant amount of trucking activity, its myriad waste transfer stations, and the plans which EPA have for the place.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Crass observers in the antiquarian community and political operatives in both boroughs will sneer at efforts such as this, the aim of which was to create a common sense of purpose and to identify issues regarding the Creek for both the Queens and Brooklyn political establishments. Ridgewood and Bushwick, Maspeth and Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Long Island City- all parts of the Newtown Creek watershed have more in common with each other than they do with neighboring districts in either borough. They are blessed with one of the finest industrial waterfronts in the world, but cursed by its past. What the Newtown Creek will look like in fifty years time is beginning to be discussed, and it was time for this “congress of the creek” to be convened.

So much of what the people in high office know of this place is influenced by dire reportage and dry testimony, and it can be easy to overlook the past, present, and future of this maritime superhighway if you haven’t experienced it first hand.

Especially from the water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Several times have I witnessed the effect that this place has on first time visitors, a transformation of expression and demeanor overtakes them.

Hardened New Yorkers all, the Newtown Creek nevertheless explodes all expectations and an expression of wonderment forms upon their faces. They come to see toxic waste dumps and oil spills, but instead find Herons, Egrets, and Cormorants nesting in the broken cement of abandoned industrial bulkheads. They witness the miles wide vistas and wide open view of the City of New York from its very navel, and are thunderstruck that such a place exists- this “Insalubrious Valley” of the Newtown Creek watershed.

Every time I start to narrate on one of these tours, my first utterance is always “this is not the world you know…”.

I’m happy to say that due to the Working Harbor Committee, Newtown Creek Alliance, and the NYCEF Fund of the Hudson River Foundation- the Smelling Committee of 2012 knows this corner of the world a little bit better.

What will come of it?

Others will have to answer that, for your humble narrator must remain without and is cursed to merely observe such matters. Always, an outsider.

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