The Newtown Pentacle

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

After the event at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant on Friday the 26th, Newtown Creek Alliance Executive Director Kate Zidar and I had to hurry over to another location on the troubled waterway for a second event.

This one was taking place at the Maspeth Creek tributary in Queens.


The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Newtown Creek Alliance  invite you to a special event to celebrate New York’s wildlife and Earth Week!

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The NYS DEC have released a new book as part of the “watchable wildlife” initiative, which seems to be a state wide effort to promote eco tourism. The administrative head of the NYC region 2 is Venetia Lannon, who is actually a very cool person in real life, and she was there to speak to the gathered bird enthusiasts, Newtown Creek Alliance members and Creek devotees, as well as members of the local press.


Whether it’s the spectacle of a soaring eagle or a glimpse of a river otter, here you’ll find what you need to plan a great wildlife viewing experience in New York State. DEC’s wildlife experts help you learn where to find wildlife, what sounds to listen for, or when to look for your favorite animal. Find a full list of wildlife viewing sites in New York State with many new locations just released and see our full list of wildlife species.

Have you checked out the new New York Wildlife Viewing Guide? In it you’ll find more than 100 of New York’s best sites to see wildlife near home or while on a trip. New York State has millions of acres of state parks and forests, preserves, and wildlife management areas (WMAs) each offering tremendous opportunities for wildlife and nature viewing. Take along the New York Wildlife Viewing Guide on your next outdoor adventure! Available soon for your E-reader and electronic devices; purchase a copy on the web, in bookstores, or at

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In addition to the DEC’s watchable wildlife book, a lushly illustrated guide book which details opportune spots around the state to observe and experience the splendors of nature, NCA was also premiering our “Birds of Newtown Creek” poster. A bunch of my photos are on the poster, and it discusses the various fauna which have been documented by our group in the last few years.


Newtown Creek has its fair share of un-sung heroes…tug boat captains maneuvering barges piled high, sewer plant operators and garbage handlers doing the invisible work of processing mountains of waste each day… come out with us to explore the un-sung heroes of Newtown Creek’s WILDLIFE.  Each day, spindly-legged egrets and herons work the exposed, fetid sediment mounds in the upper tributaries looking for a hot lunch, and ever-stylish cormorants display their wings as they air-dry on the floating booms that corral waste oil and trash.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s NCA’s Kate Zidar in the shot above, who is one of the smartest people I know. Kate discussed the various species which we’ve documented at the Creek with our ornithologically inclined partners and friends.


Kate Zidar (Executive Director) is an Environmental Planner with a professional focus on watershed management.  As Executive Director of NCA, she works to strike a balance between waterfront access, environmental health and economic development for the city’s most polluted waterway. Kate serves as Chairperson of the Steering Committee for the Stormwater Infrastructure Matters (S.W.I.M.) Coalition, an organization committed to ensuring swimmable, fishable waters around New York City through Green Infrastructure. Kate teaches graduate courses in Writing, Solid Waste Management and Green Infrastructure at Pratt Institute. Kate has experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors, consulting previously for the Planning Center at Municipal Art Society, NYC Housing Authority, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership and Habana Outpost. Kate is a founding member of the North Brooklyn Compost Project, and a board member of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. She holds a BS in Biology from the University of Colorado, and an MS in City and Regional Planning from Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center For Planning and the Environment.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Maspeth Creek has long been a source of fascination for me, given its significant historical importance and somewhat feral modern incarnation. The bulkheads on either bank of this tributary have been allowed to decay over the course of the 20th century, and as such, nature has reclaimed them. The “soft edges” allow cormorants and other birds to escape the mid day sun and the shallow waters are teeming with invertebrate life.

Unfortunately, an enormous CSO (combined sewer outfall) is here, which continually poisons the water with sewage and industrial runoff.


Combined sewer systems (CSS) are sewer systems that are designed to collect storm water runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe and bring it to the publicly owned treatment works (POTW) facilities.

During rain events, when storm water enters the sewers, the capacity of the sewer system may be exceeded and the excess water will be discharged directly to a waterbody (rivers, streams, estuaries, and coastal waters).

The untreated water may contain untreated sewage that may impact human health. For information about the general CSO wet weather advisory and links to the CSO outfall map visit the CSO Wet Weather Advisory web page.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Kate Zidar has a few plans for this part of the Newtown Creek watershed which I’m not sure I’m authorized to discuss, but if she manages to pull even a fraction of them off, it will change things for the better around this waterway. Maspeth Creek is one of those rare spots where neighboring property owners, environmental officials, and neighborhood activists are on the “same page” and exciting stuff is in the works.

from wikipedia

Before the nineteenth century urbanization and industrialization of the surrounding neighborhoods, Newtown Creek was a longer and shallower tidal waterway, and wide enough that it contained islands. It drained parts of what are now the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn; and Maspeth, Ridgewood, Sunnyside and Long Island City in Queens. During the second half of the nineteenth century it became a major industrial waterway, bounded along most of its length by retaining walls, the shipping channel maintained by dredging. The Montauk Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, mainly a freight line, runs along the North bank.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A display table, pictured above, offered samples of both the NCA Bird Poster and the DEC Watching Wildlife book to the curious and interested alike.

For a free pdf of the NCA “Birds of Newtown Creek” Poster, click here.

Also: Upcoming Tours!

13 Steps around Dutch Kills Saturday, May 4, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets now on sale.

Parks and Petroleum- Sunday, May 12, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Newtown Creek Alliance, tickets now on sale.

The Insalubrious Valley Saturday, May 25, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets now on sale.

Hidden Harbor: Newtown Creek tour with Mitch Waxman – Sunday, May 26,2013
Boat tour presented by the Working Harbor Committee,
Limited seating available, order advance tickets now. Group rates available.

The Smelling Committee

with 2 comments

– 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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