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How the Newtown Creek Area is Faring After the Storm

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger explores how the Newtown Creek superfund site is faring after Hurricane Sandy.

[Despite severe flooding during Hurricane Sandy, the city has plans to create two massive residential developments at the mouth of the highly polluted Newtown Creek. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

"The storm was a good thing," said Mitch Waxman, looking down into the murky waters of the Newtown Creek, "in that it raised people's awareness. It's kind of the wake up call to this archipelago city of ours."  As the author of The Newtown Pentacle, Waxman spends most of his free time exploring the side streets of the Newtown Creek, a Superfund site between Brooklyn and Queens that is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States.  During Hurricane Sandy, the creek surged past its banks, inflicting enormous flood damage along its entire 3.5 mile length, leading to evacuations, illness, and millions of dollars in repairs. And yet at the mouth of this polluted industrial waterway, where the surge flooded entire neighborhoods with millions of gallons of water, the city plans to build a pair of massive new developments?Greenpoint Landing and Hunter's Point South?which will bring tens of thousands of new residents to this flood zone.

"Do you really want to have residential so close to the water?" asked Willis Elkins of the North Brooklyn Boat Club, who watched from a bridge as the storm flooded from the Newtown Creek into Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  Elkins has canoed every inch of the Newtown Creek, observing firsthand the slow return of nature to a blighted waterway.  "I would like to see some of the areas converted back to salt marshes and wetlands that would act as a sponge for storm surges," said Elkins. "I'd love to see oyster reefs around the harbor."  The city, however, is insistent on plans to increase population density throughout New York's flood zones.  In his recent State of the City address, Mayor Bloomberg announced that Greenpoint Landing would bring 5,000 units of Zone A housing to the Newtown Creek's mouth. "Our administration has fundamentally changed the way we conduct waterfront development," said Bloomberg. "But Sandy raised the bar?and now we must rise to the occasion." What will this mean for the Newtown Creek?   

"Its pretty easy to see how it happened," said Mitch Waxman, standing on a bridge above the Dutch Kills, an offshoot of the Newtown Creek where millions of gallons of water flooded ashore into Queens, submerging Hunter's Point and Long Island City. "Basically a bubble of water came up the Newtown Creek."

"This was a raging torrent," said Waxman, looking down Borden Avenue, where the storm surge from the Dutch Kills rushed past industrial businesses and into the Queens Midtown Tunnel, filling it with 30 million gallons of polluted water. "In Dutch Kills, they've got typhus, gonorrhea, and cholera."

"I'm 50 yards away from Borden," said Long Island City resident Nicholas Knight, whose ground level apartment is across the street from the Queens Midtown Tunnel entrance.  "If that stuff hadn't gone into the tunnel, I think it would have come here."  His home in evacuation Zone B was miraculously not submerged, but was surrounded by water.  "We really were a little peninsula." 

At the Murano building, around the corner from Knight's apartment, residents were evacuated after the storm surge cut power to the building and "backed-up sewage pipes spewed six feet of feces into the basement," according to the Queens Chronicle. The building, named after an island in Italy, is located at the edge of Zone A, as are many of the new luxury residential towers that have sprung up in the area.

In Long Island City, "you are surrounded by water, more then you realize," said Willis Elkins. The neighborhood was flooded from three directions, with water from the East River, the Newtown Creek, and the Dutch Kills. The city, though, is moving forward with its plans for Hunter's Point South, a mega-project which will put 5,000 new units of housing into the flood zone at the mouth of the Newtown Creek.

City Harvest, a business which provides food for the homeless from its headquarters at the mouth of the creek, lost its entire fleet of trucks during the storm. "There was no distinguishing between river, lot and land," said Mitch Waxman. When Hunter's Point South is complete, City Harvest will be replaced by two residential towers rising up to 400 feet.

Greenpoint Landing will be built across the creek from Hunter's Point South, also in Zone A.  It will replace land used for truck parking, playgrounds, and movie shoots, on the same street where several buildings suffered severe flood damage during the Hurricane Sandy.

"The impacts were wildly different from property to property," said Kate Zidar,  the executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance. At the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC), water flooded the basement electrical system, according to Zidar, while next door at 99 Commercial Street, "a labyrinth of artist spaces and galleries were flooded." 

"It was more of a state of emergency then people realize," said Kristana Textor, a Greenpoint resident who lives in Zone A. "The police had a van going by with an announcement saying mandatory evacuation," said Textor. "We had food, we had water, we had a go bag packed...we decided not to evacuate." 

During the storm surge, the Newtown Creek "came up through the sewers," said Textor, flooding Greenpoint from beneath the streets. Water emerged from sewer grates along McGuinness Avenue, flooding past the Box House Hotel. "The water that was lapping at our front door was brown sea water," said Textor.  "I can only conclude it was water and sewage."

At the end of Textor's block is the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest sewage treatment plant in New York City. During the storm, "Newtown Creek Plant itself never stopped operating," said Kate Zidar, but was surrounded on all sides by floodwaters. "It was a moat." 

Alongside the millions of gallons of raw sewage being processed at the plant's digester eggs, "they have huge amounts of toxic chemicals," said Kate Zidar, which are used to treat the sewage. "That would be really disgusting and a problem if the sewage treatment plant flooded," said Kristana Textor.

Down at the creek's edge, the North Brooklyn Boat Club's headquarters were "totally flooded," according to Willis Elkins. "We figured it might it might flood but we didn't think it would be four feet." Since the storm, Elkins has taken several canoe trips out onto the creek. "It was really nasty?the oil slicks on the creek stayed for a week or so."

"It's almost like the storm surges are just one more thing to worry about," said Elkins. The boat club didn't suffer severe damage, but their neighbors across the creek at the Hunter's Point Sailboat Sanctuary lost at least one boat during the storm. "I thought they were done for." 

"These storms are going to become larger and more frequent," said Kate Zidar, who worked with Riverkeeper and GMDC to create the Newtown Creek BOA, a comprehensive, award-winning plan for the area. "If we have a larger flood on the Newtown Creek, we are going to see the impact on the residential zone in a much more dramatic way."  
?Nathan Kensinger
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