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Bringing Community, and Nature, Back to the Banks of Newtown Creek

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Several new projects are being launched this month to improve access along the shores of the Newtown Creek, a federal Superfund site. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger visits Newtown Creek along the Greenpoint waterfront.

On a recent spring day, a spirited group of volunteers gathered at a dead end street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, behind the largest sewage treatment plant in New York City. They were there to envision the future of a nameless inlet along the Newtown Creek, one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States. Amidst a collection of abandoned construction trailers, they filled trash bags with illegally dumped garbage and used canoes to tow an enormous red balloon overhead, creating an aerial map of a shoreline strewn with broken concrete. And then the miniature trees came out, and they began to plan. "We are trying to come up with ideas for shoreline restoration," Willis Elkins, one of the event's organizers, announced to the group, as they created maps of the docks, beaches and parks that could one day be built here. "Now it's spring, so we can start some of this work."

This was the first public event for the North Henry Street Planning Project, one of several new projects launching this month that aim to increase access and biodiversity on the Newtown Creek. Surrounded by industry, this waterway is a federal Superfund site which has been cut off from nearby residents in Brooklyn and Queens for over a century. "There are about 11 miles of shoreline, and right now there are only two official access points," said Elkins, the program manager of the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA). On Monday, this group announced it would be expanding its work at Plank Road, and on Sunday, the NCA will be launching the Living Dock, two projects that will involve the local community in the creek's ongoing remediation. "The Superfund is a big process that's going to cost millions of dollars. This is a way to get people more involved in the whole thing," said Elkins. "If everyone's demanding the creek become swimmable, there's a greater chance it might happen."

Although the landscape around the "No Name" tributary at North Henry Street may appear to be a polluted, neglected shoreline today, it represents an amazing improvement from past conditions. "You couldn't stand here in the 60s and 70s because it was so foul smelling," said Laura Hofmann, a board member of the NCA, while looking out over the inlet. "The smell of the creek was so strong it was like a slap in the face. It was bad enough to make you puke." As a long-time community activist who grew up in Greenpoint, Hofmann recalls participating in another neighborhood cleanup here over 12 years ago, when volunteers pulled car parts and tires from the creek using ropes, trucks, and boats. Back then, the inlet "was unidentifiable because of all the stuff here… I wouldn't be surprised if there were still sunken cars in the mud," said Hofmann. "Compared to then, this is 90 percent better."

Conditions throughout the 3.5-mile-long Newtown Creek have greatly improved in recent decades, which Willis Elkins attributes both to vigilant enforcement by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and to community involvement. "What was normal even 10 years ago is an atrocity today," said Elkins, partially due to the work of several groups that have been monitoring pollution here. "Riverkeeper was one of the first advocates for cleaning up the creek. They will tell you that in the early 2000s, you could see a foot of oil on the creek," said Elkins. "We know how bad it got in the 20th century. Now, there are mussels, clams, and oysters coming back. You see horseshoe crabs, eels. We're not saying it is clean, but water quality has certainly improved."

The return of nature is plainly visible at the Plank Road site in Maspeth, Queens, where the Newtown Creek Alliance has been working to clean up another dead-end street. "This whole site used to be a total dumping ground," said Willis Elkins, during a recent visit. "It basically was an unusable piece of land, where even the workers next door stayed away." In 2014, the NCA used a small grant from the New York-New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program to haul away hundreds of pounds of debris, creating a stone path down to the ruins of an old bridge at water's edge and installing an informational placard. With new funding from the DEC, they plan to expand a trail system along the banks of the creek here, near 58th Road, which is currently one of the only places in Queens where the public can gain access to the shoreline. "You can imagine a bench here. We might put in steps down to the water," said Elkins, walking along a small footpath above the creek. "This is the prime industrial traffic hour, but once you are out at the water, it's pretty peaceful."

For local residents near the Plank Road site, wanting to be close to the Newtown Creek is a relatively new concept. "I grew up in Maspeth. We would walk down there once in a while, but it was all industrial back then," said Richard Polgar, who has lived in the area for 65 years. "Where we were, you could smell the creek." During Polgar's childhood, regulations for industry were much looser, resulting in "a legacy of contamination," according to the Plank Road placard. Businesses in the immediate vicinity included a dead animal wharf, fat storage warehouses, a glue factory, fertilizer companies, and incinerators that would burn night and day. "The ash used to fly all over, like snow in the summertime. Then they said it was toxic ash, and closed the incinerators down," said Polgar, who has participated in cleanups at both Plank Road and Henry Street. "I'm glad to see that some of this could come back to life."

Though the scale of the projects now being initiated by the Newtown Creek Alliance is relatively small when compared to the entire watershed of the Newtown Creek, they represent some of the first real steps towards creating a diverse array of public access on what has traditionally been a closed-off waterway. A single bench, a short path, a floating dock—each amounts to more than just a symbolic gesture, when weighed against the decades of neglect that have scarred the creek. "People see the Newtown Creek and say 'Why bother? It's too far gone,'" said Elkins. "But as we've seen conditions improving and nature returning, we think there is hope. It is feasible to clean it up and return it to a more natural state that serves the community."

At a recent event at the "No Name" inlet near North Henry Street, volunteers used a aerial mapping system developed by Public Lab to create a visual of this small section of Greenpoint shoreline.

Canoeists from the North Brooklyn Boat Club slowly paddled the balloon past sunken tires, crumbling bulkheads, and abandoned construction trailers. The planning process for North Henry Street is being funded, in part, by a grant from the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund.

The inlet here was originally part of the Whale Creek tributary. It is now bordered by the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, a local scrap yard, and a semi-abandoned marine transfer station that is crumbling into the water.

The Newtown Creek is still an active industrial waterway, and "the Newtown Creek Alliance is very much about preserving industrial use and maritime use here," said Willis Elkins. "At the same time, we want to the creek to regain some of its natural order."

The NCA plans to improve the shoreline of this inlet with its Living Dock, a project also funded by the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund. It envisions that, in the future, this could become a salt marsh or another point of access to the creek. "There is a lot of potential there," said Elkins.

At the nearby Newtown Creek Nature Walk—the only public park on the creek—the final two sections have yet to be completed. "The community deserves to have Phases 2 and 3, which were promised to them," said the park's designer, George Trakas. "We worked so hard on it for so many years." If completed, an entrance to the Nature Walk would be built at North Henry Street.

Meanwhile, at the North Brooklyn Boat Club, work is nearing completion on the Living Dock. At 180 square feet, the dock will weigh over 1,000 pounds, and could accommodate up to 10 people. Accessible by canoe, it will mainly be used to test and monitor various habitats for marine wildlife.

The dock will launch into the creek on Sunday, near yet another environmental project. These steel planter boxes were created as part of The Constructed Wetland Pilot Project, a City Parks Foundation initiative that is maintained by Sarah Durand, an Associate Professor of Natural Science at nearby LaGuardia Community College.

Down at the Plank Road project site in Maspeth, Queens, a gravel path and placard were completed in August 2014 at the dead end of 58th Road. They represent the first phase of a larger project.

The shoreline to the north of this site is rocky riprap, bordered by a narrow strip of land with a bamboo grove and phragmites. "In the summer, this is all overgrown," said Willis Elkins. "We're going to try and control some of the invasive species here."

The surrounding area houses a concrete plant and a Department of Sanitation depot. Narrow, unmaintained paths have already been carved into the overgrowth.

"This shoreline is one of the only continual, non-bulkheaded parts of the creek," said Elkins. "We plan to do more trash removal, path making, and plant management."

To the south, a small grassy path wanders past trees and wild plants, including Lamb's Ear. This section of the creek is now home to cormorants, herons, egrets, geese, and kingfishers, who can be seen fishing in the water.

Graffiti artists have also made this area their home, though the site appears to be visited infrequently. Since the initial cleanup of the area and placard installation, no major dumping or vandalism has occurred at the Plank Road site.

The banks of the creek in this section have a softer edge, and face out onto a cement plant in Brooklyn. "This would be great for salt marsh plants," observed Elkins.

The Newtown Creek Alliance believes that industry and nature can co-exist here. "We are not looking to go back to the heyday of oil spills and contamination, but we want to preserve the industrial core," said Elkins. "Conditions have already improved over the past five decades."
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Newtown Creek coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]