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In the Bronx, finding nature along a hidden, polluted waterway

Westchester Creek, sometimes called "the Gowanus Canal of the Bronx," is on the path to remediation

Cut off by highways, lined with barbed wire and filled with sunken barges, much of Westchester Creek had been made invisible. But the lure of the water was powerful, and fishermen had found their way in, peeling back fences, clambering down steep embankments and up handmade ladders, pushing through the tall marsh grasses. At the edge of its shore, they perched on precarious rubble and abandoned boats, savoring their small islands of solitude, surrounded by an industrialized landscape of rumbling trucks and dusty lots.

Even the most bastardized waterways in New York City have beauty hidden along their lengths, and Westchester Creek is no exception. Once described as "the Bronx’s version of the Gowanus Canal," its forgotten shoreline has been heavily polluted by decades of raw sewage, gasoline leaks and illegal dumping, and most of its original course has been filled in or rerouted, concealed behind warehouses, fuel oil depots, tow yards, and parking lots. Down its dead end streets, however, a fringe of vibrant green marshland has taken root, and several upcoming infrastructure projects may soon help bring its neglected waters back to health.

The current path of Westchester Creek runs about two miles into the Bronx, as the tidal inlet flows from the East River between Clason Point and Ferry Point to its truncated end near Westchester Square. "It used to go much further inland, but a lot of the creek was filled in," a tugboat captain stationed along its length observed. "It has a long history, going back more than 300 years." Originally settled by the Siwanoy tribe and then colonized by the Dutch and English in the 1600’s, one of the early skirmishes of the Revolutionary War, The Battle of Westchester Creek, was fought along its banks in 1776.

In the ensuing centuries, the creek was mainly used for shipping, industry, and bootlegging, and eventually was reshaped to make way for the Hutchinson River Parkway, neighborhood development, and several industrial zones. Landfills, communal dumps, and empty lots have lined its length for decades, including along Pugsley Creek, a small spur off of its western bank where a large public park remains mostly undeveloped and closed off to the public due to pollution. "This has been a dump for years. I can’t imagine what’s buried in there—cars, trash, boats," said one local resident who was walking his dogs along the shore of Pugsley Creek. "If they ever cleaned it up, who knows what they would pull out. From a distance, it looks real nice. But I wouldn’t eat anything out of it."

Today, Westchester Creek is heavily polluted by runoff from the highways, warehouses, and homes that surround it, and "is contaminated with untreated sewage—good old human waste—during heavy rains," according to the NY Daily News, noting that this has been an issue for more than 60 years. Like many of New York’s waterways, including the Gowanus Canal, the source of this sewage is the city’s antiquated, inadequate Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system, which allows feces and rainwater to mix together during storms. "When it rains hard, the plants are overwhelmed and raw sewage is kicked into the city’s rivers, canals, creeks, and bays," according to City Limits. "Every year 30 billion gallons of raw sewage gets discharged in city waterways."

To help alleviate this problem, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has created Long Term Control Plans for many of the city’s most polluted rivers and creeks, including a plan for Westchester Creek that incorporates several different approaches. In 2015, the DEP presented the idea of building an extensive system of bioswales along the Westchester Creek watershed, and is now scheduled to begin construction on 200 of these structures in 2017, which will help keep rainwater out of the sewer system by absorbing it into "specially designed curbside gardens." The DEP is also scheduled to begin a $22 million sewer upgrade project next spring, which "will prevent approximately 400 million gallons of pollution from being discharged into Westchester Creek each year."

In the meantime, enterprising fishermen and boaters are some of the only visitors along the creek’s industrial sections, where spartina, phragmites, trees, and wildflowers have taken root along rubble-strewn banks. Nature has found a way to survive here, and humans have also found their way back to the water, for better or worse.

At the mouth of Westchester Creek, a shipwreck near the Whitestone Bridge marks the spot where its waters meet the East River. A variety of sunken, abandoned or damaged boats can be found along the creek’s length.

The creek and river meet alongside Clason Point Park, a favorite spot for local fisherman and kayakers. During Hurricane Sandy, this park was completely submerged.

A small beach on eastern edge of Clason Point Park gives direct access to Westchester Creek. It is a popular destination for local Hindus, who have used the creek for many years to make offerings Mother Ganga, a river goddess.

Hindu offerings line the beach, and a dozen loaves of bread float in the water. To the north, the raised coast is built above mounds of bricks, rocks, and other construction debris.

Above this raised shoreline, a new section of Clason Point Park is being completed alongside Riverwalk, a collection of homes that rising as part of Harbour Pointe at Shorehaven, a private gated community.

The 71 homes of Riverwalk are raised well above sea level, and currently look down onto this incomplete section of parkland, which borders Westchester Creek.

The shore of the incomplete park is blocked by a large sunken barge and a collapsed pier, and lined with maritime debris washed up from the East River.

Further north in the neighborhood, a series of dead end streets lead into the wild overgrowth of Pugsley Creek Park. "As a growing park, Pugsley Creek Park has remained largely undeveloped," according to the NYC Parks website.

In 2005, the New York Times reported that this park "had become a dumping ground for boats, cars, washing machines and construction material. Invasive species like mugwort and Japanese knot weed have grown as tall as 14 feet in some places, making the park virtually impassible."

While some of the debris has been hauled away, much of the park remains inaccessible to the general public, with fences blocking off its overgrown forests and meadows. Pugsley Creek, a spur of Westchester Creek, can be seen from this overgrowth.

A pair of parallel fences keeps most of Pugsley Creek Park sealed off to the public, to prevent dumping and, perhaps, to protect residents from extensive contaminants found onsite, including mercury, cadmium, and lead. "They have been dumping here for 30 years," said one local resident.

On the northern banks of Pugsley Creek, in Castle Hill, one of the only access points to the creek’s edge can be found. This entire area was once inhabited by the Siwanoy tribe, before being settled by English Puritans in 1685, according to the NYC Parks Department. The creek was also rumored to have been used by rum-runners and bootleggers during prohibition.

Access to this section of Pugsley Creek, which is part of Castle Hill Park, is relatively new. "They only finished this park three years ago," said a local resident.

At Castle Hill Point, Westchester Creek and Pugsley Creek meet in a grassy marshland with expansive views out to the East River. A 1.3-acre salt marsh restoration was completed here in 2012.

Heading north, Westchester Creek is lined with fenced-off industrial sites, which block off most access to the shoreline. This area was developed in the 1980s as part of the Zerega Avenue Industrial Park.

Along a one-mile stretch of Zerega Avenue, the only "public" access point to the creek is this peeled-back fence, hidden behind a stack of cardboard boxes.

A rough pathway leads through an overgrown, empty lot and down into a salt marsh habitat, where spartina, phragmites, and flotsam line the banks of the Westchester Creek.

Along the shoreline, an abandoned boat has run ashore and been taken over by fisherman. A hole in a nearby fence also gives employees from a neighboring Sanitation Department facility access to the creek.

Once onboard, this forgotten salt marsh takes the appearance of a thriving green shoreline, but heavy pollution has marred the landscape and fouled the waters.

As Westchester Creek continues north along this industrialized coast, it travels underneath the Bruckner Expressway and the Cross Bronx Expressway, another small section of semi-accessible shoreline.

Under the expressway, a pile of household debris is heaped up next to a DEP parking lot and office building. Several different city agencies have offices bordering the creek.

Fisherman have found a way out onto the creek here, clambering down under a nearby bridge and using homemade ladders to climb up onto the footings of the expressway.

Under the tangled overpasses, the roads and coast are blocked off by a fleet of towed cars. Street mechanics have set up several informal auto repairs shops here, and signs claim this is part of a NYC Marshal and Sheriff tow yard operated by Tow-Arrific.

Parking lots are common feature, further north along the creek. Along Commerce Avenue, a one-mile stretch of industrial businesses has cut the creek off from public access.

Some of the empty lots along Commerce Avenue have remained unused for decades. This signage for the Zerega Industrial Park was put in place during Mayor Koch’s administration.

Another series of empty lots nearby is sandwiched between a fuel oil warehouse and a furniture supply store, and overgrown with a thicket of mature trees.

At the back of this empty lot, past new growth of wild forest, the Westchester Creek comes into view through barbed wire. This is one of the only "public" access points to the creek along Commerce Avenue.

On the other side of the fence, a rocky coast is lined with marsh grasses, riprap, and yet another derelict barge filled with debris. Fenced off lots and privatized street ends have turned these sections of the creek into rare, hidden oases.

Next to the rusted-out barge, a crumbling pier is used by local fishermen. "I’ve seen the guys from work go fishing down there. I don’t know what they catch," said an employee at a nearby warehouse. "I’ve never seen them catch anything."

On the opposite side of the creek, another forgotten stretch of marsh is hidden, just north of the old Whitestone Cinema complex, which sold last year for $41 million. A previous developer had hoped to build an 829,000-square-foot outlet mall here, at creekside.

The northernmost section of Westchester Creek is largely inaccessible on foot. Its overgrown, marshy shoreline is littered with washed-up bottles and car parts from the nearby Hutchinson River Parkway, which runs parallel to the waterway just a few feet away.

Views of this half-mile stretch of coastline can be found along an abandoned bike path between the creek and the parkway. Trees and asphalt along the eroded path are collapsing in the water.

Across from the parkway, a small fleet of fishing boats and tugs are moored at Metro Marine, a private marina. Fenced off from public access, the marina is also home to several houseboats, whose numbers have fluctuated as boats sink or capsize.

To the north of the marina, the aboveground sections of Westchester Creek abruptly end against the concrete walls of a high school ball field, across from the Schildwachter fuel oil company. From here, the remainder of the creek is hidden underground, its origins obscured.

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. "Industrial Twilight," an exhibit of Kensinger’s photographs of Brooklyn’s changing waterfront, is currently being exhibited at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.

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