Chances are, you’ve seen little of the Newtown Creek. The 3.5 mile waterway threads between Brooklyn and Queens with its banks mostly lined with private industry and only a few points of public access. It is unfortunately best known as the site of one of the biggest oil spills in the United States, when in 1978 between 17 and 30 million galloons of oil were discovered to be seeping from crude oil processing facilities. There’s also all the raw sewage that gets in the water from the mixed sewer system, and with no current to carry it away, it mixes with the oil and other pollution to create a disgusting sediment on the bottom of the creek. Despite that unsavory image, there are hopes that the creek can be cleaned up, and many people are working to get its fascinating history more attention. One organization is the Newtown Creek Alliance, which organized a water taxi trip for the recent Open House New York weekend (during which I also visited the TWA Flight Center and Woodlawn Cemetery).
It was a rare look into the creek’s visible and verbal history, and was very surreal to be riding a New York water taxi among derelict warehouses. Here are some photos so you can take the journey yourself!
The taxi left from Long Island City on the East River, and turning into the mouth of the creek, we first saw the warehouses of Greenpoint in Brooklyn.
I enjoyed spying some work by street artists taking advantage of the creek’s seclusion. Although it borders up on busy neighborhoods, the creek itself felt oddly silent.
A sort of guerilla boat club uses the creek. I would be nervous to go boating in water I wouldn’t want to touch, but life is full of risks, I suppose.
Here is a grungy old bridge. I should have been taking notes on all the details. If you want an extraordinary look into the Newtown Creek and the surrounding industrial area, definitely check out the blog of Mitch Waxman who was conducting our boat tour. He knows the place in incredible and fascinating detail!
One of the few public areas along the waterfront is the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, a very strange little park that is heavily landscaped and has a view to what you see above: metal scrapping!
We caught a glimpse of the futuristic digester eggs of the Newtown Creek water treatment plant. It’s somewhere I’ve been meaning to take a tour of as well.
Off in the distance, we started to see a cluster of trees. This was Calvary Cemetery, and you can just catch the tip of its church in the center. (Read my story on the art of Calvary Cemetery for Hyperallergic here!) Ferries once used the Newtown Creek to carry funerals and cemetery visitors to Calvary.
We passed under a few bridges, some bustling and some smaller. This is the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge, which connects Greenpoint in Brooklyn to Blissville in Queens. It’s actually the sixth bridge to be built here, with the first being a drawbridge constructed in the 1850s. This steel incarnation dates to 1987. Why such interest in all these bridges? Well at one point this was quite the industrial center and one of the country’s busiest waterways. (Peter Cooper even had his glue factory along the creek!)
Here’s a closer look at the spooky old building by the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge.
The smoothness of the water was interesting, and you could really tell how anything dropped in the water would just sink into the sludge instead of being carried off through the river to the sea. (Not saying polluting the oceans is better, but this is how you get such a concentration of pollution.) The EPA has marked the creek as a superfund site, but we’ll just have to wait and see what successes that may bring.
After a while we were right next to Calvary Cemetery, the edge of a burial ground containing over 3 million people.
Here my friend Sean looks out from the prow of the boat as we approach the Kosciuszko Bridge.
Gliding beneath the staggering Kosciusko Bridge was one of the coolest points of the tour. Sure, almost everyone goes over it on the BQE to the airport or elsewhere, but how often do you get to go beneath it and see its towering metal form from that perspective? The bridge was built in 1939, and there are plans underway to replace it, which I imagine will be an insane undertaking.
Here is our water taxi leaving the bridge. It had started to rain a little, as you can see.
These posts are the remnants of a bridge that connected Brooklyn to Queens in 1876. Kind of crazy they’re still there.
Look, more metal scrapping! I believe there was also an impound lot, so maybe they work together. I wonder what the little shack on the right is for?
Despite the pollution, there’s still some wildlife, or at least birds, maybe drawn to the quiet. We spotted a white egret flying around (you can barely see it amongst the posts in the water).
Being not far from the Queens airports, many planes have their flight paths over the creek.
The absolute strangest thing we saw was this paddlewheel boat from Palm Beach docked by the old industry. According to our tour guide, it hadn’t even been there 24 hours earlier.
Our trip ended at the Grand Street Bridge, where after the pollution is apparently so bad that we couldn’t even go there. We turned back towards the East River and Sean and I decided to sit inside to get away from the rain that was then falling harder.
On our journey, we’d passed by Greenpoint, Bushwick, Blissville, Ridgewood, Maspeth, and Sunnyside, quite a few populous neighborhoods touched by this silent relic of an industrial peak that has fallen. I think it is so essential that people like the Newtown Creek Alliance and Mitch Waxman are making an effort to bring attention to this often forgotten waterway. New York City has so little space; whatever we have we should try to preserve and restore the best we can.