By Cat Gilbert
This morning, I joined in on the walking tour held by Atlas Obscura titled “Exploring the Poison Cauldron of Newtown Creek,” the infamous polluted waterway separating Brooklyn from Queens. Starting with a good bit of history, tour guide, activist, and resident Newtown Creek “historian” Mitch Waxman, gave an in-depth look at oil companies in Brooklyn (often referring to John D. Rockefeller, the man behind Standard Oil, as “the monster,”) and traveling the gauntlet of the many spills, explosions, and fires that have ravaged the area. As history passed into present day, so we passed through the back alleys of the oil and waste transfer zone. It was clear, tours were not a normal thing here. In fact, people, in general were not a normal thing. Passing truck drivers leered and then quickly gunned passed. At several points, Mitch paused to give us instructions about what to do if someone started to come after us. Luckily, we passed through with little trouble, sometimes even hailed with a smile and a “Welcome!” The workers seemed friendly enough, even if the landscape itself, was hellish. Peering out from a clearing onto Newtown Creek, Mitch points out the homeless people living in the giant abandoned industrial structure across the river in Queens, and talks about the quantity of bodies littering this waterway. What’s funny, Mitch notes, is Newtown Creek used to be where people visiting Calvary cemetary would come to get out of the industrial hellscape of 1800’s Manhattan. This used to be the country.
Passing from the oil zone to the “recycling” zone seated directly under the Kosciuszko Bridge, was like entering a portal into a dystopian nightmare. Everything was metal, barren, sparks and flames flew out from behind recycled sheet metal walls, the smell was at times, unbearable, and the sound, a loud metallic pounding. This is 24/7 Mitch reminds us, it never stops. Once in a while you had to look out for things like dead cats littering the dirt pathways, already blanketed with trash. Mitch mentioned he had a beer with one of the waste workers the night before to prepare for the tour and when he asked what we can do to help in regards to recycling, the worker’s answer was simple and chilling, “It’s to late. All you can do now is keep recycling and try to make it better for your children.” As we continued towards the end of Meeker ave, Mitch pointed out the homeless camp that inhabited the stretch underneath the bridge, one of the largest in New York.
Entering the coolness of McGorlick park, surrounded by coffee shops and dog salons, we are reminded “This entire tour, even now, we haven’t been more than 8 blocks from Newtown Creek.” Beadel street, where a one bedroom is priced at around $1600, runs directly through the heart of Newtown Creek, and it’s tree-lined tranquility, is truly disturbing in the face of the hostility that surrounds it. Admittedly, it’s easy to forget what surrounds us only blocks away but after this tour, I don’t think there is any way to wipe the memory of what’s there or what exactly our children will be inheriting. It’s encouraging to know people like Mitch are taking the time to educate both residents and visitors to New York. His approach, tempered by a very clear understanding that these industries are important and vital to New York and the community, is to make changes that allow the industry to continue without poisoning the surrounding residents. As Mitch wrapped up the tour he reminded everyone that the Newtown Creek Alliance offers public meetings, to work towards raising money and taking action against things like illegal dumping in the river and much more. Riverkeeper also plays a vital role in this process, and will be having an upcoming beach cleanup in Red Hook. For more information visit. To see more of Obscura’s tours visit their website or sign up for the mailing list.