July 13, 2008

I Didn't Bring My Gas Mask

There's an underground oil spill nearly twice as big as the EXXON Valdez oil spill, only because it's underground, people don't notice it so much. Greenpoint residents have the highest percentage of cancer in all of New York City. Between that and the nearby sewage treatment plant, the neighborhood - which I lived in for seven years - smells really bad in the summertime.

Still, despite the toxicity of the land, hipsters and Polish immigrants still thrive there, and even at the source of the spill - Newtown Creek, the body of water that separates Brooklyn and Queens between Greenpoint and Long Island City - lots of the same birds that we first spotted a week ago on our Audubon cruise are alive and well on the banks of the creek.

Like the Gowanus canal, Newtown Creek is an industrial waterway full of barges, Civil War-era warehouses and trash, only the creek is a natural waterway and almost as wide as the Harlem River. In fact, when I first crossed the creek on the Pulaski Bridge way back in '97, I couldn't imagine something so big was only a creek. But as a Greenpoint resident (though not anymore), I was always fascinated with it and was excited to embark on a guided tour of it, especially after how cool my Gowanus cruise was.

Pulaski Bridge Our cruise started out calmly enough, and I kept thinking that the water looked much cleaner than the Gowanus, at least on the surface, especially considering the oil spill and all the traffic crossing the creek on the Pulaski, Greenpoint, and Kosciuszko bridges above. And then towards the end of the creek, at the point that the creek splits into English Kills (the eventual end of the creek at Metropolitan and Grand Avenues) and Maspeth Creek (the filthiest section), our boat was slowly turning around in the water and kicked up a bunch of greenish brown silt in the water, making the huge black pool of gook below our boat undulate and expand and contract like a huge swamp thing toxic amoeba.


That was also the point that the creek started to smell really bad, so even though most of the dumping historically happened much more at the beginning of the creek, closer to the East River, we were a little afraid to breathe back there, where we still saw birds but they seemed to move a little more sluggishly and didn't really fly. No egrets, either.

Greenpoint Avenue BridgeTaking a cruise of a tributary that served for years as a dumping ground for oil and petroleum and God knows what else is not for the faint of heart, and probably not for tourists. But if you love New York like I do, you want to see the good with the bad, sometimes especially the bad. Nobody has any idea how to fix an oil spill that covers 50+ acres of land - underground. But optimists like myself see so much potential in that waterfront, if only it could be zoned for parks so any kind of cleanup could be accelerated.

Lawmakers Ask EPA to Help with Creek Cleanup - New York Times

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