Newtown Creek

When the Dutch first arrived to what is now New York City in the 16th century, the land looked nothing like it does now. The ground was not flat and concrete but rather, a network of rolling hills. Its forests, wetlands, marshes, and estuaries supported a rich and biodiverse ecosystem, and the Native Americans who occupied the land were able to thrive agriculturally thanks to the fertile soil. Oysters thrived on the rocky coasts, while large mammals such as black bears and mountain lions roamed the land.

For those who are interested, the Welikia Project is a really comprehensive resource for learning about what New York used to be!

New York from Heights near Brooklyn (1823)
New York from Heights near Brooklyn (1823) from the NYPL’s Digital Collection.

As the land was colonized, the natural habitats were disturbed to make way for human occupancy. Changes occurred particularly rapidly after industrialization hit the country in the late 19th century, and factories replaced the salt marshes lining the coast of New York City.

I grew up in East Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and an environmental issue that has always existed as background noise was the pollution in Newtown Creek, which runs from the East River and through Northern Brooklyn/Southern Queens.  During the 1800s, the Creek was used as a major industrial waterway and helped to transport goods for many industries.  The fish, large wading birds, and bivalves that lived in the Creek were killed off as it became increasingly polluted with wastes from oil distilleries, sugar refineries, glue factories, and canneries.  The industrial dumping that took place in the Creek was largely unregulated and continue to this day, and today, the Creek also suffers from the added stress of combined sewage overflows (CSOs) that the wastewater treatment plant can’t handle. In 2010, the EPA designated Newtown Creek as a federal Superfund site.

The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint processes roughly 1.5 million gallons of waste per day.
Oil slicks can be periodically seen on the surface of the water on the Creek.
Oil slicks can be periodically seen on the surface of the water on the Creek.

I began photographing the Creek in 2014, when my photographic practice began to align with my environmental concern.  Despite the reputation that the Williamsburg/Greenpoint/Long Island City area currently has as a haven for wealthy millennials, the damage done to the Creek is largely hidden from sight and obscured by the towering condos.  While I was photographing the Creek (mainly by going though industrial parking lots and a few open access points), I was struck by the stark contrast between all the trash by the Creek and the shiny reputation of the neighborhoods that the Creek snakes through.  When I drove through the neighborhood with my family as a kid, the Creek’s sulfurous and sewagey smell dominated the air in summer days.  The same smell is there today, but it is partially masked by the aroma of artisanal breads and expensive brunch.

When researching my project, I got in touch with the Newtown Creek Alliance, which was a tremendous resource in connecting me both with people who knew a lot about the history as well as with groups that are working to restore the Creek.  Efforts are being made to not only physically clean the Creek of litter and oil, but also to reintroduce the local flora and fauna of native grasses and filter feeders.  By restoring the ecology to a state that is closer to the wetlands Brooklyn used to be, researchers are hoping bring back the wildlife which was aggressively eliminated centuries ago.

Egrets can be seen on the Creek on occasion.

While learning about the damage done to Newtown Creek over hundreds of years by human activity was extremely upsetting, getting involved in its restoration efforts was a really eye-opening experience.  Reading about large-scale issues such as global climate change in the news can be overwhelming, but looking at how environmental restoration is done at a small-scale and local level has been an amazingly rewarding experience for me, and I encourage everyone to take that first step in reaching out to make changes in areas that matter to you.

2 thoughts on “Newtown Creek

  1. I found your post very interesting, Joann. I particularly like how you describe New York in the 16th century as a natural and untamed place. People living in urban settings nowadays often neglect the fact that there once existed vegetation and animals in the city they currently live in, and perhaps use that as an excuse to avoid thinking of their environmentally harmful actions.

  2. Thank you for sharing your insight into an area which most New Yorkers do not know.
    Your reflections on Newtown Creek’s history is very interesting as is mention of your photography (I would love to see some of your photography of this area in class). Also can not help but to be curious about the history of the name “Newtown Creek.”

    Great post and thank you for sharing a personal connection with the land where you grew up.