In 1929 the NYTimes wrote that, “People do not travel for pleasure on Newtown Creek.” Those of us on the Working Harbor Committee’s “Hidden Harbor Tour” of Newtown Creek disagreed, as we traversed the 3.5 mile long estuary on a sunny Sunday.

The Working Harbor Committee (WHC), a not for profit, hosts boat tours all over the NYC area in what one of the day’s MCs called “the sixth borough” – the rivers and waterways surrounding the city. Sunday’s two-hour tour was hosted by members of the Newtown Creek Alliance, a non-profit community group advocating for development and cleanup along the Creek. New development requires cleanup, NCA claims, and would boost employment for Brooklyn and Queens residents along the Creek; as well as decrease the number of trucks trafficking goods on New York’s roadways. (One barge on the waterways, for example, could replace up to 70 trucks on the roadways.)

As the tour demonstrated, the Creek, which was once the busiest industrial waterway in the US, has a trove of secrets – wonderful and hideous.


Of the hideous, there is the “black mayonnaise” that rests 10 to 15 feet deep on the bottom of the Creek, which is the accumulation of every pollutant ever dumped there. (Since the Creek receives almost zero fresh water and is barely affected by the tides, the pollution literally does not move, even after centuries.) At some points in the Creek, the water has almost zero oxygen in it; at other points, mutant forms of life have been identified. What else can be expected of the place where Astral Oil began and Standard Oil burned down?

Of the wonderful: There is the building on the Queens side which one NCA member claimed was where Thomas Edison was building electric cars in 1915. Further wonderfulness: despite the vast environmental degradation, life has begun to come back to the Creek, largely because certain areas have been abandoned by industry. Birds, mussels and fish – if not abounding – are at least present; while some young people even managed to find a spot for an afternoon palaver.

While it was once extremely busy – and home to many enormous fires and industrial havocs – the Creek is also out of sight and mind for most Greenpointers. It is a slower, older world to see the barges that have been abandoned and floating for decades; stones on the Creek’s shore stained a dark industrial black; forts constructed out of shipping containers; graffiti scrawled where people dared to risk falling into it.

Even what is no longer there is impressive: two islands that were dredged years ago to make room for the Creek’s traffic. Mussel Island was once home to mussels, then just mud; while another island (anyone remember the name?), our guide claimed, was where Jello was invented.

While it is legal to canoe or even to swim in the Creek, it is not exactly recommended. A host of people canoe or kayak on the Creek, and a boat launch has been in the city’s plans since 2010. It seems life on the Creek will come back, but it might need condos lining it first, like Williamsburg along the East River – which our tour guide instructed us is not even a river. But is Newtown really a Creek?

Answer: Yes.

Today the EPA will be holding Newtown Creek Superfund Public Meetings at St. Nick’s Alliance (2 Kingsland, Garden Level). An informal public info session to discuss upcoming field work at the Newtown Creek Superfund site as part of the first phase of the remedial investigation will be held 2pm, 4pm, 7pm, 9pm. EPA representatives will be available to answer questions. More info

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