Sludgie the Whale's Skull on View at TedXGowanus

After attending TedXGowanus yesterday, I can honestly say I now know more about that superfund site, its history and the clean-up effort – than our very own superfund site near and dear to us in Greenpoint – the Newtown Creek. This is a good thing.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ted, it stands for Technology + Entertainment + Design and features innovators and experts from all over the world who give informative and inspiring talks in their field. Any soul searcher can get lost for hours watching talk after talk. TedX (as in TedXGowanus) is an independently organized series of talks.

Gowanus, Brooklyn

Not only did yesterday’s talks shed light on what it means to live and work in an area that is a “hot spot” for newcomers, innovative start-ups and developers, but how the area is defined against a backdrop of a long history of environmental abuse and neglect by manufacturers and our own city.

It also convinced me that TedXGreenpoint needs to happen! (Don’t look at me…)

While there were many amazing speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds, here’s the gist from talks that draw parallels to our fine neighborhood.


Marelene Donnelly of FROGG (Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus) painted a sobering picture of the canal in order to give us “a sense of our cultural relationship to goods produced on our global market.” Lowes is situated on one side of the Gowanus, where residents purchase imported goods like refrigerators and washing machines. As shoppers fill their trunks in the parking lot they can watch as old stoves and dishwashers are piled onto a trash barge across the water.

Greenpoint processes a large percentage of the city’s garbage, too – which increases truck traffic and degrades the air quality here. This is something we should consider as key players in mass consumerism and thus trash creators in our own backyard.

Gowanus Canal Photo - A. Jesse Jiryu Davis for

FROGG worked to designate the Gowanus as a superfund site and is now attempting to get it listed in the National Historic register as an Urban Industrial Site, the first to be listed in this category. Before globalization the Gowanus area supplied materials to local markets and “the level of construction earned landmark status for other areas of Brooklyn,” like the many historic Brownstone districts including our own Kent St.

With all the development on our own waterfront in Greenpoint, Kate Orff’s talk about rebuilding “eco-infrastructure” with respect to our coastlines was especially relevant with storms like Hurricane Sandy that threaten our shores and directly impact residents who live in flood zones. With thousands of new residents moving to our waterfront (which is a flood zone) in the coming years, this is an especially important topic.

She explained that levees or sea walls “block our vision” and are just one line of defense – easily toppled with rising water levels. She called for building “resiliency in the shallows” with “a layered approach that provides multiple lines of defense” using reefs and other “bathymetric measures.” Especially important is “one that does not block our view of the water.” She stressed implementation of these projects by residents, volunteers and students in order to nurture the relationship between the city and its waterways. It calls to mind riding up Kent Ave in Williamsburg nowadays, where there is essentially no view of the East River – a dreaded fate for many Greenpoint residents and a situation that removes the larger community from its experience with our coastline.

Red Hook Flooding During Hurrican Sandy © The Wall Street Journal

Monica Byrne, founder of Restore Red Hook, gave a moving first hand account of the post-Sandy aftermath there. She presented her version of the “Disaster Paradigm,” that goes like this: a disaster strikes, funds are donated to large organizations and those funds are absorbed by administrative costs so the majority of the funding is never received by the actual victims of the disaster. When funds are finally distributed via grants, the funds must be used as the grants intended, which may not be what the victims need. For example, a year after Sandy, funding was received to improve Red Hook storefronts, but the businesses already rebuilt their storefronts and really needed funding to pay for equipment and electricity bills. For these reasons, Monica said, “the system is broken.”

It all comes down to respect. Respecting the victims enough to give them funds so they can use them the way they need them. Restore Red Hook raised $600,000 from small local donations and regranted 100% of the funds raised.

“Direct aid empowers people,” Monica said.

Sandy won’t be the last natural disaster we face as NYC citizens and Greenpointers will consider this talk the next time we raise funds for local victims.

John D'Aquino Completed a Live Dive Into the Gowanus Canal

What many of us most looked forward to yesterday was the promised “live dive” of the Gowanus Canal by the Coney Island River Rats. Whether the diver would come out alive (and not glowing) was the question. Lenny Speregen spent much of his talk explaining to the audience why his job was so much more exciting than everyone else’s. The view from his “desk,” which is his dive mask, is always changing and is the closest he can get to experiencing zero gravity.

When his dive partner John D’Aquino, protected by a Hazmat suit, lowered a camera into the canal, Lenny admitted “it isn’t always pretty.” Oil pooled around the lens and all we could see was brown muck. Weather did not permit a live dive but they did one the previous day and showed mussels growing on the wood pilings, a siting reported by our own North Brooklyn Boat Club in the Newtown Creek as well. On our canoe trip this past summer we even saw jellyfish.

CSO on Newtown Creek

“It’s cleaner than you think,” was the catchphrase of the day, which gets us into our next topic – “POOH-NAMIS.” Natalie Loney from the EPA used this term to describe CSOs or  Combine Sewage Overflows. That is when rain overloads our sewage treatment system, also know as the “Shit Tits” in Greenpoint, and raw sewage from our toilets and drains is released into our waterways.

In a very informative talk given by Ate Atema, which you can watch here, he explains how over 50% of rainfalls in NYC trigger CSOs and that our outdated one pipe system that accepts both rain and sewage is vulnerable but would be almost impossible to retrofit.

He offers “a new version of a two pipe system,” a solution to divert rainwater away from sewers with a project called Street Creeks that catches rainwater, filters out litter and pollution via bioswales, and sends the clean rainwater back into our waterways to mimic the natural water cycle, thereby restoring the love affair between water and gravity.

Bioswales are green spaces that sit at the end of each city block and contain plants that specifically remove heavy metals and other toxins from rainwater. Plus (and this is the part that I like) it takes up two parking spaces on each block – making the city even less car friendly. This plan is “incrementally implementable” which makes it a practical solution versus a complete system overhaul.

Other interesting speakers delved into the history of the Gowanus area, a place where Natives and European settlers caught oysters as big as footballs that was an important battleground during the Revolutionary war. One speaker, Joseph Alexiou even suggested that “without the Gowanus Creek there would be no America.”

After a day of absorbing invaluable information that made me appreciate New York City, its history and understand its environmental issues even more, I hopped on the G train back to Greenpoint and began to envision what TedXGreenpoint would look like. The possibilities…

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  1. Thank you for this terrific recap of the amazing day that was TEDxGowanus!
    I really appreciate your synopsis of my talk, it let me know I got the point across, and communicated what I wanted to in 9 minutes!!
    It’s so important to know that we we all respond to disaster or tragedy that our money is not getting directly to the people we ‘re trying to help, and that it’s not because it’s being stolen or misappropriated in most cases, but because our currents structures simply don’t work.
    Thank you again!

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