Saturday, June 16, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Walking Dutch Kills with Mitch Waxman, "Your Guide to a Tour of Decay" (NYT)


Mitch Waxman: "This would be a great place
to base yourself if you were a supervillain"

"You don't get to have Manhattan without having a Newtown Creek," Mitch says at 2:33 of this NYT video. "It's funny because the comic-book guy in me wants to find a villain. You know, I want to find a Lex Luthor. He's out here somewhere, I could tell ya. But the thing is that there is no villian here. The villain is us. We use too much and waste too much, and this is just a theme that you have to come back to continually -- that there's a price of those skyscrapers and that fabulous modern city, in this place."

by Ken

Mitch made this same point today at the end of the three-hour walk around Dutch Kills, the Queens-side tributary of Newtown Creek which I mentioned earlier this week. The tour ended at the lovely Newtown Creek Nature Walk adjoining the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant on the Brooklyn side of Newtown Creek (opposite the mouth of Dutch Kills), the once-crucial industrial highway flowing into the East River which still provides the western part of the border between Queens to the north and Brooklyn to the south. Throughout the walk Mitch had emphasized the role the area around Newtown Creek played, not just locally but nationally, as a receiving ground for materials shipped in by water for the manufacture or processing of substances crucial to the country's supply of energy, food, and building materials, among many others.

Of course not a lot of attention was paid to the environmental impact of the way the Newtown Creek area was industrialized, leaving behind a waterway of EPA Superfund-level toxicity. And today, let me tell you, the creepy shade of green of the water of Dutch Kills looked as scary as chemical analysis tells us it is. Newtown Creek itself, however, looked surprisingly and quite deceivingly okay. And it's not just the water's toxic. Vast quantities of oil from the numerous storage tanks still highly present on the creek pollute the water table -- not just in Brooklyn's northernmost neighborhood, Greenpoint, as is well known, but through much of the Brooklyn side of the creek and (not at all well-known) the Queens side as well.

As it happens, as Newtown Creek Allliance Executive Director Kate Zidar happily informed us when we met her at one of the street bridges over Dutch Kills, Mitch is about to become a citywide celebrity, with the publication of a really good piece about him by Steven Stern which will appear in the Metro section of tomorrow's NYT (and of course is already posted online).

Mitch stressed that the NCA, which he serves as historian (Kate Zidar told Steven Stern, "Mitch got that title by proving it, over and over"), isn't trying to convert the area around the creek into an upscale theme-park-type environment (my words, not his). The city needs its increasingly lost industrial base. But industry can be brought back and new industry created in an environmentally sustainable way, and that's the kind of development strategy that NCA likes to champion.


Even in its present state of pollution, Mitch insists, the area around Newtown Creek isn't "dead." Give nature even a small opening, he said, and it will come back. We saw bird life in the mouth of Dutch Kills (there are nests all over the area, he said), and as I mentioned the other day NCA has a birding tour scheduled for June 24. It's free, but you have to RSVP (to

The next big event is a Newtown Creek cruise with Mitch, in association with Working Harbor Tours.

On July 22nd, Mitch shares his unique point of view and deep understanding of the past, present and future conditions of the Newtown Creek as the narrator and expedition leader for this years Hidden Harbor Tours: Newtown Creek exploration.

Our NY Water Taxi leaves from South Street Seaport at 11 a.m. sharp on a three-hour tour of the Newtown Creek. From the East River we’ll move into the Newtown Creek where we’ll explore explore vast amounts of maritime infrastructure, see many movable bridges and discover the very heart of the Hidden Harbor.

Limited seating available, get your tickets today.


Don't forget the new walking tour of the northern shore of Staten Island which Mitch is doing, from the Ferry Terminal along Kill Van Kull to Snug Harbor, offered on three Saturdays -- June 30, July 28, and October 13, from 11am to 1pm.

Your Guide to a Tour of Decay

New York Times, Metro section, June 17, 2012

Stand on the pedestrian walkway of the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge, and you might notice a vaguely ominous red brick tower on the Queens side of the Newtown Creek, looming over the railroad tracks and asphalt plants.

If Mitch Waxman is your guide, he will identify it as the derelict smokestack of Peter Van Iderstine's fat-rendering business, which first set up shop in 1855. But he won't stop there.

He will expound on the archaic waste-disposal operations that once flourished on the creek, conjuring scenes of putrescent horse carcasses floating in on barges from Manhattan and docks piled with manure three stories high. The narrative will extend to Cord Meyer's bone blackers and Conrad Wissel's night soil wharf -- the gothic names of these forgotten businesses rattled off in a distinct Brooklyn accent.

At some point, he will start in on the horrors of the M. Kalbfleisch Chemical Works, eventually making his way to the sins of Standard Oil.

If the city's dead industries leave ghosts behind, Mr. Waxman is an adept medium.

The Newtown Creek watershed, his field of expertise, is a place where such specters are all too real. In the murky depths of the 3.8-mile estuary, the past haunts the present. Since the creek was designated a Superfund site in 2010, contractors from the Environmental Protection Agency have been dredging and testing in search of that past. The sludge acid that the Kalbfleisch factory sluiced into the water back in the 1830s is of more than academic concern.

Not that Mr. Waxman is any sort of an academic. While the Newtown Creek Alliance, an environmental advocacy group, lists him as its resident historian, his credentials were earned on the street and the Internet, through countless solitary walks and countless nights poring over obscure archives. ("Mitch got that title by proving it, over and over," said Kate Zidar, executive director of the organization.)

Formerly a comic-book artist and writer, Mr. Waxman earns his living doing photo retouching out of his apartment in Astoria, Queens. Since 2009, he has documented his passion for the creek -- in oddly beautiful photography and beautifully odd prose -- on his blog, The Newtown Pentacle.

Lately, he has been leading public walking tours of the waterfront for the alliance and other groups, as well as personally guiding anyone else who comes calling. He has lectured to local politicians and environmentalists, shepherded documentary filmmakers around Calvary Cemetery and taught German industrial ecology students a thing or two about sewage. Somehow, almost everyone interested in the polluted waterway seems to find his or her way to Mr. Waxman. He's become a docent of decay, the cicerone of Newtown Creek.

Mr. Waxman begins his tours with a well-rehearsed opening line: "This is not the world you know."

For most visitors, that's probably true. The Newtown Creek area was once one of the nation's great manufacturing centers, the waterway carrying more freight than the Mississippi River. Walking around the massive factory buildings of the Degnon Terminal in Long Island City, Queens, now mostly repurposed as warehouses, you catch a glimpse of a lost working-class city only blocks from the gleaming condominiums now rising by the East River.

After World War II, that industrial greatness faded, just as its environmental cost started to become apparent. A 1950 sewer explosion in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was the first indication of the huge quantities of petroleum poisoning the water and leaching into the soil. But the full extent of the damage wasn't discovered until the late 1970s: At least 17 million gallons of oil spilled over the previous century (more than the Exxon Valdez), much of which, after years of legal wrangling and recovery efforts, is still there.

Mr. Waxman calls the area a "municipal sacrifice zone" -- the urban equivalent of the bomb test sites of Nevada. And his tours are meant in part to expose the unsavory infrastructure that has been shunted there. He can name the 19 waste-transfer stations lining the creek and point out each of the 23 combined sewer outflows that disgorge their contents into the water. The lurking danger of the creek's emanations is a constant undercurrent. He will intone: "The very air you're breathing is a poisonous fume!"

But despite the toxic atmosphere, Mr. Waxman is clearly in love with the place. Based on the enthusiastic groups that show up for each tour, that perverse attraction is shared by others.

The journalist Andrew Blackwell, who traveled to some of the world's most polluted places for his recent book, Visit Sunny Chernobyl, seemed unsurprised that such a blighted area would hold an aesthetic appeal. Ravaged industrial sites, he suggested, might actually fulfill a longing for nature.

"Part of what people are looking for in a wilderness experience," Mr. Blackwell said, "is the sense that it's not a mediated thing, that it's not made for them. A place like Newtown Creek isn't a product. It's supposedly a place that no one wants to go. That almost makes it more wild, makes people feel like they're discovering something about the world."

Mr. Waxman's own discoveries began, strangely enough, as an effort to improve his health.

Until 2006, his life was sedentary and circumscribed, revolving around wife, dog and (primarily) computer. "My friends called me ‘veal,' " he said, "because I never left the little white room."

That led to a heart attack at 39, a weeklong hospital stay and a command to exercise. So he began walking. Headphones blasting Black Sabbath, camera at his side, he circled out from Astoria, exploring colonial graveyards, abandoned factories and, eventually, the Newtown Creek waterfront.

"I started to see all these things I couldn't explain," he said. So began the cycle of wandering and research that continues to this day. "The more time you give it, the more stuff you find, and the more questions get asked," he said.

These questions brought him in contact with a circle of like-minded seekers: amateur urbanists and self-taught historians, railroad enthusiasts and infrastructure aficionados. In their company, Mr. Waxman distinguished himself as someone equally comfortable on the street and in the archive. "Mitch is the type that will go up to a stranger and ask things," said Kevin Walsh, creator of the popular urban history blog Forgotten New York. Mr. Waxman's social ease, combined with a willingness to share the knowledge he was acquiring, helped him "make allies among the people who work along the creek," Mr. Walsh said.

One day, Mr. Waxman signed up for a boat tour narrated by Bernard Ente, a maritime devotee from Maspeth. They hit it off, and Mr. Ente, a founding member of the Newtown Creek Alliance, became a sort of mentor. When he died, in April last year, Mr. Waxman essentially stepped into his shoes.

The distinctively apocalyptic spin he brings to his newfound role, however, is his alone. That "sense of looming menace" comes to full flower on his blog. An oddball mix of history, reportage and genre pastiche, it is written in a self-consciously florid prose modeled on H. P. Lovecraft, the cultish writer of pulp horror fiction. Slipping in and out of the voice of a demented antiquarian, the daily posts portray the creek as home to unspeakable, possibly supernatural, terrors.

"You have these buried secrets," he said, explaining the thinking behind the occult conceit. He's spotted early-19th-century terra-cotta pipes protruding from bulkheads, antique masonry sewers connected to who knows what. He added: "There really is no telling what's in the ground there."

The more Mr. Waxman discovers about the creek's hidden past, the more he has become an advocate for its survival. Last summer, while out on the water surveying bulkheads with the crusading conservation group Riverkeeper, he discovered and documented a previously unreported oil spill on the Queens side.

His fascination with the darker aspects of the landscape has made him a fitting counterpart to the environmentalists working toward its future. As E.P.A. scientists begin the long process of rehabilitating the waters, Mr. Waxman is engaged in a parallel effort. His work is a kind of historical remediation, reclaiming the waterway's forgotten role in the life of the city.

"It's an odd thing," he said. "The creek has been waiting for me all this time. And I've been waiting for it."

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