Newtown Creek, one of the outer boroughs' finest channels of radioactive fecal matter, has captured the imagination of urban explorers and amateur historians around the city—understand the history of Newtown Creek, and you're on your way to knowing a hell of a lot about New York's industrial past.
You'd be hard-pressed to find an explorer more enthusiastic about the creek's past and present than Mitch Waxman. Known as the official historian of the Newtown Creek Alliance, his interest in Ole' Black Mayonnaise was born a few years back when his doctor told him he had to start running, for the health of his heart. But "having grown up in Brooklyn, the only thing that’s gonna make me run is if something’s chasing me," he said. He took up walking as a compromise, bringing a camera along with him to document anything interesting. Turns out he found plenty to photograph.
"You have this urban nightmare in the middle of the city—I call it the currently undefended border of Brooklyn and Queens," he told us during an interview last week. "It’s an absolute wonderland. If you’re into infrastructure, if you’re into tug boats, any of the big industry stuff— phew, you just found heaven."
Waxman offers regular tours of what he refers to as the "Poison Cauldron," a three mile expanse of Greenpoint that covers the site of the disastrous Greenpoint Oil Spill and the damned Kosciuszko Bridge. "Everybody knows the oil story over at Greenpoint, but that’s just a part of the oil story of Newtown Creek," he said. "If you were to drop back a hundred years in time to the first World War, there was more traffic movement along the Newtown Creek than the entire Mississippi River."
The first part of the tour leads participants past sites of various quondam refineries, the most important of which was Standard Oil, eventually to become Exxon Mobil. Waxman said the company still has a visible presence along the water, apparent to anyone who knows where to look: "They have a whole series of wells which are slurping up the Greenpoint oil spill. They do it very quietly, but they have several hundred recovery wells operating all over the area."
Most, he said, are camouflaged by other businesses or hidden behind fences. But why? "If you heard that there was free petroleum flowing out of the ground, you’d be over there with a bucket in ten minutes," he said. It's happened before: "About 15 years ago, there was some guy in Greenpoint who decided to set up a drill in his backyard. He was actually trying to harvest oil from the Greenpoint spill to heat his house." But once the drill punched through the limestone crust that sits beneath Greenpoint, the entire neighborhood began to reek of oil. "Apparently DEC had to drive around with specialized equipment to track down where this was, and at this guy’s house, they find a derrick in his backyard," he said.
Tourgoers then move along to the Meeker Avenue plumes, a concentration of "hazardous vapors" composed of chemicals that continue to hover over the ground—the noxious specter of dry cleaners past. It then ambles past the former Penny Bridge, which was replaced by the Kosciuszko Bridge in 1939.
Waxman cheekily refers to the area below the bridge as DUKBO—(Down Under the Kosciuszko Bridge Overpass)—"simply because I think we should get ahead of the real estate guys on this stuff." Unlike its Manhattan Bridge counterpart, DUKBO is populated not by wealthy loft owners and a well-manicured park, but a concentration of waste transfer stations, which together process around 40 percent of the 12 million tons of trash New York generates on a given day.
Waxman says his Poison Cauldron tour gives inquisitive New Yorkers a rare chance to pull aside the filth-streaked curtain and take a look at the inner-workings of their city. "Ninety-nine percent of New Yorkers don’t know Newtown Creek is there. They don’t know what happens to their garbage after it gets picked up, they don’t know where the gasoline in their car comes from, and they really have no clue about what these communities look like," he said. "I operate under the concept of 'it’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is.' Mainly I'm trying to build some awareness so people can make their own decisions."
By offering people a glimpse of the past, Waxman says he also hopes to inspire thoughts about the future. "The community really needs to start thinking about what they want the Newtown Creek of 2100 to look like. Do we want to think about it as an industrial base that even today supplies 18,000 blue collar jobs? Do we want to start thinking of converting it over to some sort of public space, or green space?"
"I just want people to start becoming familiar with the area, and understanding the consequences of the lifestyle we all lead."