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An Audio Tour Dredges Up the Dark Ecology of NYC’s Newtown Creek

A new field guide takes listeners on a walk along one of the country’s most polluted waterways, where unexpected nature mingles with relics of industry.

Looking towards the Empire State Building from the entrance to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Brooklyn (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Newtown Creek Nature Walk is one of New York City’s more surreal parks. Its entrance is easy to miss at the edge of Greenpoint, near a busy intersection of truck routes. Climb its gateway of steps, and the first thing you see is hardly promising for a “nature walk.” On one side,  a parking lot for Spectrum communications vehicles sprawls out, and on the other, glimpsed through portholes in a concrete barrier that resembles a ship’s hull, are arcane views of pipes and facilities at the neighboring Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. If you decide to glance back from your journey like a hesitant Orpheus, a perfectly framed view of the Empire State Building in distant Manhattan almost begs you to turn around and retreat.

Yet, continue down the concrete walkway, noticing perhaps the security camera watching your approach, turn a corner, and Newtown Creek comes into view. Small trees and concrete benches seem inviting, the lapping water tantalizing on a summer’s day. However, any bucolic respite is brief. Smashed cars at the adjacent metal recycling facility and trash floating in the polluted water warn that this is no ordinary park. The message is reinforced by the ample cautionary signs advising against swimming, boating, or even touching the water.

A couple of geese watch a barge of scrap metal and two canoes in the Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Nick Hubbard and Marina Zurkow of the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies introduce their “Field Guide to Whale Creek” audio tour, alongside “The Rock,” a glacial erratic boulder.

The strange narrative of Newtown Creek unwinds over a new audio tour, the half-hour “A Field Guide to Whale Creek.” Created by the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies (FSDE), a media art collective including Nick Hubbard, Rebecca Lieberman, and Marina Zurkow, the audio guide launches their greater initiative to engage the public with the future of Newtown Creek. Also part of this first stage is a printed pamphlet (available online as a PDF) which maps the Nature Walk and has a glossary for terms like “floatable” (marine trash), “digester eggs” (the futuristic silver spheres at the Wastewater Treatment Plant), and “black mayonnaise” (the mix of oil, arsenic, incinerated ash, and polychlorinated biphenyls that coats the creek’s bottom). As Zurkow said at Wednesday’s debut of the guide, the project is “a form of citizenship and active participation with this creek.”

That group experience was part of Works on Water, a new triennial presented by New Georges with 3LD Art & Technology Center, Urban Water Artists, and Guerilla Science. Featuring an exhibition, conversations, theater, and expeditions, Works on Water considers New York City’s waterways in the context of art, community, climate change, and ecology. FSDE is hosting another Newtown Creek walk in conjunction with the festival this Saturday, June 17.

View of the Manhattan skyline from the Newtown Creek Nature Walk

The 3.8-mile Newtown Creek is an EPA Superfund Site, resulting from over a century of industry and stagnation after an estuary and its tributaries (including Whale Creek) were dredged into a channel. Its toxicity rivals the Gowanus Canal further south in Brooklyn; even 1/10 of an inch of rain can cause raw sewage to spill into its waters through the city’s combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Nevertheless, as the voice on the audio guide notes, “there’s more life than you might think in Newtown Creek.” Fish can be spied in the brackish water, as can blue crabs and mussels. Birds, such as the geese that happily splashed at the shoreline on Wednesday, have the creek as part of their habitat. Designed by sculptor George Trakas in 2007 as part of the Wastewater Treatment Plant’s expansion, the Nature Walk incorporates granite maps, secluded shady corners, and touches like geological epochs engraved on the waterfront stairs, which are pocked with triangular openings for plant life. And, unusual though the park may be, its gathering of heavily landscaped trees and flowers shows how even a small nature intervention can combat the heat sink that makes this part of Brooklyn so sweltering.

“A Field Guide to Whale Creek” loops its audience through the park, incorporating sparse sections of historical reenactment alongside a litany of the ecology and people you may encounter (a lone bagpipe player has been regularly spotted), and ending at the fragrance garden below the entrance stairs. It is, the guide states, the park at “its most awkward,” encouraging you to take a big whiff of air that combines the scents of sewage, industry, and floral plantings. It takes effort to know Newtown Creek, as so much commercial and industrial space makes it difficult to walk the shore without a lot of trespassing. The guide, as the FSDE artists put it, offers new “ways of knowing” this place. With the future of the creek still being decided, as cleanup and potential redevelopment continue, initiatives like theirs can give the public more of a connection to this overlooked part of the city.

Painted leaping fish at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Entrance to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Portal view out of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Security camera at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Indigenous names for places in today’s New York City, carved on stone circles at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Warning to boaters at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Spartina alterniflora growing through triangular holes in the steps, which are carved with the names of geological epochs
Geese at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Corner of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Map of a precolonial Newtown Creek
Warning sign for the combined sewer overflow (CSO) point in the park
View of the digester eggs of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and a sludge vessel
Landscaped flowers in the Newtown Creek Nature Walk
The stone pathway of the “fragrance garden,” below the entrance to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Exiting the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, with the parking lot of Spectrum vehicles at right
Exiting the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, with a view of the Empire State Building

“A Field Guide to Whale Creek” and the accompanying pamphlet for the Newtown Creek Nature Walk (Paidge Avenue and Provost Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn) are available online. Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies will lead a walking tour of the creek on June 17 at 1pm. Works on Water continues at 3LD Art & Technology Center (80 Greenwich Street, Financial District, Manhattan) and other locations in New York City through June 30.

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