Requiem for a stream
Some locals think the soon-to-be-developed Newtown Creek is a mess. To others, it’s a haven of liquid solitude.
On a map of New York City, Newtown Creek looks like the kind of rip a small child might -inflict upon a piece of construction paper in art class, a child trying to tear a smooth line -between Brooklyn and Queens. What begins as something relatively straight and confident, just opposite 23rd Street in Manhattan, makes a downward plunge into Brooklyn right around the Kosciuszko Bridge; it then devolves into a series of zigs and zags before it peters out into a wisp of lost energy near Grand Street in Brooklyn, about four miles from the East River.
On the water, however, the Newtown Creek looks like…well, water. Which is actually saying quite a lot, because for a good chunk of the past two centuries the creek looked like just about everything but water: more like something not quite liquid and not quite solid; more like those turgid pools of muck that sidewalk hot-dog vendors keep their pale wares in. Yes, I’m sure a scientist would tell you that the substance in question technically qualified as water, or at least had water in its makeup. But that doesn’t mean you would want to discover that you’re (as Madge used to say) soaking in it.
Several times over the past couple of years I have found myself floating on the creek, in a kayak. The first was a crisp autumn morning when a friend and I—after weeks of driving up and down the length of Greenpoint, in and out of junkyard-dog-friendly industrial sites—finally found one of the few open spots along the banks of the creek, at the end of a parking lot near Franklin and Commercial Streets, from which we could stealthily launch our craft and engage in a bit of adventure on one of the few places in a city of 8 million where you can have a river to yourself.
But we soon discovered that we were not alone. As we carried our little vessel to the -water’s edge—or really, the concrete’s edge, from which we then had to descend three feet, on a rusty ladder, to a small, rickety makeshift pier—we found a guy standing quietly, holding a small bit of fishing line that disappeared into the water. An old white plastic bucket stood near his feet, and I could hear something scratching against the inside. I peered in. The bucket was filled with maybe a dozen wet, perturbed crabs, each about the size of my fist.
I looked at the guy. The guy looked at us.
“No,” I said. “Taking a spin on the creek.”
“No way I’d go in that thing,” he said.
“It’s a pretty safe kayak,” my friend said.
“Not the kayak,” the guy said. “The water.”
“It’s not that dirty anymore, is it?” I said.
“Dirty? I don’t care about dirty. All I’m saying is I can’t swim.”
He started to reel in his line, and as he got to the end of it, a small cage emerged from the creek. Inside, two crabs went clackety-clack with each other’s claws. The guy grinned.
Henry Christiaensen, a Dutch explorer and mapmaker, is thought to be the first European to have seen the Newtown Creek. That was around 1613. Like most discoveries in New York City, this one was driven by business and real estate—supposedly he was looking for a spot where the local Mespat Indians could come to sell their pelts. Until the Civil War, the creek remained a sleepy stretch of water, filled with oysters, fish and more than a few snapping turtles. But as industry and manufacturing -became the life of the city, the creek deterio-rated into a Dante-esque drainpipe, reduced to being a creek pretty much in name only.
Most of the industries have gone down the drain themselves now. The buildings that used to house foundries, railroad power plants and Peter Cooper’s glue factories are abandoned ruins. Over the past few years there have been dreams large and small of revitalizing the water-way; most recently it was to be the centerpiece of the proposed Olympic Village. Massive condos will sprout here eventually, but for now it sits largely neglected. From the water, in a kayak on a golden afternoon, you are left with images that can only be described as urban pastorals. A cormorant, black and sleek, swimming alongside, then diving under the water. A blue heron nesting in the rusted-out wreckage of a truck. Or the memory of drifting beneath the Kosciuszko Bridge and hearing the distant tranquil hum of traffic on the BQE high above, like the sound of bees in a garden.
Time stops, and you become aware: Here you are, drifting between Brooklyn and Queens, on an ancient bit of water that has survived God knows what from human hands, and yet endures. Sitting in a kayak, paddling silently, you understand and remember why this city exists: Water created it and drew people to it, and water makes it supreme.