Fouled Creek’s Improvement Inspires a Site for Respite
Just past where the walkway passed over the chlorine contact tanks, the nature trail turned a corner. On the left was an asphalt plant — rusting backhoes, gray metal hoppers, piles of sand and brick. On the right was a concrete wall 10 feet high. Dead ahead were the still green waters of Newtown Creek.
“This is where you take your mind away from the city and come back here and start relaxing,” James E. Pynn said.
Mr. Pynn is the superintendent of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the city’s largest sewage processing unit, currently undergoing a makeover that will cost more than $3 billion. It was his pleasure yesterday to lead a tour of the plant’s newest feature: an 800-foot walkway and picnic and fishing area along a body of water best known for enduring several centuries of brutal degradation and an underground oil spill that dwarfs that of the Exxon Valdez.
Nine years and $3.2 million in the making, the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, built by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which also operates the plant, will formally open to the public on Saturday. Light refreshments will be served.
Some of the beauties of the walkway, designed by an artist and longtime defender of the creek named George Trakas, are more conceptual than physical. The subtle patterns in the pebbles embedded in the concrete wall, for example, are meant to evoke the geology of the earth beneath Brooklyn.
Plain as it may be, the walkway does give kayakers and canoers, who have long clamored for access to the creek, a safe, legal launching area for the first time. It affords splendid views of the water and the Midtown skyline. And, said Emily Lloyd, the city’s environmental commissioner, it builds a constituency for the continued rehabilitation of Newtown Creek.
Citing the huge effort to clean up the area and noting a lawsuit that state attorney general’s office filed against Exxon Mobil in July, Ms. Lloyd said, “Having this nature walk creates a tremendous amount of pressure to keep these things moving.”
Newtown Creek, a four-mile inlet of the East River that separates Brooklyn from Queens, was once one of the busiest waterways in the Northeast and certainly the foulest. Kerosene plants, animal-corpse processers and copper refineries long lined its banks. It inspired its share of grim poetry. “On warm or sunny days,” The New York Times wrote in 1887, “a quivering envelope of nauseous fog hangs above the place like a pall of death.”
The creek is more still and less smelly now. As the sun beat down, Mr. Pynn and Ms. Lloyd led the way down the path. A break in the wall yielded a glimpse of a gray brick building where the sewage plant’s spare parts are kept. At the waterfront, nine broad steps led into the creek.
A thick school of baitfish — dozens, perhaps hundreds — swarmed around one of the lower steps. A monarch butterfly flitted by.
A sign submerged in the water read: “Tidal area. No swimming or wading.”
Across the creek at a scrap-metal recycler, a crane picked up a crushed car and deposited it atop dozens of others in a barge.
Ms. Lloyd acknowledged that there were factors besides the tide that might discourage primary contact with the creek.
“There’s the oil,” she said. “There’s a lot of bacteria in the water.”
Along the walkway’s signature concrete wall, which screens out the view and some of the noise from the sewage plant, a landscape architect has put in hundreds of shrubs, trees and flowers. Though autumn has just begun, many of the plants have ripened to a deep russet and begun to shed their leaves. Mr. Pynn said the city had a two-year replacement guarantee on the plants.
While some of the flora may take a while to acclimate, beneath the walkway, exotic mineral compounds abound — lead, arsenic, benzene. A federal report issued two weeks ago found a great risk that vapors from the oil spill could seep into homes and businesses in the area.
Ms. Lloyd said that as far as she knew, the nature path did not expose hikers to health hazards.
“I don’t think there’s any known risk for being in proximity to it,” she said. “Because of the paving and the development here, anything that would be under the ground would typically be capped.”
The walkway also includes seven new fishing piers along a tributary known as Whale Creek — catch-and-release only, please.
“The sport of the fishing is what we’re trying to impose upon people,” Mr. Pynn said, “not eating the fish.”
A local neighborhood group, the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee, lobbied the city for years to build the walkway. Yesterday the group’s community liaison, Christine Holowacz, stood on the steps, taking in the view of the barges and the Manhattan skyscrapers.
“Take a look at this,” she said. “We can see what the industry is doing, and what the city is taking away from here, and here we are in the middle. It’s really terrific.”
By Andy Newman