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On the Beat: Newtown Creek

Newtown Creek's Nature Trail

Stepping out of the subway at Greenpoint Avenue, the term renaissance seems perfectly apt for Newtown Creek. The neighborhood is thriving, and its colorful walkup buildings have even earned a place in the public eye on the new HBO’s series, Girls. Of course, it wasn’t always this way for the scrappy neighborhood, as MAS Tour Guide Jack Eichenbaum pointed out in his excellent tour this past Saturday. Jack began with a broad history of Newtown Creek, explaining how it developed as an industrial hub, with its treatment plants handling roughly 30% of New York’s sewage. The creek is the site of one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history, making it home to one of the most polluted watersheds in America.

Today, local leaders are taking enormous strides to restore Newtown Creek. Our intrepid tour guide led us along the new Nature Walk in the park that rings the creek, created by landscape artist, George Trakas. The Nature Walk and new water treatment facility root themselves historically, ecologically, economically, aesthetically and culturally in the neighborhood with an intelligent and sustainable design. Along the way, Jack made references to the area’s Native American, Dutch and industrial history. Ecology, too, plays a key role in the design as Jack explained how the park’s designers chose native plants to nourish local species. Even the handrails on the banks are shaped like H2O molecules. As we listened and walked along Newtown Creek, it was easy to see how the path works to counter the creek’s unsavory reputation and helps to stimulate the neighborhood’s cultural, ecological and urban rebirth.

Perhaps my favorite part of the tour was seeing the Newtown Creek Armada that has recently drawn adults and children alike to steer remote-controlled boats equipped with cameras beaming video to a porthole shaped monitor on shore, allowing us to view inaccessible bends in the creek. Like the Nature Walk, the Armada reminds us that Newtown Creek plays a significant role in the life of the community and, moreover, that we play a significant role in the creek’s sustainability. It’s no longer the dumping grounds for oil and waste, but an important part of the local ecology and culture.

Jack’s tour of Newtown Creek serve as a reminder that New York is so much more than the steel and concrete, and that new urban life and character are growing in all five boroughs.