Newtown Creek Nature Walk: A portal into the present (Geologic City Report #5)
10.05.2010, 9:10 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

inside the Newtown Creek Nature Walk

Earlier this summer we wrote two posts about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The first (5.8.2010) traced the spill’s oil to its origin in geologic time and the other (7.10.2010) drew connections between the spill and underground nuclear testing conducted as part of Operation Plowshare.

Just over a week ago, we visited Newtown Creek in Greenpoint Brooklyn for our Geologic City project. More than 50 oil refineries and fuel storage facilities have operated along Newtown Creek’s edges over the years and ongoing oil spills have plagued the area since the 19th century. The EPA calls the Creek, “one of the nation’s most polluted waterways”. This neighborhood’s landscape is loaded with contaminates and up to 30 million gallons of spilled oil have seeped into the area’s soil, groundwater, and creek.  Pre-Deepwater Horizon disaster, this section of Brooklyn housed the nation’s largest oil spill. Given this reality, it’s surprising that the Creek was only very recently awarded Superfund status.

behind the gates at present day ExxonMobil in Greenpoint

Tomorrow (October 6th, 2010) we, co-founders of FOP (Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse), will be participating in a panel discussion regarding the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School. The description of our presentation, Liquid Geologic Time, is:

Based on recent field expeditions we’ve taken as artists, we use the concept of geologic time to draw connections among the Gulf oil spill, underground nuclear testing in the American West and the ongoing oil spill in Greenpoint Brooklyn. Humans are now unleashing geologic forces that will continue to shape life and planet for millennia to come.  We see this as an opportunity to give aesthetic response a central role in meeting the challenges that result.
Little did we know that during our self-guided tour of Greenpoint’s oil spill we would encounter another artist working with similar ideas.

We began our day in Greenpoint at Norman and Hausman streets, home to present day BP operations.

“BP’s role was mostly inherited: its petroleum storage terminal in Greenpoint was once home to a Mobil refinery whose operations released about five million gallons into the ground, state environmental officials say. In 1969, BP’s predecessor, the Amoco Oil Company, bought the 10-acre property; it began a cleanup in 1981 under an agreement with the city. About two million gallons now remain to be recovered under the BP property, state officials say” – NY Times 9.27.1010

the spill, map alex reisner

We then headed north, towards present day ExxonMobil. According to the Times, this corporation owns most of the contaminated land (previously John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil) and is responsible for a plume that extends under approximately 300 homes in Greenpoint. ExxonMobil’s recovery wells currently pump out about 2,000 gallons of oil and a million gallons of groundwater a day.

Up until this point in our excursion, the sites we visited had felt like those of a typical urban industrial neighborhood. Then we arrived at the end of Paidge Street. Across from a nondescript Time Warner building we found a small parking lot and staircase. We had scouted the staircase on Googlemaps as a possible passageway to the waterfront. At this point, we didn’t know we were about to enter the “Newtown Creek Nature Walk“.

sign welcoming visitors to the Nature Walk

Entering the Newtown Nature Walk, we entered another world. We had stumbled upon the work of artist George Trekas.  The modern, newly constructed design reminded us of The High Line in Chelsea, except here, the air reeked of sewage.  Trekas’s work for the Walk was funded by New York City’s Percent for Art program in conjunction with the nearby Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Plant, the largest of New York City’s 14 waste water treatment plants. Other partners in the project are the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and Newton Creek Monitoring Committee. In 2009, Urban Omnibus interviewed Trekas and in this video he explains his intentions for his work at the site.

The first section of the walk looks back towards the city, framing the Empire State Building.

The City’s largest Waste Water Treatment Plant is the source of funding for the Nature Walk project.

The Walk is designed to provide visitors intimate proximity with urban infrastructure.

At the end of a long corridor, the much anticipated Newtown Creek.

Much to FOP’s surprise and delight, geologic names are carved into the granite steps leading to the Creek’s edge.

Geologic epochs with Newtown Creek as a backdrop.

A small plaque at the entrance to the “Fragrance Garden” reads, “Fordham Gneiss: Rocks in this area were blasted from a solid monolithic outcrop during construction of the DEP Croton Filtration Plant in Van Cortlandt Park, the Bronx. Formation of these rocks occurred during the Grenville Orogeny, 1100 million years ago.”

The “Fragrance Garden” at the Walk has stiff competition from the Department of Sanitation operation nearby.

The Garden is filled with plants noted for their healing properties.

The Newtown Nature Walk opened in September of 2007. Three years later, during our hour and a half in the park, we saw less than five people. It was a beautiful, sunny and warm Saturday, but it’s hard to imagine that tourists or locals looking for “nature” would be drawn here. It seems people might come here to be alone or try to avoid coming here because of what lies beneath and all around the site. There was an intention that the Nature Walk be an “innovative use of industrial space that uses thoughtful design and landscaping to create a place where green space and infrastructure coexist for the benefit of all” (NCMC). But Trekas has achieved something more important to the present moment than the illusion of “co-existence” between nature and industry. The experience of walking through a Superfund site, populated with healing plants and the names of geologic epochs, tips the Walk into something more than your average encounter with an industrial landscape. It’s a disorientation that translates into an opportunity to begin to try and see, feel (and smell) the dramatic changes that have, and continue to unfold here. In doing so, the idea of this place being called “nature” becomes somewhat perverse. If this is what nature has become, then when we are within the Newtown Nature Walk, we are indeed in what Chris Ruen has called a “pre-apocalyptic landscape.”

One could also choose to see the juxtapositions created by Trekas in less dystopian terms. Following the steps and geologic time down to the edge of this Creek, we found that together, they brought us to a stark encounter with the bare fact of this place.  Only in the context of vast geologic time does the reality of the place snap into focus – in the present tense.  Here, humans have remixed geologic materialities of the planet, which took millennia to form. But that isn’t, and never will be, the end of the story.  The earth’s geo forces are still at play here, unimpeded.  By inviting this realization, Trekas’ design becomes an aesthetic prosthesis for sensing the stark realities of the human in the context of geologic time:  a portal not to former or other worlds, but to this one. The Newtown Creek Nature Walk then becomes one of the most urgent and fraught walks to take in New York City.

View from the Pulaski bridge, where Newtown Creek flows into the East River and the rest of the City

Directions to Newtown Creek Nature Walk can be found here.

| additional Geologic City reports can be read here: intro, 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 , 8 |

2 Comments so far
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How fascinating. I am so glad I joined FOP, because I would never have seen the connections you make between art and geology. It’s wonderful.

Comment by Meg Bernstein

Thanks Meg!

Comment by FOP

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