The tour met at the foot of Manhattan Avenue, and I would guess there were about ten people who came. The crowd was enthusiastic and friendly, with a variety of histories in our Greenpoint neighborhood.
I was excited to go on the tour because I have previously enjoyed several boat tours, but connecting with the creek on land allowed me to get a better sense of neighborhood placement than when I'm on the water.
Being on the water is so novel for a New Yorker that sometimes it's hard to connect where exactly you are. The tour began in Greenpoint, and then we went over the Pulaski bridge to Long Island City, on to Maspeth and back through East Williamsburg to Greenpoint.
Newtown Creek, of course, has been a polluted waterway since its heyday as the “Little Mississippi of the North” in the late 1800s. This is largely because of two issues.
Newtown Creek is an estuary and connected to a number of tributaries, including Whale Creek, Dutch Kills, English Kills, and Maspeth Creek. The tour took us to all of these locations.
Willis told us that the entire area of Greenpoint was once marsh, and when they decided to develop areas they filled in the marshland. In the process they deepened the creek, which has caused a lot of the pollution to settle into the bed of the creek.
The bodies of water do not flow like a river. Instead they rise and fall with the tide, so much of the toxic pollution has become trapped at the bottom. It never would have been this deep naturally, so this problem would not have happened.
I had several favorite parts of the tour. I mostly enjoyed being guided into industrial areas that, under normal circumstances, I would have felt concerned to be trolling around for fear of getting hit by a truck.
We saw the remains of a few bridges and places where bridges were demolished, like Penny Bridge. We also saw the site where Peter Cooper's glue factory was rumored to be.
At one point, Willis told us about a plan to decrease combined sewer overflow (CSO), which is something that happens in our neighborhood every time we experience heavy rains.
Our storm water drains share a pipeline with the drains that handle our toilets, and when they overflow, it dumps human waste into our waterways. Willis surprised us all when he told us the new pipeline is estimated to be completed in 2042.
"I think that is well past the end of my lifetime," one woman said.
It just goes to show that both our polluting habits and our efforts to change them are patterns that cross generations. I was proud to know that many of the improvements Willis mentioned have happened during the time I've been in Greenpoint, spearheaded by people I know.
Activism is a long relay race, and not one person accomplishes the necessary changes alone.
I recommend signing up for a Newtown Creek Alliance tour. They are so informative and fun, and will help you understand the neighborhood, especially the hidden histories, in a new and special way. It may even inspire you to take on a project or two yourself.