Newtown Creek, Long Island City

The walking tour put on by Mitch Waxman (profiled in today’s New York Times; watch the video if you want to get a feel for what the tour was like) and the Newtown Creek Alliance is one of the best I’ve ever taken–it manages to layer ecological information (and a liberal dose of community politics) with architectural, even archeological history, and adds a dash of the NYC history that everyone loves, the figures of the past we do (and don’t) remember.

But as they were careful to point out on the tour, at the NCA, they “aren’t hippies”–they’re all about creating a sustainable, greener, but decidedly industrial area in that section of Queens. So the conversation wasn’t about trying to turn part of the city into a forest or anything, but more about adding green & blue roofs, keeping and generating living-wage union jobs, making sure residents of the area have healthy quality lives, and the differences between moving goods via trucks vs. via barges and trains.

The thing is, I’d been down all of these streets before. The actual area wasn’t new to me; I’d explored the place on my own, on some of my many long walks throughout the city. But I quite literally didn’t know what I was seeing, until I took the tour. Now that I do, I don’t know if I can stay away; I want to plan entire composition classes around what I saw, and take my students down there to write and think and photograph. It’s too late to work Newtown Creek into my summer and fall teaching load (unless I end up interviewing for and getting a new part-time gig; I did send in an application just last week, so we’ll see), but next spring, if I can make room.

I actually think LIC’s industrial history would be a great companion to our discussions of The Great Gatsby in my FIT course; my entire interpretation of the novel is geographical/spatial, and the drive the characters repeatedly make from the city to Long Island likely goes directly through this space. I don’t think that before yesterday, I really understood what that drive would have taken a person past, in the 1920s.

So, in any case, the tour was good, however severe my resulting sunburn (ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch!). For me, the most fascinating bit was learning about Greenpoint’s scrap metal industry. It’s an enormous operation; I had no idea. Also, the last time I walked over the Hunterspoint Bridge, I saw someone fishing the Creek; now that I know what’s in that water (typhus & gonorrhea, not to mention enough copper to turn the water an unnatural shade of green), I’m even more disturbed than I was at the time.