Last Sunday, was a picture perfect day and with camera in hand I went on a most unusual but fascinating boat exploration of Newtown Creek as part of a Hidden Harbor tour. As you know I have a fascination with urban grunge and this trip gave me ample opportunity to capture images of industrial exploitation that would not have been possible on land. Our tour guide and narrator was Mitch Waxman, who is a blogger, photographer and historian for the Newtown Creek Alliance.
The tour group met at the NY Water Taxi “stand” at Pier 17 and the boat left at 11:00am beginning our three hour voyage up the East River with expansive vista’s of South Street Seaport and the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges before moving into Newtown Creek.
Once on the creek the scenery was not your picture-post-card views unless you consider toxic waste one of them. Newtown Creek unfortunately has the undesirable distinction to be one of the most heavily used bodies of water in the Port of New York and New Jersey and one of the most polluted industrial sites in America. The water is a noxious mix of discarded toxins, gallons of spilled oil, and raw sewage from New York City’s sewer system! You would need to wear a hazmat suit to go for a swim and would be considered insane for doing so.
By now you are no doubt thinking why in hell would anyone want to take a “tour” like this? Well, for one thing it is a piece of urban history in my own back yard, so to speak. Secondly, it has all of the grit and grime an urban photographer could possibly ask for. But, most importantly it opens ones eyes to the reality of what can happen when commerce and industry are allowed to run amok without any ecological accountability.
Newtown Creek is bordered on either side by Greenpoint Brooklyn and Long Island City Queens. Standing on the stern of the boat the Whale Creek Fuel Tanks loom over the landscape on the Brooklyn side to my left. On the Queens side to my right were huge mountains of crushed shredded metal and plastic, once cars, waiting to be loaded on barges. In the distance is the skyline of Manhattan, a mirage of shinning gleaming buildings. Warehouses old and new, abandoned sheds and small factories, rusted and decaying building equipment, tools, machinery, trucks, cars, small boats, rubbish, and litter mixed in with the weeds and wild grasses are the somber hallmarks of this shoreline.
During those three hours I was all over that boat trying to keep the glaring sun behind me and create images depicting the natural and unnatural scenery. Although the water was a dark yellow-brown miasma that assaulted my nose and eyes, I was able to find some beauty in the water’s abstract reflections.
The Pulaski Bridge opened wide its arms in welcome as we passed underneath and the Kosciusko bridge added a quiet gentility as we slowly sailed past. I could not help wondering as I looked all around of what this waterway was like before the European settlers arrived and the original inhabitants swam, fished and lived along the shores. Is it possible that we could bring the land and water back to life once again? Thanks to the inspiring work and dedication of the members of the Newtown Creek Alliance this dream someday, might come true.
Stay In Focus,