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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Urban Gadabout: Two toxic-waterway tours in a single week -- does it get any better?

Scenic Superfund site: Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal

by Ken

The tease on the contents page of this week's Time Out New York got me: "Explore Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal, two of NYC's Superfund wonders." I confess that both of these industriaily befouled NYC waterways have fascinated me for ages, and I've become increasingly curious about having more or less direct contact with me.

Newtown Creek is the western segment of the boundary between the borough of Queens to the north and Brooklyn (which is Kings County, of course) to the south. Gowanus Canal is the man-expanded expansion of a onetime tidal inlet which links the onetime industrial heartland of central Brooklyn to Upper New York Bay. Both are massively polluted, and have been anointed Superfund sites, though it's my understanding that so little action is being taken on so many sites ahead of them on the list that one might not want to hold one's breath till the fund gets to them. One might, however, wish to hold one's breath around them for other reasons.

There has been increasing attention paid, and actual visitation, to both. Hence my response to the TONY tease. But imagine my horror when I thumbed ahead and found an entire magazine page devoted to a pair of events dedicated to these woebegone waterways, and it turned out that the events in questions are tours offered by the Municipal Art Society (MAS; the website is an incredibly easy-to-remember, which I already have marked as "must do"s on my calendar:

* Crossing Newtown Creek, this Wednesday evening (June 15), led by one of my most valued tour leaders, urban geographer (and Queens borough historian) Jack Eichenbaum.

* Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal, this coming Sunday (June 19), led by MAS mainstay Matt Postal, an architectural historian with whom i've done countless tours, most recently day before yesterday: a tour of the skyscrapers of Park Avenue (starring Lever House and the Seagram Building, of course).

Now I hope it's blindingly clear that the horror to which I referred above is no reflection on the tours themselves. Let me stress that it would take some sort of personal crisis or mighty extreme weather (of the kind that would probably cause tour cancellation anyway), to keep me away from either of these tours. No, the horror is purely selfish. I'm just concerned about the effect this outstanding (and well-deserved) advance publicity is going to have on attendance.

You have to understand that the Municipal Art Society organizes its walking tours around the city, which it's been doing for 55 years now, in two ways -- some by advance reservation and payment, some by and pay-at-tour walkup. I have a personal fondness for the preregistered tours, which (1) put a cap on the number of registrants and also let me assure my place. In the mere eight months I've been a member (and it was, as I've mentioned, Jack Eichenbaum who first clued me in to MAS, when I did a sensational New York Transit Museum tour with him visiting three NYC subway nodes, which is to say places where two or more separate subway lines intersect, and seeing how being a transit hub has shaped those areas' development), I've learned to haunt the MAS website as the time approaches for announcement of the next two- or three-month bloc of scheduled tours, and to pounce on it and do a slew of online registrations.

. . . for MAS tours is a paltry $10 for members and $15 for nonmembers? Longer tours are priced accordingly. For example, this Saturday (June 18) I'm doing a half-day visit to Staten Island's Stapleton Heights with the amazingly well-informed and informative urban historian Justin Ferate, with whom I did a truly memorable most-of-the day tour last month to Tottenville, the southern tip of Staten Island. The Stapleton Heights tour, which is by reservation, and for which I think there may still be places available, is $20 for members, $25 for nonmembers.

By the way, an MAS individual membership is only $50, and benefits include a chit for a free nonreserved tour.

Speaking of the nonreserved tours, I've done plenty of them in my eight months too. The thing is, if the weather is good, and especially if the tour has been picked up by one of the big-reach media outlets -- I sometimes wonder how many zillions of people who just don't know about these tours, the way I didn't for so long, would show up if they knew about them -- the group can get pretty large. (Sometimes there's simply no explaining why people do or don't come out. In March I did a tour of Brooklyn's Crown Heights North with Matt Postal, who's doing the Gowanus Canal tour, on a not especially pleasant-looking Saturday, a tour that Matt indicated hadn't gotten much media notice, and the turnout was huge. Fortunately, Matt is extremely good with large groups, keeping them organized and in good hearing range.) It's another mark of what a bad person I am that after the big TONY spread, maybe the weather won't be so great Wednesday evening and Sunday morning.

We'll actually be crossing the Pulaski Bridge from (r to l)
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to Long Island City, Queens.

It was in early November, not long after my Transit Museum tour with Jack Eichenbaum, and I had joined MAS and gotten my free-tour chit in time to make this my first MAS tour. What's more, I even worked out the formidable transit logistics of getting from the way north of Manhattan to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and arrived at the tour location what I considered a perfect 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled start time. Or it would have been if the tour was Sunday, when I arrived. Unfortunately, it was Saturday, so instead of being early, I was 24 hours late, or maybe 23 hours and 45 minutes.

(And wouldn't you know, there are not one but two other events Wednesday night that I dearly want to do, one of them a class I had previously scheduled and had to cancel when for medical reasons, the other something that's not likely to be repeated this year. I spent a couple of weeks going back and forth between them, even trying to figure out whether I could attempt to do both, which fortunately prevented me from registering for either, whenl I finally looked at the calendar and realized it's the same night as "Crossing Newtown Creek.")

As it worked out, my actual first MAS tour, later in November, was one with Matt Postal, and as I think I've mentioned here, it's still perhaps my favorite from a conceptual standpoint: a walk along the route of Robert Moses's never-built Lower Manhattan Expressway.

For those who are curious about what TONY dubbed "Postindustrial waterfront tours," for each, writer Andrew Frisciano begins with sections on "Where it is," "The history," and "How polluted is it?"

Wednesday, June 15, 6pm-8pm
Will hanging out there kill you? Probably not, although small amounts of harmful vapors have been detected. “When you get down to the water’s edge, the creek itself is pretty dismal,” says Eichenbaum. “But it’s not completely dead -- I’ve seen cormorants sitting on the side of Newtown Creek. They dive for fish, so there have to be some there.”

What you’ll see on the tour: Eichenbaum will stop at the nature trail that surrounds NCWTP [the Newtown Creek Water Treatment Plant]: The walkway, lined with sculpted concrete walls and native plants, features an amphitheater-like area for admiring the water. “Once you’re down at the creek level, the city opens up and becomes a much more horizontal landscape,” he says. The tour also visits the Pulaski Bridge to visit Long Island City’s Gantry Plaza State Park, which sits next to a cluster of shiny new condos. “You’re seeing resurgence in all kinds of industrial neighborhoods,” says Eichenbaum. “The artistic community has found new niches in these places.”

Check it out! Crossing Newtown Creek walking tour; meet at northeast corner of Greenpoint and Manhattan Aves, Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Sunday, June 19, 11am-1pm
Will hanging out there kill you? No, but you’ll probably get a whiff of something gross. “I notice [the smell] around Union Street or Butler Street,” says Postal. “There’s nowhere for it to go.” In 1999, the city repaired a flushing tunnel, which brings fresh water into the canal, to help ameliorate the stench. “There’s no question that it’s better than it was ten years ago,” says Postal. Plus, a recent study turned up an array of fish and even crabs -- though eating them isn’t advised.

What you’ll see on the tour: Postal will point out historic landmarks, including the retractable Carroll Street Bridge, built in 1889 and still functional today. He’s also interested in how the neighborhood’s residents interact with the canal’s industrial origins; off-the-grid types have built homes on the canal, while creative spaces embrace the canal’s less-than-pleasant past. “Proteus Gowanus [a stop on the tour] has an area of their building called Hall of the Gowanus, which is a kind of artistic response to the history of the area,” Postal says.

Check it out! Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal walking tour; meet at northwest corner of President and Smith Sts, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

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