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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Walking the Newtown Creek Nature Walk with its designer, George Trakas

A popular feature at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk is this long series of steps along the park's Newtown Creek frontage. Visitors are free to relax on the steps and look out on the Long Island City (Queens) shorefront opposite, or to peek at the view to the left.

by Ken

Some of life's sweetest rewards can't be planned; the most you can do is to position yourself in the path of possibly happy surprises.

I had signed up for Jack Eichenbaum's Municipal Art Society tour today (check out MAS tour listings here), "A Renaissance in Newtown Creek," even though I had done what looked to be basically the same walk with Jack before, when it was called "Crossing Newtown Creek": starting in the heart of Brooklyn's northwesternmost outpost, Greenpoint, then proceeding to the northwestern corner of the 53-acre site of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Management Plant to see the Newtown Creek Nature Walk designed by artist George Trakas installed between 1997 and 2007, then proceeding across the Pulaski Bridge over Newtown Creek to Long Island City, Queens. (Newtown Creek forms the western section of the border between Brooklyn and Queens.)

So why do the walk again?

First, when I first did the walk, some 15 months ago, the primary attraction was laying eyes on Newtown Creek, which to my knowledge I had never done before. You have to remember that like most industrial waterfronts it was pretty well closed off to civilian eyes and feet. But in that intervening year and a quarter I had done more walks around various parts of the creek than I can remember and also cruised the creek, mostly under the auspices of the Newtown Creek Alliance (it's definitely worth signing up for their e-mail list), and mostly with NCA historian Mitch Waxman (whose blog, "The Newtown Pentacle," is always worth checking out).

Second, there's the Jack Eichenbaum factor. In all the many walks I've done with Jack, I can hardly remember one where I didn't learn something of near-life-changing importance -- certainly a change in my way of perceiving the city, and likely the world around me. Walking with Jack, you learn to see how basic factors of physical and human geography have shaped the way regions and neighborhoods have developed and redeveloped.

Third, there's the "I forgot" factor. Even if today's walk turned out to be identical to last June's, the chances are that I haven't retained more than 10 percent of what I "learned" then.


Here's George at another of his projects, Beacon Point 2007, a Hudson River-front space that provides waterfront access in Beacon, NY.

The first surprise as we gathered for the sold-out tour was that none other Mitch Waxman was on hand, recruited by Jack to share his particular knowledge of Newtown Creek and its surrounding areas. Then Jack, arriving fighting through a massive subway outage in Queens, bore news: Not only would our walk be coinciding, by happenstance, with Field Trip Day and the closing weekend of the "Newtown Creek Armada," a flotilla of little radio-controlled boats in the Whale Creek inlet side of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk. More important, the park's designer, George Trakas, was scheduled to be on hand for the festivities, and had agreed to talk to our group about his handiwork.

-- from the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection's
PDF brochure on the Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Since this was my third or fourth visit to the nature walk (I figure that by the time you lose count, you qualify as a habitué), I already had a rich appreciation of the wonders of its design, incorporating into its particularly limited space the history of the area, its past and present natural history (all through the park there are sections of plantings featuring all sorts of indigenous trees and plants), and a record of the people who have lived and worked along the creek.

But what a treat to walk through it all and get a glimpse of it through George's eyes. He's been living with the project since he was first approached about it in 1996 or 1997, not just through its opening in 2007, but keeping abreast of it since then, and also in the planning of what he described to us as Phases 2 and 3 of the park, which I didn't know about at all. He's actively involved in the planning of Phase 2 (he said he had a meeting about it just yesterday), which has a whole list of steps to go through -- especially as a project that has city, state, and federal components and also community involvement -- as well as additional construction that has to be completed to the waste-water plant itself in order for construction on Phase 2 to begin late in 2014 with a view to a 2015 opening.

Everywhere we looked there was a design feature whose history George could share, generally involving collaboration and coordination with those various government and community groups. He explained how he arrived at the dramatic entrance, which required some sort of bridge or overpass over a portion of the plant. He talked about the nautical themes he had incorporated into the design to reflect the shipbuilding business that had once occupied the sight, and noted that he hadn't troubled the engineers with the fact that the walkway as finally built aligns with the distant Empire State Building, of which visitors get one of the city's great views!

George talked about the startled response he got when he disclosed his idea to put a "fragrance garden" underneath that entryway overpass. A "fragrance garden" alongside a waste-water management plant? The most startling fact about it is that there isn't, by and large, and fragrance of waste water!

There was also much consternation about George's idea for those long concrete "step benches" (pictured above) alongside the park's Newtown Creek frontage, which have become one of its most user-appreciated features. I can vouch for the considerable pleasure of just sitting on those steps and observing nature as it exists today along the creek. And as Mitch Waxman always stresses on his walks in the area, if we give nature even a sliver of a chance it can regenerate itself, and despite the creek's still-heavy pollution (it is a Superfund site, after all), it's teeming with life -- yes, there's marine life in the creek and its tributaries, and all kinds of bird life in and around the creek. (George pointed out that plants and trees for the park were chosen in part for their likely appeal to birds.)

George recalled that in the design process he was warned that the park was bound to be a gathering ground for homeless people and to be subject to graffiti. Based on its nearly five-year history, not at all. He thinks that the common sense and approachability of the design (he noted that the community groups frequently stressed the need to provide explanations for historical- and geographical-based design features) have produced an attitude of respect on the part of the people who visit. He also noted that for some presumably unknown reason, despite the appeal of the park to all sorts of birds, pigeons haven't had much presence, even though (or perhaps because) the waste-water plant itself has some rich feeding grounds for them.

One detail that especially delighted me, perhaps because I hadn't given it any thought in my previous visits, is the very surface we walk on through most of the park. It turns out to be a carefully chosen material, a version of what is known in trademarked form as "compressed gravel." It's very low-maintenance, George explained, and I suddenly noticed what an easy, cushiony surface it provides for walking. (It's much used in Europe, George said.)

George, by the way, seems to have become expert on all matters related to the waste-water management plant itself, and I kept wanting to ask if he had ever imagined -- in all those years he was building his reputation before being invited to take part in this project -- if he had ever imagined he would one day have this degree of expertise in this particular field!

There was so much more -- you had to be there, and I'm sorry you weren't. But I'm sure glad I was! Naturally the Nature Walk portion of our walk grew to unexpected proportions, and Jack kept tabs on people whose time situation didn't permit them to go beyond the original two-hour schedule. In the end, I'd gotten so much out of this portion of the walk that I accompanied the rest of the group as far as the base of the stairway onto the Pulaski bridge and then parted company.

As it happens, my terror of heights makes walking across bridges a nightmare for me, and after all I'd already done this crossing once. It had been on my mind the whole time last June when I first did this walk with Jack, and I wondered this morning whether it would be any easier the second time. It didn't escape my attention that as soon as I had an excuse, I wiggled out of finding out.

For a short film about the Newtown Creek Wastewater Management Plant, with its famous "digester eggs," click here.


In July I wrote with breathless excitement about the announcement of a date for Jack's first offering in eight years of his daylong exploration of the route of New York City's J train from Manhattan through Brooklyn to Queens, an even more exciting prospect than his now-famous (I hope) daylong "World of the #7 Train," a much more familiar train and route -- though I expect that most if not all of what Jack has to show on the #7 train outing is unfamiliar to most participants. (Translation: If you've never done it, you must watch for the next time Jack offers it.)

As I wrote in July:
Like The World of the #7 Train, A Day on the J is organized in the form of six walks in dramatically different areas, reflecting widly different geography and development histories, spanning the three boroughs through whichf the J runs: Highland Park, Richmond Hill, and downtown Jamaica in Queens; Bushwick and South Williamsburg in Brooklyn; and the Lower East Side in Manhattan. The walks are linked, of course, by rides on the J train itself (unlimited-ride Metrocard highly recommended). As with the #7 tour, A Day on the J has a lunch break built in, in this case in Jamaica.
I noted that on request Jack will e-mail you a great information sheet, which includes a registration coupon, though you can register without it by mailing him the information specified in the description below along with your check.

I didn't have a chance to ask Jack how registration is going, but I can warn you that any places that remain going into tour weekend are likely to be snapped up in a flurry of last-minute registrations, when disappointed would-be tour-takers are likely to be turned away. Here's the official description.
A Day on the J
Sunday, October 21, 10am-5:30pm

This series of six walks and connecting rides is astride the colonial route between Brooklyn and Queens. We focus on what the J train has done to and for surrounding neighborhoods since it began service (in part) in 1888. Walks take place in Highland Park, Richmond Hill, downtown Jamaica, Bushwick, South Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side. Tour fee is $39 and you need to preregister by check to Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354 (include name, phone and email address) The full day’s program, registration coupon and other info is available by email: The tour is limited to 25 people. Don’t get left out!

Take the J Train: Jack Eichenbaum's Oct. 21 Day on the J will feature walks in Queens (Highland Park, Richmond Hill, and downtown Jamaica), Brooklyn (Bushwick and South Williamsburg), and Manhattan (Lower East Side), plus lunch in Jamaica and of course lots of trips on the J.