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Nature Does Not Knock

September 2011

Benjamin Korman

Newtown Creek in Greenpoint

There is a stretch of woods beside the outer loop of the highway in Baltimore, and on it is a tremendous gold-colored monolith. To some, it resembles two oversized Fabergé eggs. To others, two testicles, propped up one beside the other with a black concrete vas deferens connecting them at their tops. They are referred to colloquially as the “shit tits.” The latter word is what they look like. The former is what fills them.

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In less uncouth terms, they are “digester eggs,” government-operated machines integral to wastewater treatment. They perform a process called anaerobic digestion, in which sludge—organic waste, human or otherwise—is separated from raw sewage and fed into the large, egg-shaped tanks. Within, swaths of bacteria break down the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins of the sludge into sugars and acids, which are then broken down by more bacteria until they eventually produce methane and carbon dioxide. It sounds disgusting and it is, but it’s a vital process. It reduces waste in polluted urban areas, and the gas it releases is used as fuel, leaving the leftover digested sludge as potent fertilizer. And they aren’t just in my hometown: Greenpoint, Brooklyn has eight.

Digester eggs at the Newtown Creek sewage treatment plant

North Brooklyn is going through a radical transition. Much of the region is historically industrial, and has been since the nineteenth century. While the area just inland from the East River is a thriving residential community, the blocks along the East River remain industrial. For more than a decade, gentrification has been transforming the neighborhood of Greenpoint into a moneyed, metropolitan haven. Two major commercial thoroughfares have developed: Manhattan Avenue, which runs South-to-North through the center of the neighborhood, and Franklin Street, which sits to the west, a block from the East River. These streets are loaded with indicators of cultural vitality—biergartens, nightclubs, upscale booksellers, trendy fusion restaurants—and housing prices reflect this. They should; it is very nice to live in Greenpoint right now.

But this lushness hasn’t swept over the entire area. Greenpoint is divided from Queens to the North and East by a body of water called Newtown Creek. In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Newtown Creek a Region 2 Superfund site. The EPA website defines Superfund as a program “to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites,” and, in its report on the creek, “concluded that metals, volatile organic compounds, and semi-volatile organic compounds… were present in Creek sediments at elevated concentrations.” It’s filthy. It looks and smells filthy. Brooklyn is notorious for its unclean waterways; in his novel Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem asserted that Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal is the only body of water in the world that is “ninety percent guns.” Newtown Creek is just as bad. It isn’t a likely location for the city to install a nature walk, but this is precisely what it did.

The creation of the nature walk was incidental. According to a 2009 article from the New York Times, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection allotted $3 billion to expand the sewage treatment plant, building, among other things, the eight digester eggs (which, because of the blue lights illuminating them after sunset, have become a curious landmark for drivers passing along the Brooklyn-Queens and Long Island Expressways). In order to appease the community, the city promised that it would provide Greenpoint residents with public waterfront access.

Why anyone would want access to the polluted waterway, I have no idea. In fact, because of the extreme threat to public health, the city banned kayaking in the creek in late 2010. The ban was repealed at the urging of eccentric New York State assemblyman Joe Lentol, who once threatened to swim in the polluted waters if his constituency—which includes Greenpoint—wasn’t provided with ultra-high-speed Wi-Fi access. According to the Times, it took nine years and more than $3 million to construct the nature walk, whose serpentine body cradles the ubiquitous wastewater treatment plant. I’ve taken the walk a few times, and my feelings toward it are ambiguous.

A sign warns boaters on Newtown Creek.

Before even entering the park, one feels misled by its name. The entrance is situated at the dead end of Paidge Avenue, a block that entertains a Time Warner Cable warehouse on one side and a high concrete fence on the other. But, walking along the block, I observe that the “nature” promised has already begun. A disparate row of Kentucky coffee trees is planted against the south-facing sidewalk, and a few are accompanied by polished-steel signs. One lonely shrub hovers over a discarded neon Gatorade cap and a plaque, which reads:

(Querous bicolor)
Wood used for digging sticks, lobster traps, roof beams, purlins, ship ribs, and frames. Bark and acorn tea used to treat intestinal ailments. Roasted acorns drizzled with maple syrup were served as an evening delicacy.

Already, nature is jilted in a concession to industry. The description of the swamp white oak entirely neglects to mention, say, its native environment or its physical attributes. Instead, it details the industrial uses of the flora; its wood is structurally sound enough for construction, and its acorns were once integral to the luxury economy. Before long this develops into a pattern, and eventually becomes the overall mood of the nature walk.

The official threshold of the park is a zig-zagging metal ramp and stairwell that elevates visitors one level above the street. Beneath the walkways are some sparely planted bushes. I have ventured to walk through them and found empty plastic bottles and a soiled baby diaper. Beyond this minor lay of green is the nature walk’s first truly disconcerting sight: a long and narrow concrete walkway, edged by high grey walls and deigned “the vessel” by the architects of the walk.

The walls are oriented, as a tacit emulation of nature, in a finely curving swale that, combined with their disarming height, makes the visitor feel unwelcome to continue. Such experiences are common among nature, but I suspect that this is only a coincidence. The walls were purportedly made from ship’s lumber floated to Newtown Creek from Nova Scotia. Portholes have been drilled in the wall, and I was allowed a peek at the dormant heavy machinery within the wastewater treatment plant. The “vessel” terminates at the “turret,” a semi-functional walk-in compass rose. From there, it is a straight shot to the water—a shot much straighter than it is pleasant, and much more confounding than it is straight. A nearly five-hundred-foot path composed of stone and concrete leads visitors past the yard of a factory owned by Gencor, a multinational corporation in the business of producing natural gas. From here I watched as a lone worker climbed a ladder three stories to the top of a cylindrical tank, then ate a sandwich. Gencor seems uninterested in assisting the DEP in their endeavor to simulate nature. Their factory yard is strewn with rubble and rusted metal, and it reminds me of photojournalist dispatches I have seen of bombed-out third world cities.

It’s important to note that there are certain atmospheres and qualities that New Yorkers associate with nature that people who inhabit saner places might not. One particular tenet is silence. Anyone who has ever lived beside a beach, in a jungle, or near a forest knows that nature can be far from silent. But New York is scourged by constant horn-honking, motor-humming, yelling, and the incessant drone of a billion ubiquitous electrical contraptions. By comparison, “nature,” as defined by Brooklynites as an absence of buildings and people, doesn’t make noise. And it so happens that the Newtown Creek nature walk has achieved this quality. The waterfront is silent. I have only encountered a handful of other visitors at the park, mostly Time Warner employees eating their lunches, and not once have I seen a single person around the waterfront. The long promenade dissolves into the creek via a series of wide steps that disappear into the mucky water. Various debris coats each step: spent hypodermic needles, empty fireworks shells, and lots and lots of plastic; a graveyard for the buoyant inorganic compounds that make their way into the creek.

Of the dozens of granite slabs that compose the steps, nearly half are etched with confusing, Latinate words. ORDOVICIAN. ANGIOSPERMAE. BLADDER WRACK. The tide recedes; I catch a sight of PLEISTOCENE and MAMMALIA, and I am mystified. A plaque along the promenade explains: these words signify the geologic eras, life forms, and marine life that were, before the current era, relevant to the creek and the Greenpoint area. Standing along the bank, it is impossible to detect the presence of the PLATYHELMINTHES, PORIFERA, DIAPSIDA, and MOLLUSCA that once inhabited the waters. The only presence I detect is the smell of garbage.

The smell is overwhelming. Looking east along the water, visitors are offered a striking view of the skylines of nearby Manhattan and Long Island City. Looking straight, the elevated lanes of the Long Island Expressway cut the sky in two. Between the nature walk and those distant landmarks is a heap of industrial waste that dwarfs the warehouses beside it. In fact, one of the few noises present is the sound of big steel claws dropping and clutching, moving garbage from one pile to another. The air quality is understandably low and there have been moments when I am reluctant to breathe through my nose at all. “Rancid” and “chemical” describe the smell best. It is thusly a relief that the next leg of the nature walk is the “fragrance garden.”

The fragrance garden is the most heavily forested and by far the most pleasant area within the park. Wander past the stone picnic benches adorned with maps of the factories, warehouses, and foundries of the immediate blocks, and find an area awash with shade, leaves, the sound of waves, and, of course, lots of stone, metal and concrete. The diversity of flora in the garden is legitimately impressive; all are labeled and described on plaques. One reads:

(Viburnum triiobum)
Berries are a rich source of vitamin C. Dried fruit with honey used as a treatment for high blood pressure. Infusion of dried bark used for relief of cramps and muscle spasms. The Russian folk song, “Kalinka” celebrates plant’s beauty and uses.

The description was designed to reveal how people utilize this plant. Pharmaceutical benefits are emphasized, and there’s even some cultural trivia, too. Nowhere is there an allusion to the plant’s fragrance. There are dozens of species in the garden, among them Joe-Pye Weed (“used as a remedy for bladder and kidney stones”), Seaside Goldenrod (“Thomas Edison experimented with its stem milk to produce latex”), Sweetgum (“Wood used for barrels, toys and baskets”), Trumpet Honeysuckle Vine (“Juice from the berries was used as ink and paint”), Red Chokeberry, Yarrow, and more. One plant is particularly striking: horsetail. Horsetail is hideous. It’s difficult not to rubberneck at its bare, bony stalks. Horsetail sprouts are small, about a foot and a half at most, and produce no leaves or branches. If David Cronenberg or H.R. Geiger were to collaborate with Gregor Mendel, what they would produce might resemble horsetail. Its plaque reveals that it has grown without variation since the Carboniferous period, 354 million years ago. Early civilizations used it to polish arrowheads. Sprouts of horsetail have been planted in several beds along the garden, and it appears as though they are holding the other vegetation hostage. It is haunting.

Beyond the fragrance garden is a locked gate. In order for visitors to exit the park, they must retrace each attraction, muse over the unorthodox curation of disparate elements, second-guess the intentions of the designers. There are a few more objects of note: some circular benches inscribed with native American epithets like KAPSEE (“where the sharp rocks are”) and O JIK HA DA GE GA (“Atlantic Ocean”); a granite table sporting an ancient shipping bollard of the creek’s watershed; trash cans fitted into barrels (“designed to represent the cooperages, or barrel-making shops, that flourished in this neighborhood nearly a century ago”).

A sign on Newtown Creek.

It was previously the assumption of some group—either NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection or the Greenpoint community—that Newtown Creek is still capable of housing nature. Because the surrounding land was heavily forested, the waterway was the first path that European settlers traveled into the surrounding area and was built up long before its banks were. It enjoyed two centuries as a rural salt marsh, and became the industrial behemoth it is today around 1860. It falls short of wishful thinking to predict that a half-hearted effort to rebrand the waterfront as “nature” will revert that. Located only two miles from the geographic center of a metropolis that sprawls over an area of 301 square miles, the path exemplifies everything that opposes the natural world.

The eight digester eggs loom high above the path. They distort the scale of the trees, making them appear as miniscule as cut broccoli stalks. Nature may have been evoked– may even be nominally present– but the eggs are a reminder that Newtown Creek belongs to the machines now.

« Read issue one: Growth and Decay.

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About Benjamin Korman

is a writer and performer from Baltimore, MD. He has been involved with The Believer magazine and Saturday Night Live. In 1976, he successfully trained a Labrador Retriever from the Bronx to convince “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz to murder six people; he blogs about books at Books Ben Read.

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