Summer walking tours of a polluted waterway
by Andrew Shilling
May 15, 2013 | 1948 views | 0 0 comments | 60 60 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mitch Waxman, a historian with the Newtown Creek Alliance, is back on his summer walking tours again, teaching the dark environmental past of his beloved polluted body of water.

The Canarsie native was once a “dedicated desk jockey” who spent his days in a Manhattan high-rise writing comic books. Waxman said his passion - later turned obsession - followed a doctor-prescribed remedy for his consequential health complications.

“I got fat and sick and I ended up getting hospitalized. The doctor told me to start running, and the part of Brooklyn I grew up in, you don’t run unless someone’s chasing you,” Waxman said. “Now I know way too much about an inland waterway.”

Waxman chose to carry his camera and walk the polluted terrain of Newtown Creek, learning about the history and soon teaching the masses of his findings.

In his “Parks and Petroleum” walk on May 12, Waxman led a group of environmental enthusiasts down Norman Avenue to the Kosciukszko Bridge and into residential Greenpoint, telling the tales of monumental Newtown Creek catastrophes like the Standard Oil Plant fire of 1919, when more than 110 million gallons of oil leaked into the ground, and the Locust Hill Fire of 1882 that spilled another 30 million gallons.

“You wouldn’t have had a Greenpoint the size and wealth it is today if it wasn’t for this area,” Waxman said. “Conversely, an enormous number of these issues were and are caused by the area we’re going to be walking through.”

As he took the group through the heart of the Greenpoint oil spill, the waste-transfer district and a series of industrial sites, he points out the similarities of the Queens side and Brooklyn side of the creek.

“One of the things I always try to bring out on the tours is how inextricably linked Queens and Brooklyn are,” he said “I actually view Greenpoint, Long Island City, Maspeth, Williamsburg and Bushwick at the head of the creek as being one community that’s been politically divided by the Brooklyn-Queens border. These communities all have more in common with each other than neighborhoods south and north of here.”

Tonice Sgrignoli, a Long Island City resident, joined the walk to learn more about the creek and find out why it has flown under the radar for so many years.

“I always wanted to find out how that can happen in the largest city in the country,” Sqrignoli said.

She was astonished at how close this highly toxic region is to the parks and surrounding residential community.

“They coexist right next to each other,” she said, “all the recycling places and the wastewater treatment plant.”

Susan Trize, an employee at the High School of Enterprise Business and Technology, said she has aways been environmentally aware and joined the walk to learn more about ways to improve the surrounding ecosystem.

“I’m just really into learning about the places around New York that are polluted and about the people trying to bring them back to what they were,” Trize said. “It’s really interesting to me to see the process.”

As a former resident of Long Island City, she said she was always interested in learning more about the current state of the pollution.

“It’s always been amazing to me to see how resilient life is, and amidst all this pollution you still see ducks and birds,” she said.

Trize once taught environmental science at Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School, and says that if she ever gets back into that again, she would teach about Newtown Creek.

Waxman is taking groups on a tour of the polluted history of Newtown Creek on Saturdays from now through August 24.

His next walk on May 25 is called “The Insalubrious Valley,” a look at the colonial era and the effects of the chemical industry on the creek.

Visit for the full list and description of Waxman's walking tours.

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