Toxi City: Exploring Brooklyn's Industrial Legacy


Red Hook

Posted in Brooklyn,Gowanus Canal,Red Hook by Robin on April 7, 2011
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As I walked down 2nd Avenue towards Red Hook, I noticed that the railing along the Pathmark parking lot serves as another kind of parking area. There were at least six shopping carts locked to it, a visible trace of the homeless that bring recyclables to the bottle exchange outside the Pathmark. I have heard nothing about plans to remediate this portion of the Metropolitan Works site. To make the cleanup of the Gowanus Canal meaningful and lasting, something must be done about the coal tar under this site.

When I arrived in Red Hook Park, the soccer team on the field took a break. I had been hoping to photograph some of the play but instead, I looked for signs of spring. A small tree next to a larger one, very close to the Chemtura site was beginning to flower. This manufacturer’s plant was built on historic landfill. I am not sure about the park itself.

Some landscaping work was going on in the Ikea parking lot which was built over a dry dock. Since this site was remediated before Ikea was built, I assume all the soil where these manicured grasses are grown was put down by Ikea.

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Coney Island mgp sites

Posted in Brooklyn,Coney Island,Former MGP by Robin on March 31, 2011

Coney Island Creek which runs around the site of the former Coney Island mgp looked beautiful in the spring morning light this week on Tuesday, March 29th.

The former Dangman Park mgp, now a shopping strip, had some new T-mobile flags. I thought I could somehow get the light coming through the fabric. While that didn’t work, this woman walked towards me pushing a stroller.

More on the Ansbacher Color and Dye factory

Posted in Brooklyn,Williamsburg by Robin on March 11, 2011
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This spot which appears so barren is turning out to be so rich. it really encapsulates a whole era of American history.

March 7, 2011. Meeker and N. 7th Street.


Ansbacher came to New York from Bavaria to escape Antisemitism as did the family of Robert Moses, the other man to shape this spot. Ansbacher incorporates in 1875 and begins to make Paris Green at 310 N. 7th Street. There is an article in the Brooklyn Eagle about neighbors complaining about having Paris Green in their yards that very year. If you search the Brooklyn Eagle for Paris Green, there are 1,000 items most of them about suicides accomplished with this chemical compound. By 1902, the business is doing so well, Ansbacher expands his building. This new building is big enough that there are over 100 men working on it. These Irish brick carriers decide to strike for a raise from $2.75 a day to $3. Italians are brought in the break the strike. Ansbacher was a philanthropist, giving money in particular to Mount Sinai Hospital. He dies in 1917 and about 10 years later his company merges with another dye firm, eventually to be absorbed into Sun Chemical in the 1950s. Then it was Robert Moses’ turn to mold N. 7th and Union. The path of the BQE including the former Ansbacher factory building, Paris Green and all, was razed in 1947 to Metropolitan Avenue. The BQE was built to this point by 1951. there was a gap between metropolitan and the Willamsburg bridge. You an see this on the NYC doitt map. Further progress took a few years. Now the spot is a corridor, a place to pass through.

Snow on Gowanus

On Monday, Feb 21st, I took a walk around the Gowanus. It had snowed the night before.

The Carroll Street Bridge looked lovely from the Union Street Bridge. Looking at it though, I can now see it and the other bridges starting at 9th Street as sealing the fate of the Gowanus. It took me a while to understand why the development of the Newtown Creek has been so different. All these low bridges along the Gowanus at some point made industrial activity impractical. A barge still regularly leaves Benson Scrap Metal and I would guess goes to New Jersey though I don’t know for sure. That section of the canal is below all the low bridges.

From the Union Street bridge, looking the other way towards the flushing tunnel.

Water from Buttermilk Channel enters the canal and with it needed oxygen. The EPAs RI report has been made public. And what it made clear to me is that the components of coal tar left over from the canal’s three manufactured gas plants contaminate not just the soft sediment but the native sediment below that. And this stuff moves around and is probably going to keep getting into the canal from the land where there still is coal tar or NAPL-non-aqueous phase liquid. At the Union Street end of the canal that source would be the Fulton Works that was on Degraw.


Double D pool and the handball court in Thomas Green park were built right over the site where the gas plant stood. The NYSDEC is responsible to clean up this site. While the pool is unlikely to be dangerous to swimmers, the coal tar underneath it is getting into the canal and the groundwater.

Which leads me to my next thought. The contamination in the canal leads to fish and crabs living in it to accumulate toxins. So these should really not be eaten by humans. People without other alternatives do eat these things at considerable hazard to themselves and their children. While this is a serious problem, I see the true danger in the canal in flooding events. The toxins in the water and the sediments get out of the canal and people come in contact with them. Flooding events due to global warming are predicted to become much more frequent. I think this is the real reason to clean up the canal. It is never predicted to be swimmable but if what is washed onto shore during extreme weather events is less dangerous that would be a good thing.

Low Tide in the Gowanus

Posted in Brooklyn,Gowanus Canal by Robin on December 4, 2010

On Sunday, November 21, the tide was fairly low and revealed a few things I had never seen before. The old coffee barge is always visible to some degree but I had never before seen this old boat in the extension of the Gowanus that runs between 4th and 5th streets.

I was surprised to hear and then see activity at 6th Street Scrap Metal as this facility while very busy 6 days a week is usually shut up tight on Sundays.

Down by Lowe’s, the low tide allowed for visibility to the bottom of the inlet. Of course, it is not the visible garbage that is dangerous here but rather the leftover coal Tar from the Metropolitan Works manufactured gas plant.

While the Lowe’s portion of the site was remediated, no work has been done on the Pathmark portion of the site. The gas plant was located right about where the supermarket itself stands. From the Hamilton Avenue Bridge at low tide, you can see how here is not even a retaining wall here but the soil, very likely to be toxic, is exposed to the water. Also, notice the bricks sticking out. If anyone knows what structure this was, please let me know.

The Ninth Street Bridge was beautiful in the evening light.

A small boat went through the canal. On the side was printed “Tender to the Lettie G. Howard.” This later ship is a schooner that is now a museum ship based at the South Street Seaport. Behind them was the barge that services Benson Scrap Metal.

This is Benson Scrap Metal from the Gowanus side.

And from Smith Street. It too was open on Sunday. The volume of material on site both here and at 6th Street has really grown over the last two years. I assume business has been slow and there has been less of a market for scrap metal. Noting that both places were open on Sunday, I did start to speculate that maybe things are picking up.

Under the Gowanus Expressway, around 2nd Avenue and 16th Street, there seemed to be a huge number of small birds. I found this quite surprising. Given the volume of traffic on the Expressway, it doesn’t seem like a hospitable spot for any life.

Meeker Avenue

Posted in Brooklyn,Greenpoint,Newtown Creek by Robin on December 4, 2010

On Sunday, November 14, I started on Norman Avenue. This building-or at least the building around the corner at 315 Kingsland-the former Spic and Span Cleaners and Dryers is a state superfund site. It is located over the Meeker Avenue plume. According to the NYSDEC record the primary contaminant is TETRACHLOROETHYLENE (PCE). Work has been done on the building since I was last here. The facade looks pretty cute. People are obviously living here.

The recent settlement between Exxon Mobil and New York State will hopefully speed up the pace of the cleanup of the huge oil spill under Greenpoint. This pickup was parked on Norman, a block or so from the hot spot at Apollo and Bridgewater and probably right over the Meeker Avenue plume. Maybe it was best that the kids stayed in the car.

Sunday on Bridgewater, it is pretty quiet.

Most of Meeker Avenue, named for Samuel M. Meeker, once the president of the Williamsburg Savings Bank, is now a service road for the BQE. A short section veers off from the BQE at it turns slightly to go over the the Kosciuszko Bridge, and offers an access point to the Newtown Creek. The Penny Bridge once crossed here at Meeker before the Kosciuszko was built in 1939.

Meeker Avenue was shut up pretty tight as well except for the guard at Empire Merchants. That site was once the Paragon Oil Company, owned by Texaco operated on that site until the late 1960s.

The view of the water was deceptively lovely.

There was nothing lovely about the water’s edge except a few autumn leaves.

Cherry Street was completely deserted. It runs along the BQE as it goes over the Kosciuszko Bridge. Cherry Street also runs over the Meeker Avenue Plume. A scrap collection business operates here. This seems to me a true hell. The ground underneath is contaminated both from the plume and the oil spill. The cars constantly passing overhead must rain down a steady stream of the pollutants in car exhaust.

The first section of the BQE that was built in 1939 was the section that connected Meeker Avenue in Greenpoint to Queens Boulevard. In 1950, an extension was built to the Williamsburg Bridge that ran over Meeker Avenue.

Some parts of Meeker Avenue have lost their character.

Other parts still look like Greenpoint.

Phelps Dodge Refining Corporation, Maspeth, Queens

Posted in Brooklyn,Brownfield,East Williamsburg,Maspeth,Newtown Creek,Queens by Robin on October 31, 2010

On Friday, Peter Spellane and I set off to see the Phelps Dodge state superfund site in Queens. According to the NYS DEC record for the site, It was used “from 1920-1983 for the production of tri-basic copper sulfate (pesticides), copper and sulfate pentahydrate and as a copper refinery.” And “The primary contaminants of concern at the site are heavy metals, including cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, and others, petroleum related hydrocarbons, and PCBs.”

We started from the Grand Street L stop, pausing for guava pastelitos from an excellent Dominican bakery.

Monk fish was being delivered to the fried fish place on Bushwick Avenue as we headed down Grand.

We passed the car salvage and Bayside Fuel Oil Depot before we went over the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge that goes over the English Kills and then the Grand Avenue Bridge that goes over the east branch of the Newton Creek.

We turned down 47th Street. There is na abandoned lot along the creek side of the street and at the end, there is this construction material yard.

The weather was threatening rain so we skipped taking advantage of this access point to the creek at the end of 58th Road.

We turned up 48th Street.

At 48th and Maspeth Avenue, you get a view of Maspeth Creek. Across the water is the southernmost part of the Phelps Dodge site. A kitchen and bath showroom is now on this portion of the site.

The visible garbage in the water really isn’t the dangerous part.

At 49th Street and 56th Road, we noticed railroad tracks that are well maintained and in working order. 49th Street here runs along the east border of the Phelps Dodge site. The railroad runs along 56th Road basically on the northern edge of the property.

The Phelps Dodge site is on the other side of this fence. Across the creek in the background you can see one of the two large gas storage tanks that belong to National Grid. The way the property breaks up moving from west to east is that there is a vacant area next to the Kosciuszko Bridge then a restaurant supply big-box style store with ample paved parking areas around it. Then there is another fenced off abandoned area that has several temporary structures on it that Peter thought might be part of the remediation effort. And then there is the Davis and Warshow kitchen and bath supply showroom which is on Maspeth Creek. Peter spoke with the “guard” who is a geologist.

Out behind the restaurant supply building I met this trucker who drives for Foodliner moving food-grade dry bulk, primarily flour. He had just brought a load of kosher flour to the restaurant supply. BTW, Foodliner is hiring.

Phelps Dodge and Nichols Chemical before them must have brought in materials by water.

At the water’s edge is a concrete area that runs along the Newtown Creek well around the bend of the Maspeth Creek that was served by small rail.

Left by a seagull after a meal.

Customers of the restaurant supply. The name of their establishment is Jekyll and Hyde.

As we were leaving, we noticed the old mailbox for Phelps Dodge. The land is now owned by Sagres Partners.

Right under the bridge, just adjacent to the property, we saw these two men working in and around open dirt. It is the contaminated soil on the other side of the fence that the DEC says is the greatest risk for human exposure to the toxins on the site.

And we finally did see the railroad in action. the load appeared to be plywood.

Coney Island

Posted in Brooklyn,Coney Island by Robin on October 18, 2010

It is quite possible that the most toxic thing on Coney Island is poverty. A walk down Mermaid Avenue is a very different experience than one two blocks over down the boardwalk. I didn’t capture it. Here are a couple of the survivors.

This man standing on the corner in front of the white fence isn’t such a survivor. He asked me for money for a cup of coffee as I stood on the corner photographing one of the Coney Island Houses with broken windows. Calling them Coney Island Houses is of course a euphemism as these are apartment buildings.

I don’t understand the economics of Coney Island. How can there be undeveloped land right on the beach? What I don’t show here is the gate walling off Seagate a few blocks from here.

it is not because this is a flood zone.


These are the O’Dwyer Garden Houses.

This little boy was playing in the playground of the Coney Island Houses.

Here is the more familiar side of Coney Island: the beach and the amusement area.

Bushwick Inlet

Posted in Brooklyn,Brownfield,Greenpoint,Williamsburg by Robin on September 9, 2010

Last week, I went to Williamsburg to talk to Brian Walsh about mgps and state superfund sites for a documentary that he is making. Last year, testing was ongoing at the Williamsburg Works site. Now, there doesn’t appear to be anything happening at the site. A few cars were parked there. Interestingly enough, Bayside Oil whose property was on the Voluntary Cleanup Program list last summer is no longer on the list. This whole area along the waterfront is slated to become a park despite its very intense contamination.

Two blocks away is the Wythe Avenue Station site, now a state superfund site. Coal gas was stored on this site. Now it has several warehouses and a palet company on the block. People go to work on this site everyday. I don’t know what the exposure issues are or how dangerous it is to be on this site day in and day out but I know that I would want to know if my workplace was a state superfund site.

Gowanus Canal

Posted in Brooklyn,Gowanus Canal by Robin on July 9, 2010

The morning on Tuesday, July 6th was lovely

but the water in the Gowanus Canal was foul. Funny how looking one way things llok so tranquil and the other they look so nasty.

Things were just barely moving at 6th Street Recycling. There is a lot of metal piled up there. an indication, I think of weak demand for scrap metal, a sign of the slow economy.

At 9th Street, the water looked bad too. Though here it was the sheen of oil, not so much sewage and garbage.

Benson Scrap Metal too is really piled high.

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