Toxi City: Exploring Brooklyn's Industrial Legacy

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.


East Williamsburg/Bushwick

This morning I started on Maspeth Avenue. Despite its contamination, it too was part of the real estate boom. It has its share of empty condos.

The former Equity works site, now the site of a recycling facility, was already busy at 6:30 am. Trucks were lined up on Maspeth Avenue waiting to dump their loads inside. This site has not yet been tested but it has the potential to be truly toxic.

As I walked by Rewe Street, I shot this. It is one of the most inhospitable parts of the area.

The next site that I visited became toxic because it was a dry cleaning facility, Popular Hand Laundry, 88 Ingraham Street. While the area is industrial with a cement factory on the block to the west, the presence of the art community is also visible. The current building occupant is Astor Row, an art consulting business.

I had also planned to go to 121 Ingraham Street, which had been an illegal dry cleaning facility. I knew that there was a men’s shelter on Johnson street because one day when I was shooting in the neighborhood, a man came up to me and asked for directions. I had a map and was able to help him. When I looked down the block, there were 20 or 30 men in red and blue jump suits and quite a number of vans. My guess was that they were participating in some sort of program where they were being taken from the shelter to parks to clean for the day. Due to the crowd and all the activity, I wasn’t able to find the site.

The McKibben Street site, a former chemical works, is right up the street. It has gotten considerably overgrown since I was last here in March. As far as I can tell from looking at those photos, this is some new stuff that has been dumped.

A bunch of stumps had also been dumped on the street. It was hard to tell where they were from.

It is just sad here.

June 7th-East Williamsburg

Nina and I met on Grand Street as in grand piano. Not Graham Avenue. I had wanted to go to the McKibben Street site. I had been there once in the winter and wanted to shoot it again before it got too overgrown. But it seemed too early. I wanted the lovely evening light. So we walked down Grand Street to the Metropolitan Bridge. Before we got there, right in front of Pumps Exotic Dancing, we saw a man lying half on the sidewalk, half in the street. As we got closer, it was apparent that he was breathing. It didn’t seem quite right just to keep walking. Nina called 911. We were asked to wait at the site until the police arrived. I felt very uncomfortable. I was sure that the last thing this man would want would be for the police to come and wake him up but what if he rolled more fully into Grand Street and got run over by a car? The cops came relatively quickly. They woke him up. He jumped up surprisingly alert. He accused Nina and myself of stepping back when he moved. He accused us of being afraid of him and therefore racist. We left the scene to go shoot. Neither of us really had the heart for it. I had not taken this man’s photo as he was lying abjectly in the street. While I am depressed by the degradation of much of Brooklyn’s land, I can still photograph it. Human misery leaves me paralyzed. Yet there is a clear relationship between the toxic areas of Brooklyn and poverty. Homeless people live on a number of the brownfield sites. There are always men with carts of bottles up by the end of Douglass Street at the Gownanus. Information in this case does not provide liberation as it doesn’t increase these people’s ability to make choices.

The weather had clouded over. We then walked to the Grand Street Bridge. The smell was nauseating. We saw quite a few birds including a cormorant and barn swallows yet it wasn’t heartening. We turned and went back up Metropolitan.


The rest of the evening was a bust. The streets were deserted and felt monotonous. We never got to the McKibben Street site. The sky got darker and darker. It was time to go home. The moral of the story is to go to the site you want to photograph first as a bird in the hand is worth more that the promise of evening light.

May 10th-Maspeth Avenue and the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge

This whole project is about the ground.

There are three brownfield sites around the corner of Maspeth and Vandervort, 2 former MGP sites and an oil refinery. During the week, there is very heavy truck traffic. It is hard to believe that the toxic stuff Is all inside the fence.

People work here. On the ground. This is TNT Scrap Metal which is right between the former Equity Works site and BCF Oil Refining. TNT was formerly on the Frito Lay site on Morgan Avenue before moving here. Nina and I talked to a man outside this site who claimed to be security for the auto salvage up the block. He said he wasn’t worried about the contamination. The really bad site was the Greenpoint MGP across the street, safely fenced off.

According to the man we met, this is where the really bad stuff is. The clouds relented and the evening light fell across the site.



On the fence I noticed this snail. If I had seen it elsewhere, I would have been fascinated. Here I was repulsed, largely I think due to the power of suggestion about the extreme toxicity of the site and what this snail might have absorbed.

We then walked over to the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge which crosses the English Kills. This blooming Royal Paulownia grows right on the edge of the Creek.