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.


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.

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.

Snowy Gowanus

Posted in Gowanus Canal by Robin on February 27, 2010

The familiar territory of the 3rd Street Bridge over the Gowanus Canal was transformed yesterday by the snow and low tide.

I have never seen these pipes before or maybe the snow just really made them visible. The smell of sewage was really strong.

The tide was going out.

At the bottom of the photo below, more of the pipes from the first photo can be seen. I have also never seen the old coal bins look so good.

The Whole Foods site from the bridge.

And the old Brooklyn Improvement Corp building looks great in the snow too.


Posted in Brooklyn,Brownfield,Gowanus Canal by Robin on August 16, 2009

Nina and I walked up to the Double D pool this am. The Fulton Works Manufactured Gas Plant was on this site. It then became a park in the 1930s.
I know that there is a significant amount of contamination under the cement and the plastic of the pool liner. I don’t know if that means it is dangerous to use the park. How does one manufactured gas plant site become a public park without any remediation whatsoever while another like Public Place can have such a different fate? And yet that site hasn’t been remediated either. It is fenced off, without progess year after year.
The area underneath the handball courts is also toxic.
After checking out the pool, we walked one block over to the canal.
In the water, we saw a crab moving along this tire. There also appeared to be an air conditioner and an old bird cage in the water next to the tire.

Turning to go back up Degraw Street, it already felt really hot.

On the Union Street Bridge, I think I saw a Black-Capped Heron. Quiet a morning for nature watching.

Gowanus-July 5th

My friend Nina was back from Sweden and came with me to take pictures on this beautiful evening. We started on the Hamilton Avenue Bridge.

My real goal was the PathMark below that can be seen from the bridge. The Metropolitan Works manufactured gas plant site was here long before the grocery store. But being on the bridge was too distant to get a good shot other than maybe this one with the razor wire. At some point, I need to get right down in the parking lot.

I love this shot and I can’t say why. Maybe just an attraction to bright shiny objects.

Turning the corner, I realized that one can see the Williamsburg Savings Bank building between Bayside Oil and the 9th Street Bridge.

I love the way the light hits the BQE in the evening. Nina at work really accentuates the enormity of the roadway structure.

We walked up to the Citizens mgp site.

Looking through the fence, the light was lovely hitting the cement factory and the buildings on the other side of the Gowanus.

I loved how the light was hitting both the razor wire and the window detail on the Gowanus Village building. I shot this from a number of angles including from in the middle of the street and none of them capture how lovely this looked in person.

Lastly, we went into the whole foods site. I wanted to retake a shot with the snake graffiti on one side and the building impression on the Brooklyn Improvement headquarters in the background. What a disappointment that the plant had grown so much as to block the view!

Then I discovered the other side which I like too maybe even like better.

Gowanus-July 4th

Posted in Brownfield,Gowanus Canal by Robin on July 6, 2009
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On July 4th, I got up and went out at sunrise to the Douglass-Degraw pool. It was built right over the spot where the Fulton Works manufactured gas plant operated. The light was lovely. When I got to the pool, the light wasn’t over the trees yet. I began to shoot.

Suddenly, I hear a very loud yawning sound like someone waking up in a cartoon and I see two arms and the top of someone’s head inside the locked compound. A young man bound over one of the internal fences and proceeded to wash his face in the pool. I am no longer feeling comfortable. It is a holiday about 6am and there is no one around anywhere. I decide to leave. I just am not interested in confrontation. I think if I circle around the block maybe he will have left for breakfast and the sun will have come up over the trees. I stop on the Carroll Street bridge and see this cormorant.

As I walk around on 3rd Avenue, I remember, its the 4th of July!

When I turned the corner of Degraw Street, there were three young men sitting/standing around one of the benches at the top of the park. I could think of only one reason that they would be there so early. With no one else around, I left. I will come back on a week day when people are at work.

Having had two days in a row situations where the conditions of urban poverty made me feel too uncomfortable to shoot, I have started to think very seriously about how much the brownfield issue is an environmental issue and how much a class issue.

May 23rd-Gowanus

Posted in Brownfield,Gowanus Canal by Robin on June 11, 2009
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I met Nina at the Smith and 9th Street stop and then we walked over to the Lowe’s parking lot. The water in the canal was as bad as I have seen it.

Raw sewage was everywhere. We noticed a jellyfish trying to swim through this muck.

We then walked around the Public Place site. It is really quite close to the houses on 4th Street. It is hard to believe that the toxicity is confined to inside the fence. Though maybe it does just roll downhill towards the canal.

I took this shot of the whole foods site from the end of Bond Street. I love the building imprint from what that must have stood next to the former headquarters of the Brooklyn Improvement Company.

These were taken inside the site.


May 20th-Gowanus

Posted in Brownfield,Gowanus Canal,recycling by Robin on June 11, 2009
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On this beautiful evening, I walked around the Gowanus area. First, down 6th street where they were still working at the scrap metal yard on 6th Street.

Then I went to the Gowanus Canal landing off the end of 2nd Street. I wanted to take the same photo I had taken in the winter of looking through the razor wire on this side of the canal to the old Nassau Railroad Powerhouse on the other side. Now the view is filled with trees. It is more bucolic and the building behind is just a patch of red. There was an older man sitting on the dock smoking there when I shot this. We chatted. He was knowledgeable about the surrounding brownfields. He recounted falling into the canal once.

As I was leaving 2nd Street, the light as it hit this tree and fence was lovely.

View from the 3rd Street Bridge.

I was standing out side of the hole in the whole foods site fence trying to take some kind of a photo. I had seen someone go in earlier and I was nervous about being alone on the site with an unknown man. A young kid maybe 20 or so came by on his bike and said, “Why don’t you go in?” And leaving his bike outside, he went through the fence. I followed him. His interest was all the graffiti. The best light was leaving but I felt liberated and wondered what had made me so nervous.

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