Newtown Creek Cleans Up

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The future is looking rosy for the four-mile Brooklyn/Queens waterway, long impacted by industry along its shores.

It’s not always easy to balance modern life with ecological preservation — especially in New York City.

That’s the goal though with the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA), spearheaded by Willis Elkins, the organization’s Executive Director.

Newtown Creek is a four-mile waterway that separates Brooklyn and Queens. It’s been a major shipping hub since the 1920s. Yet since then, there has been little-to-no government regulation on protecting the creek, resulting in heavy pollution and contamination. Things got alarmingly worse in 1950 with the Greenpoint Oil Spill — the largest known oil spill in the history of the United States — when toxic oil plumes and chemical solvents seeped into the surrounding soil as well as beneath people’s homes for almost 30 years before, 1978, the Coast Guard acknowledged the spill. 

But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that a local resident named Basil Seggos was sailing through Newtown Creek and saw oil coating the surface of the water from shore to shore. Seggos dug into the case of the spill himself, attended community meetings, and then in 2002 organized local activists into a group. He called it the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA). NCA’s mission is to reveal, restore, and revitalize Newtown Creek. It also serves as a planning and advocacy group. 

Elkins first linked up with NCA in 2007 as a volunteer. Originally from Texas, he moved to New York City for college and has been in Brooklyn ever since. He worked for the Buckminster Fuller Institute and also founded the North Brooklyn Community Boathouse, where he’s a canoe instructor and trip leader.

When Elkins first got to Greenpoint, he spent a lot of time exploring Newtown Creek in his inflatable raft, where he saw all the trash and toxic elements. Not only did it compel him to volunteer with NCA, but it inspired him artistically: He started collecting discarded lighters along the creek and reassembling them into unique patterns. His art project, “The Lighter Log,” was featured in New York Times Magazine.

In 2013 though, NCA’s Director stepped aside and asked Elkins if he’d like to take over. Elkins has since had his work cut out for him. Beyond oil spills and pollution, Brooklyn brings its own unique environmental challenges, including sea-level rise and flooding, sewage overflow, urban heat islands, and many more.

Yet Willis Elkins made it clear that this is not pure environmentalism — it’s about preserving the area as an industrial manufacturing zone. “We’re not trying to do any greenwashing. We’re not trying to say everything is great and hunky dory by planting a few trees,” Elkins said. “It’s more so driven by the reality of Newtown Creek: This was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. The fossil fuel industry got its early footholds here and left an awful legacy of pollution; it also left the world we live in today in terms of modern society.”

Elkins continued: “Just because something’s industrial doesn’t mean it can’t have an environmental benefit for the city or the community as a whole. In order to make this city function, you have to have places where there’s building material, supplies, warehousing, light manufacturing. So our position is, how can we have industrial manufacturing with mitigated impact?”

Aside from advocacy, NCA takes a hands-on approach to helping curb these issues. They organize regular cleanups with local residents. They’ve replanted certain areas, restored habitats and shorelines, and repaired rain gardens to collect more stormwater and help prevent sewage overflow.

One of the main contributions, though, was the Newtown Creek Nature Walk — a half-mile esplanade along the creek first built in 2007 and then expanded in 2021 to help create a more intimate connection to the area. It was designed by artist George Trakas and is lined with sculptures that explore the history of the creek and importance of water to life on Earth. “Many people know the creek because they’ve been driving over it for 50 years,” Elkins said. “If people can’t see the creek, they won’t care about it. This pollution has persisted for so many years because there’s been no real access.”

The walkway isn’t just open to local residents, but to schools as well: NCA plans to host over 100 field trips within the year.

Wildlife has slowly returned and water quality has gradually improved. Upon visiting the creek, you could now see various Herons, Red-tailed Hawks, striped bass, horseshoe crabs, and many more types of birds and marine life. Yet Elkins knows there’s much work still to be done, and he encourages any interested Brooklynites to visit the creek (especially Kingsland Wildflower, the 25,000-foot rooftop garden atop NCA’s headquarters in Greenpoint’s industrial zone) and get involved in restoring one of the area’s most vital waterways.

What You Can Do:

Get involved: Join a cleanup, help with a green roof, or maintain the pollinator pathway. Visit newtowncreekalliance.org

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