Dredging Newtown Creek: An Interview with Mitch Waxman

Interviewed by Joseph Alexiou

Writer and photographer Mitch Waxman is the leading authority on the history of Newtown Creek, a toxically polluted industrial waterway on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. In addition to his reporting and documentation, Waxman leads regular tours on land and by boat while spreading the unique stories of New York’s most centrally located contaminated coastline to the community.

You are considered New York City’s foremost authority on Newtown Creek. What was the journey to becoming an expert on a federal Superfund site?

Famously how I ended up at Newtown is that I got sick with heart “stuff,” and my doctor told me to start running. The quote I always give everyone is that in the part of Brooklyn I’m from, you only run if someone is chasing you. So I walked. I walked around with camera and discovered Newtown Creek and discovered this wild thing in the center New York City.

Photo courtesy of Mitch Waxman.

Photo courtesy of Mitch Waxman.

I started asking people about it, people in Queens and they said, “What’s that?” — which was astounding to me! On the Canarsie, Flatlands side of Brooklyn where I grew up the waterfront was part of my life, all those waterways. We fished and did stupid stuff. We also had pollution and chemical plants; our beaches had medical waste washing up on them.

But still, it was nothing like Newtown. This is where Mobile Oil was born, where John D. Rockefeller made his money. I kept having these moments — why is this here? It doesn’t make sense that there’s a drawbridge here, why is this? Because, as I learned, there used to be a giant industrial company here but it was two generations ago and so we forget.

Anyway, I met couple of a people from the neighborhood who were equally curious and we and started going to what eventually became Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA) meetings. At the time we were just a group of concerned citizens — but the history stuff started when I was going to the meetings and got hooked. It’s been a weird journey even since.

How does that in-person interpretation — whether in conversation with community members or with walking tours — help to shape people’s understand of Newtown?

All of the “officialdom,” those people that work in government, speak in a foreign language. The acronyms, the “MGPS” and the “PAHs”s in high concentrations and and the dialogue between the DEC and EPA to deal with it—this is part of [the urbanist’s] cultish language. But because I happen to speak human, I do the public-facing stuff for the NCA because I bring some kind of “common touch,” let’s say, to the conversation.

This is to say that I’m able to explain these technical terms about pollution and ideas about policy to everyday New Yorkers in their language, and then I make the case that [Newtown] is not your usual village politics. As someone who doesn’t quite belong anywhere, it’s easier to put on the shoes of someone who does belong somewhere.

When you spend time in these, frankly, lonely outside external places you develop kinship and empathy for the people who spend time there as well. As someone who is a Storyteller, there’s a deep interest in history. It’s difficult to bring out the story and then try to directly connect it to people — but right there, in the tours you can point out things and watch their faces as they realize the truth.

How has Newtown changed since you started your work here? How would you compare the waterways and coastlines in Brooklyn and Queens?

So a big change that came to Newtown last year is a family of fat raccoons. And not those not garbage ones! These are healthy ones, digging in the mud for shellfish. For Newtown, being able to support advanced mammals is huge!

Newtown already processes a lot of Brooklyn’s waste but it also takes care of a lot from South of 96th street in Manhattan. The local people have put up with huge trucks, smells, sounds, the whole monstrosity and very little benefit out of it.

We have railroad and barge waste transfer systems, aggregates processors. The 2010 waste management plan wasn’t perfect but did create a system in middle of nowhere where the city dropped of their collective waste and then that gets loaded onto barges. All of that would have been material trucked over the GW Bridge into New Jersey.

But the thing is, conversely — this reasoning makes me good at telling this story: a lot of my neighbors work at these places and they say these are not necessarily bad jobs. As my friend Joey says about the waste “it’s gotta go somewhere!” Meanwhile, the North Brooklyn waterfront doesn’t need encouragement to build, though its all-residential now. Nobody needs to build anything; it’s all happening already!

Okay: one of the disturbing things that happened in the last couple of years is that shipping companies like UPS and Fedex lost their hubs on west side of Manhattan, so now they’ve come to Newtown. Every day La Guardia gets cargo planes, and so tractor trailers are going to Long Island City and Maspeth every day to load trucks. Why didn’t the powers that be demand that the system they helped FedEx create be a water-based transport system from JFK to Newtown. Even the trackways are there but nobody in government said you have to do it this way.

What can you tell us about your research process? Where do you get your archival materials and sources consulted? Who are the folks you speak with to find the answers?

One of the single greatest tools is Google Books which has a put a lot of old municipal journals from the age of the first sanitation commissioner in 1870s and 1880s to lock down on water based diseases. There’s water engineering, geology so on. All of those journals are great source material.

But so, I’ll find something in the field and take a bunch of photos. Then I’ll pull up my collection of old maps, I’ll find something to look for. Once I have a name and place, then Googling starts, usually combing the muni journals. Often I’ll find what it was called at the time and when the curtain of history falls.

The trick with Newtown Creek in particular is that we didn’t call these things what we call them now. They changed the names of streets, so just locking down he geography of the place is impossible unless you go back to people writing contemporaneously about it.

Also, most of the scholarly journals DID have bias — you gotta watch out with that — a lot of these were paid for by Manhattan folks in Tammany Hall to push their policies. So political bias is something to look out for, but there’s a general bias against the Queens side, people who were considered bumpkins and rural and all that. This is why Robert Moses could cut the highways right through the borough.

What do you hope for this area in the future?

The best way to clean this waterway is nature. We have to think about using nature to clean up man’s problem, not man to clean up man’s problem. This is what is actually an ecosystem. I get in trouble with environmentalists who want to spend lots of money who want to fix these issues by reintroducing legacy native plants — things that didn’t survive because of the ways we have messed around too much with our with our ecosystems.

There is this non-native “invasive” reed species, phragmites, which are considered a big problem in New York. But they are able to thrive and are much heartier and can stand up to pollution — isn’t that what we need? I covered a school class once and the kids asked me when Newtown’s ecosystem began to collapse.

I told them, “Welp, it depends on how you look at it. I say that it began when the Dutch colonists were given a bounty on wolf pelts in Maspeth and Queens. Does anybody want to guess why?”

And then this 9-year-old kid pipes up and says, “Because it got rid of the alpha predator and changed the whole ecosystem!” I almost cried, I was so happy.

Photo courtesy of Mitch Waxman.

Photo courtesy of Mitch Waxman.

Mitch Waxman is the photographer and editor of the Newtown Pentacle and historian of the Newtown Creek Alliance. His photography book, In the Shadows at Newtown Creek, was published in January 2019.

Joseph Alexiou is an editor at Gotham.