Water and New York City. My romantic feelings about the city have much to do with the water surrounding and penetrating the city. The water provides space, allows one to step out of the density and see its beauty. The water provides the escape, the quiet moment, the peace one needs. Walking to the “waterfront” is a signal of strolling, relaxing, taking in the sights, running, being oneself.
I was in NYC last fall visiting my boyfriend before I moved back the the city. We shared a wonderful night in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We ate at the waters edge. Listened to music by the water. And shared beautiful conversation as we walked over Newton Creek on the Pulaski Bridge. The food, the views, the beauty – spectacular.
Water in the city is valuable. I learned on the circle line tour that the city doesn’t directly get its drinking water from the water systems directly around the city, its piped in from upstate. But he water around the city is crucial for the health of residents. The value of the water in New York City has been extracted mostly for private economic gain which has created tremendous negative externalities as these commons are destroyed.
While I enjoyed NewTown Creek for the space and the walk and the views it provided me that romantic night last Fall, I was not aware of how severely private interests have misused this water system. The Circle Line tour opened my eyes to the tremendous amount of work to reclaim these areas after many, many years of misuse…it is a superfund site.
From the EPA, “In the mid 1800s, the area adjacent to the 3.8 mile Newtown Creek was one of the busiest hubs of industrial activity in New York City. More than 50 refineries were located along its banks, including oil refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizer and glue factories, sawmills, and lumber and coal yards. The creek was
crowded with commercial vessels, including large boats bringing in raw materials and fuel
and taking out oil, chemicals and metals. In addition to the industrial pollution that resulted from all of this activity, the city began dumping raw sewage directly into the water in 1856 (EPA, http://www.epa.gov/region02/superfund/npl/newtowncreek/ )”.
Now I recognize that NYC was established and built upon amazing economic achievements. The city is an economic engine for generations. However, it is very concerning that the economic pressures of the mid 1800s, and decisions focused on short-term economic growth continue to have significant impact on the area. “Various sediment and surface water samples have been taken along the creek. Pesticides, metals, PCBs, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are potentially harmful contaminants that can easily evaporate into the air, have been detected at the creek.http://www.epa.gov/region02/superfund/npl/newtowncreek/ ). The most signifiant statement I heard on the tour was, “our bodies are polluted like we pollute the earth.” We are not isolated. We cannot sit and have dinner in a fancy restaurant, walk over the water, be close to significant pollution and have no consequences. We are paying for the decisions of those who came before.
Essentially the Newtown Creek area is the epitome of the tragedy of the commons: individuals acting in their own self interest making decisions that negatively impact society. Essentially the place became a dumping ground for the waste of profit making – individuals allowed to pollute, incentivised to pollute so that they could increase their profits. Essentially the economic/industrial activity here was completely out of balance because those making the money never had to pay for this destruction. How much profit would the industrialists of the mid 1850s had if they would have had to pay for this destruction? How is it that capital can be directed to such individuals while generations pay the consequences of their short-term thinking.
After my night in Greenpoint Brooklyn I was filled with wonder and joy and some wonderful thing happening. A restaurant serving delightful food in an old glass factory. A heavy metal bar down the street reclaiming old decrepit space. A community of citizens that appear to be stable and consistent through time. These are all good things, but then I learn about the devastation of the area and the pollution and the work that is still needed and it shifts my prospective. Feeling romantic about the waterfronts of NYC is great, but I feel now that I would like to add to the romanticism hard work in preparing what others destroyed. We need to leave these very important water systems in true sustainable states for the generations after us.