Super fun superfund
It’s a mild February afternoon—groundhogs be damned—in New York and the sun is radiant, a warm glaze atop the otherwise staid Newtown Creek. Though technically an estuary, Newtown Creek at its mouth forms a partial boundary between Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Long Island City, Queens, then snakes for over three miles eastward into industrial East Williamsburg.
Walking south over the Pulaski Bridge which tethers the boroughs together over the creek, rush hour is beginning its onslaught and a particularly urbane commuter is making their way home: Dads biking by, suits billowing with each passing tractor trailer despite the wide purchase of the cycling lanes, their kids buckled up in the twin seat addition on the back. It’s hard to reconcile my own memories of a childhood spent riding subways alone from school and day camps with this more charmed mode of travel.
Newtown Creek is a Superfund site, a designation of ill repute. Spurred by the environmental movement and later, by the national shame of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and other ecological disasters, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980. Along with permissions granted in further legislation, this allowed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to find liable the perpetrators of the many extremely polluted areas in the country. To jumpstart the process, the federal government holds a massive trust fund (or Superfund) to be put towards the cleanup and rehabilitation of these toxic locations while collecting damages from the polluters.
There are currently 1300+ Superfund sites nationally. Over time, nearly 400 have been deemed sufficiently revitalized to be stripped of that title. Garbage has always been of particular concern to New York City, what with its penchant for terraforming and long history of landfills, refineries, factories, manufacturing, and shipping, not to mention the heaping raw sewage and waste it continues to produce. The city today may be post-industrial (and peak-artisanal), but it is still home to three Superfund sites.
The other two, after Newtown Creek, are the Gowanus Canal and Wolff-Alport Chemical Company. First, the canal. My first memorable trip to the Gowanus neighborhood in South Brooklyn was as a teenager visiting the artist Glenn Ligon in his studio as part of a MoMA program for high schoolers. Coming from the museum, seated on the right side of the F train making its sweeping eastbound turn, the canal was unmistakable. I’d heard about it, the name Gowanus evocative of many things but mainly as the butt of jokes. Cities are dirty, give it up already.
Despite demonstrable change, neighborhoods cling to their stereotypes and what was popularly said about Gowanus was three parts true, one part “Law & Order: SVU.” Now, however, the names of these locales—Gowanus, Long Island City, Greenpoint, Ridgewood—for the yuppies and millennials who move there, is synonymous with nightlife, offbeat events, the culinary and curious, up and coming comics and DJs. These places also now mean rock climbers, hip parents, craft brew enthusiasts, fencers, graffiti artists, gallerists, and studio maven types. The picture of Gowanus today is of million dollar townhouses a stone's throw from a gravel processing plant, bands practicing in refab storage facilities, a reclaimed lumber yard across the street from a Lowes and down the block from a commune of metalworks and high-end antiques shops.
But walking around you’ll come across the usual nouveau-patrician scenes: Golden Retrievers and Bichon Frises out for a walk, children being strollered home from school, skateboarders, coal oven pizzerias and the waft of pastries baking. I walked past a shared working space where a meeting was being held in a glass-walled conference room, the participants in expensive looking sweaters and eye glasses, then turned the corner to a cement mixer moving jarringly headlong up the street, raising a cloud of what I hoped was just dust.
Across the canal, what looks like the future is actually just a luxury high-rise with its own boat launch, the curious-looking windmills in the nearby Whole Foods parking lot spinning without hurry. A couple rides by on a Vespa, the driver talking about whether or when he’ll get his money. A nearby restaurant with a strong sense of irony calls itself Lavender Lake.
The most recent addition, the Ridgewood, Queens site of the old Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, received its Superfund designation in 2014. Early on in its history, Wolff-Alport produced rare-earth metals for heavy industry and for decades disposed of one of its kilns’ major byproducts, the radioactive element thorium, by burying it in the ground or dumping it directly into the city’s sewage system. Then Wolff-Alport became a curious footnote to the Atomic Age: beginning in 1947 the Atomic Energy Commission, the successor to the Manhattan Project, began to buy thorium from Wolff-Alport. Demand waned less than a decade later, and the company folded in 1954.
But the decades of carelessly disposed of waste have made the Wolff-Alport site the “most radioactive place in New York” according to The New Yorker. The chemical company is long gone, with an auto-body shop, a defunct dry ice business, and a bodega in its place. Houses line the adjacent blocks. Ridgewood’s southern border meets Bushwick and is home to one of the latest colonies of hipster pioneers along the L train corridor.
The coffee shops, bars, and new apartment buildings are prevalent here, and are nowhere less conspicuous and stark than when they abut the rows of Romanesque-style houses that stretch in canny uniformity for blocks. It isn’t until you reach the end of Irving Avenue that you encounter the consequences of industrial waste, where the EPA has installed lead coverings in the sidewalk in areas deemed most vulnerable. It’s likely they’ll eventually have to come in and raze the area to remove the underlying earth as well. Remediation of the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, however long overdue, will be chaotic for the neighborhood.
Later, walking down a quiet residential block, I noticed that someone had scrawled “Super Fun Superfund” on the side of a building advertising its square footage for prospective tenants.