Authors: Elizabeth Royte
Tags: #General, #Political Science, #Social Science, #Sociology, #Public Policy, #Environmental Policy, #POL044000, #Rural
Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Royte
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First eBook Edition: July 2005
Also by Elizabeth Royte
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Quantifying in the Kitchen
n a sunny spring afternoon long before I ever decided to travel around with my garbage, I slid off the dead end of Second Street, in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, and down a seven-foot embankment oozing green and brown liquid. I braced my foot on the end of a rotting nineteenth-century beam and prayed that it would hold. It did, and soon I was seated in a slime-encrusted canoe in the Gowanus Canal, my sneakers awash in bilgewater. My life vest and jeans now bore distinctive parallel skid marks. A sportsman in a Gowanus Dredgers cap released the bowline and casually informed me that those row houses—he pointed up Second Street—were discharging raw sewage into the canal. “That would explain the smell,” I said.
It was Earth Day 2002, and I’d come out not to collect floating garbage—the siren call for two dozen local Sierra Club members—but to get a little exercise. I’d never paddled around the city, and I wanted a new perspective on my neighborhood. I also wanted a backyard view of what the media were touting as up-and-coming real estate. “Gowanus,” after morphing into the tonier-sounding “Boerum Hill” in the sixties, was returning as a sales category.
I left the proffered dip net and trash bucket on the embankment and turned the canoe deeper into Brooklyn. It was low tide, and the smell was, even for someone expecting the worst, fairly bad—a combination of outhouse, mudflat, and mold. The water was a diarrheal brown and topped by a slick of psychedelically swirled oil. I J-stroked past a fuel oil depot, a sewage outfall pipe, and the tin-can-cluttered encampment of a hobo. I glided over submerged shopping carts coated thick with algae and watched as other paddlers plucked spent condoms—or Coney Island whitefish, as they’re locally known—from the water’s surface. It occurred to me, as I turned to work my way out toward Gowanus Bay, that I was paddling through a microcosm of the city’s multifarious effluent. In one small, horribly polluted, godforsaken stretch of water drifted household trash, raw sewage, toxic waste, containers that ought to have been recycled, and rapidly putrescing organic debris. With a start, I realized it was all the stuff I got rid of almost daily.
Scanning the canal and its collapsing bulkheads, I wondered if I was complicit in this specific mess. I lived uphill, in Park Slope, and understood that garbage has a tendency to roll down, to settle on the margins. Before this day I’d wondered only idly how my detritus disappeared. You can’t live in New York or any big city and not be aware that vast tonnages of waste are generated daily. If you’re unlucky enough to be around during a garbage strike or an extended snow emergency, those tonnages assume a visceral reality. But most of the time that reality is virtual, because somehow our unwanted stuff keeps disappearing. It moves away from us in pieces—truck by truck, barge by barge—in a process that is as constant as it is invisible.
Now, as I paddled slowly through the Gowanus feculence, my curiosity grew. I understood that my regular trash went to some kind of landfill, but what about my recyclable tuna fish cans and my plastic shampoo bottles? These containers were tipped into the same truck, but surely the combined waste streams were at some point teased apart. Where, and by whom? And then what? My waste was no longer within my sight or smell, but surely it fell within others’. What impact did my rejectamenta have on other living things? Once I started to think about these questions, I couldn’t let them go.
I felt drawn to the Gowanus for atavistic reasons (who doesn’t like the shore?), but I was also interested in the canal as a backyard conduit and as a junkyard, of sorts. Over the years, the Gowanus had developed a reputation as a dumping ground for the mob; a character in Jonathan Lethem’s
refers to the canal as “the only body of water in the world that is 90 percent guns.” Some of New York’s garbage infrastructure was overt, some was covert, and the Gowanus seemed to fall somewhere in between. The canal was one hundred feet wide and one point eight zigzagging miles long, not counting the three spurs, called basins, that led to the loading docks of warehouses and factories along the avenues. There were enormous gravel barges tied to the canal’s edge and sunken barges sitting on its bottom. Among the facilities that actually made use of the water were an asphalt plant (which used to incorporate the city’s recycled glass into “glassphalt”); a marine transfer station, where the borough’s residential garbage had, until a year ago, been tipped into barges bound for Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill; a couple of cement factories; and two fuel oil companies. A guy named Orion lived on a houseboat near Carroll Street, and Lenny “the Chicken Man” Thomas worked atop the Union Street Bridge, raising the drawbridges when tallish boats requested it and developing recipes for street-cart barbecue when they didn’t.
When the Dutch first arrived in Brooklyn, in the early part of the seventeenth century, the Gowanus was a tidal creek that ran through the salt marsh valley between Park Slope, where I lived, and Carroll Gardens. (The word
comes from the Iroquois chief Gowanes.) Native Americans lived well on fin- and shellfish they collected in the briny waters. The Dutch farmed the local oysters and exported them by the barrelful to Europe—“oysters as big as dinner plates,” Owen Foote, a cofounder of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, said to me (everyone who talks or writes about New York City oysters uses dinnerware as a measuring stick).
Gradually, dams and landfills altered the salt marsh’s ecology. In 1849, the New York State Legislature authorized construction of a straightened and walled canal. (Of course, the Gowanus wasn’t really a canal, since it didn’t connect anything, but creeks didn’t qualify for state construction money.) South Brooklyn was rapidly becoming industrialized, and the canal, completed in the late 1860s, was soon lined with stone yards, flour mills, chemical plants, cement works, and factories that turned out paint, ink, and soap. By then, Brooklyn was America’s third-largest city. Barges hauling brownstone and bluestone, lumber and brick—the stuff that built my apartment house and its environs in the 1880s—jostled for position in the harbor, waiting to enter the canal.
Almost from the beginning, the Gowanus was a filthy place: with limited tidal exchange to open water, the discharge of raw sewage, combined with unregulated industrial waste, stagnated. Local residents, appalled by the stench, launched a campaign for improvement. In 1911, the city completed construction of the Gowanus Flushing Tunnel, designed to suck 200 million gallons of water a day from the East River, flush it for more than a mile underneath Brooklyn, and then discharge it into the back end of the canal. The neighborhood celebrated the pump’s opening on a June afternoon with Miss Gowanus gliding up the canal on a barge, strewing flower petals in her wake. In the years following World War I, the Gowanus moved six million tons of material a year: it was the nation’s busiest commercial canal.
But it didn’t last. After World War II, the Gowanus Expressway was opened, and trucks gradually siphoned work from barges. The canal became a stinky anachronism: the pump broke in 1961, and there was no money for repairs. In 1989, South Brooklyn got a wastewater treatment plant, but it did little to solve the Gowanus’s odor and pollution problems. Through twelve wastewater overflow pipes, storms still deposited raw sewage and toxic rainwater into the canal. Finally, a decade after the treatment plant opened, the pump was fixed. The city dredged two thousand tons of contaminated muck from the canal’s bottom, and the Gowanus Dredgers and the Urban Divers, another community group focused on canal restoration, weighed anchor.
The busy summer paddling season passed, and Ludger K. Balan, the Urban Divers’ self-styled environmental program director, offered me a private ecology tour of the canal. We arranged to meet, in two days, at the end of Second Street. I showed up early, then watched the appointed hour, from my perch atop a concrete slab, come and go. The tide slowly dropped and the sun beat down. The water was so clear I could make out a chaise longue settled peacefully on the canal’s bottom. Condom wrappers and Colt 45 tallboys littered the boatyard. Was there no place off the beaten track that was free of this stuff? Only slightly annoyed, I basked in the autumnal warmth and made note of my surroundings. “I Peed on U,” someone had scrawled on the Dredgers’ equipment locker. “Hey Fear You Blue-haired FAG.”
I checked my watch for the third time. In the weeks and months ahead, I’d learn that time was loosely constructed in Balan’s world, that directions were vague, phone numbers often garbled, e-mails so badly written it was difficult to tell if events were planned or were already history. The Gowanus Dredgers ran a tighter ship, but it was Ludger K. Balan who had offered me an ecology tour, and so it was Ludger K. Balan’s club that I paid twenty bucks to join.
At long last, Balan pulled up in a van decorated inside and out with plastic fish and mermaids. A short, muscular black man, he wore neoprene booties, rubber bracelets, a brown sweater under red rubber overalls, and a woolen headband wrapped around a teapot-sized bun of dreadlocks. Balan was half Haitian and half Arab, he said. He had grown up in France “and four other countries.” I noticed that his British accent came and went as he warmed or cooled to his subject.
We drove up Bond Street to a weedy, potholed lot. This was the Divers’ actual boatyard, a corner of a plot owned by a local named Danny, who seemed to be at the center of several smallish operations involving heavy equipment, the film industry, and auto-body repair. Balan and I wended past refrigerators, pipes, iron beams, and movie trailers, then carefully tiptoed across the top of the bulkhead toward two aluminum skiffs painted orange. We manhandled one onto a floating dock and loaded it with wooden oars and a five-gallon bucket filled with water-sampling instruments. Balan, a self-appointed waterway steward, claimed to collect data twice a week, in good weather, and hand it over to the Army Corps of Engineers, which was considering dredging the canal once again. The Urban Divers organized scuba trips around the city and spent significant energy on public education, which included luring in potential “citizen monitors,” like me.
Settled in the boat now, Balan rowed us past the Bayside Fuel Oil company, where giant oil tanks were buried beneath grassy berms, a hedge against explosion. Bayside was the only company that brought boats this far back into the canal these days, but it couldn’t take oil deliveries at low tide or during extreme temperatures, which sometimes interfered with the smooth operation of the drawbridges.
An underwater filmmaker, Balan had come of age in a hundred-foot visibility zone. “Diving in the Caribbean was almost overstimulating,” he said. “In the Hudson, you can see just three feet. It’s quiet and meditative.” He occasionally dove in the Gowanus, but it was an ordeal. He wore complete protective gear, including a rubber dry suit with a face mask. It took a long time to put everything on. “None of your body parts can touch the water,” he said. “When you get under, you try not to disrupt the sediment, for visibility and for health.” Afterward, everything had to be meticulously washed. “We have spotted poo-poo in the canal,” he added in the tone of a TV anchor. In July of 2000, the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment had optimistically planted five thousand caged oysters in the canal as an indicator of water quality: today, only eighty stunted survivors remained.