As finals week creeps up on Alina Chernoff, so does stress and anxiety over final chemistry exams, multi-step projects, and course grades. The 19-year-old chemistry student has found the second floor of the library at LaGuardia Community College a quiet sanctuary where the panic over finals disappears. But with most of the library now inaccessible […]
“Birds! Birds! There will be birds!” Mitch Waxman was parodying Professor Sarah Durand, who teaches environmental studies at LaGuardia Community College. Mr. Waxman is an activist at Newtown Creek Alliance. The Newtown Creek Alliance advertised the tour through Eventbrite.com. On the website, I was asked to pay less than two dollars to reserve a spot with a promise of getting money back after the tour unless I wished to donate to the Alliance. Mr. Waxman knows the history of every building surrounding Newtown Creek. I met him and other mismatched walkers on a sunny beautiful day for a tour around the infamous Superfund site. After the first ten minutes of the tour, I stopped enjoying the weather. Instead, I was trying to stop paying attention to the smell in the air. A young girl near me covered her mouth and nose with a scarf. The wrinkles on her forehead, however, showed that the smell was still unbearable.
Mr. Waxman was walking at a fast pace in his long black trench coat that waved around. His deep voice was guiding us through the small Queens streets. He asked us to be careful on the road; however, white bicycles with weaved in flowers made more of an impact on the walkers. Those bicycles were standing close to each other on Metropolitan Avenue, memorials to bicyclist who died on that road. I was counting them: “One, two, and three…” when a women in a white baseball cap pulled over and said, “There are much more deaths here than white bicycles.” There was an indistinct white mourning between her and the white bicycles around. A heavy traffic of trucks loaded with goods, oils and solid waste from sewers created a constant noise that drowned out the historical references of our tour guide. I heard Mr. Waxman in the distance, “It is the best place to die!” He might have said something else, but his voice was further drowned out when a few trucks passed us filling the air with the sickening smell of heated sewer waste from the white metal trucks.
We turned to a small street that runs along Newtown Creek, unfortunately, we were not able to see any water behind the cement production and storage areas. All we could see was the line of gigantic trucks with a sign, “Municipal Residential Solid Waste,” waiting for a rinse. The girl with the scarf covered her face almost completely, and I could only see her brown eyes. I was thirsty, and probably, she was too. We had been walking for almost an hour and the sun was hotter. I had water in my backpack, but I was afraid to disturb my shallow breathing. Thirst took over, and I had a sip of water. Strangely, I felt like the smell left a fecal aftertaste in my mouth. Mr. Waxman mentioned before that he does not smell anything since he spent a lot of time walking around this place. However, he said if we eat organic fruits and vegetables we should know that most organic produce comes to this area in open trucks and spends a few nights before heading to the stores. I noticed that I was hungry, but I had no appetite.
After walking between the suffocating streets, we finally got to see the water of Newtown Creek. “It was painted by a comic artist” was my first thought. I could see a few yellow rubber gloves like hands reaching from the depth of the dark water towards me. I was not sure if those hands were asking me for help or whether they wanted to drag me in to the water, so I would spend my eternity in this water used as a storage space for excess sewage from Manhattan. What if they are reaching so I will let them out from an imprisonment of a hundred years of neglect? I was thinking I should help them, and mentally I was getting ready to pull out some mutated human when I heard laughing voices above the water.
There was a group of explorers giggling in the water while trying to stop kayaks and canoes from moving in opposite directions. Waxman exclaimed, “After this trip all of you who go in the water need to be tested at the CDC because we still do not know what is and what is not in the waters of Newtown Creek!” After a few minutes of his colorful ideas of what could be in the water, he added, “You are all crazy!” This area used to consist of beaches. Now the only spot to access water was merely a few feet long. As far as the eye could see, buildings of strange shapes and sizes hovered over the river. Not far from where we were standing, we could see two egg-shaped buildings: Newtown Creek Digester Eggs. The stainless steel-clad digester eggs look extremely futuristic considering their function. The digesters play a key role in processing sludge, but the sewer system of New York City is too old and incapable of bringing all of the sewage to the plant, instead it spills its overflowing guts all over the plant. The ultra- modern design of the Newtown Wastewater Treatment Plant reminded me of a conversation with a LaGuardia professor about the possible future of Newtown Creek. “Birds! Birds! There will be birds!” said Professor Durand. She was talking about the wetlands that she wants to be created on Newtown Creek. Wetlands would restore natural wildlife on Newton Creek and provide an opportunity for LaGuardia’s environmental studies program to expand. She pictured it as a beautiful ecosystem that would clean Newtown Creek from pollution, bring back birds, and let native fish thrive once again. An oasis in the middle of the largest underground oil spill in the world.