City at the Water’s Edge

Home to manufactured gas plants, shipyards, lead smelting and chemical works, rail and trolley powerhouses and oil refineries, the Brooklyn industrial waterfront suffered all the ill effects of industrial pollution. On top of which, as McCully points out in City at the Water’s Edge, by 1929 a billion gallons of raw sewage a day was being dumped into the waters of New York harbor. While a legacy remains of toxic ground and water, the Brooklyn waterfront is now cleaner than it was in the early part of the 20th century. And yet as our understanding of the major effects of human behavior on the environment has grown to include not only the direct effects of industrial pollution but also climate change, is it even useful to think of environmental issues in terms of polluted vs. clean or pristine?


20 responses to “City at the Water’s Edge

  1. There seem to be no easy choices in modern “development”. Many of man’s economic activities seem to create some kind of negative impact on the environment. In addition to this, there is the issue of unintended consequences from man attempting to correct a “wrong” from his pollution (such as introducing alien species into a biosphere to eradicate the exploding population of another species).

    I still think it is useful to thin of environmental issues in terms of polluted vs clean (or unpolluted). In my estimation, it provides a frame of reference. I think this is particularly true in Brooklyn Harbor which faces more pressure from increased maritime trade.

  2. If the choice is more polluted v. less polluted, less polluted would still be nice. Isn’t there an industry with deep pockets that could finance some reclamation of Gowanus, Newton Creek or the Harbor? What happened to the Attorney General v Newton Creek Polluters (February 2007)? Certainly ExxonMobil, BP and Chevron have the money to build a bunch of oyster tecture (or whatever). Or is the issue that Brooklyn is not important enough in the scheme of things to make cleaning up Brooklyn as urgent as cleaning up fancier neighborhoods?

  3. As far as I know, they haven’t replaced the main outlet for sewage taking in the flush of Brooklyn and Queens. They have built a new, updated facitlity to replace it… or at least that’s what I hope to see… when I lived in Greenpoint, if the day was moist and heavy, it was also smelly. I think the containers in this new site reduce the smell. This website has a history of sanitation and photos of the new treatment plant:

  4. The Newtown Waste Facility Nature Walk brochure includes artist, engineering, water, inviting a walker in the city…

  5. Thanks for providing this resource. We will certainly see the Newtown Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant on our boat ride on the Newtown Creek. It was designed by the same architects that did the Rose Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History (The Polshek that is quoted on the newtownpentacle site.). It is quite remarkable. The plant has certainly reduced that amount of raw sewage going into the Newtown Creek.

    One of my favorite maps on habitatmap one of the tools we will be using shows where your toilet flushs in nyc. This shows what ends up in the Newtown Creek Waste water treatment plant.

    It also shows where the combined sewage outfalls are. So this is where whenever there is a heavy rain and the combined sewage and rainwater runoff system is overwhelmed, it outlets.

  6. Tug boats are a form of industrial art and engineering that I hope we can see in action. Small boats, working craft, have not disappeared… I hope…. The woman I lived with in college was a 420s national sailor, and she loved tugs more than the Americas cup. One of the artists in my study has a small wooden craft similar to the ones they went whaling in. It hangs from the ceiling in his workshop. He has taken it up the East River. Many tug boats date from the Longshoremen era. They have served in the Great Lakes and in NY Harbor. The preservation of the tugs is a practical necessity. In this website you can see containerized shipping in Chicago, Michigan, Queens and the Harbor guided by tugs that have served in all these waters. The hearty tugboats must guide ships the way they did back in the day. A new tug is impossibly expensive, so they keep replacing the engines and updating them, like Chevys in Havana. The rebuilding and refitting of small craft involves a practical art.

    • This is willvandorp. I need to come out of the closet since you refer to my blog You are correct that preserving old boats–as is true for buildings–is a practical necessity. Both land and water construction gets updated/repurposed/modified as needed and as feasible, but New York does have a large percentage of tugs that are less than 10 years old. New York is not dying as a port–and many of our readings reiterate that the land developed because to support port/maritime activities. And it still thrives as a port handling not only “the box” but also energy, most oil. A day spent at Owl’s Head Recreation Pier in Brooklyn (and I can suggest better “shipspotting” locations will give a clear sense of contemporary New York’s lucrative oil trades.

      • thanks, will, I liked your site. I can see the new tugs in your photographs too, and in the work boats for sale ads. I didn’t mean to imply the port was dying; I like to see older boats outfitted and repurposed. My Havana joke was misleading because there is new investment in the tugs and maritime industries. The City viewed from the water is a continuous, vital commercial endeavor on shore and off, populated by people with tough jobs and their own logics and lore. Exciting.

  7. When Bill Richardson was running for President, I remember he said that we need an “energy revolution.” We need to totally rethink the way we view energy resources and consumption in our society. In light of recent events surrounding fossil fuels in the Gulf of Mexico (and elsewhere around the world), his words ring true to me often. Energy is only one aspect of industrialization, but nonetheless a huge component of it. Science shows that pollution and global climate change are both intimately linked to energy consumption. It seems as if we need an industrial un-revolution, if we are to survive.
    The required readings from “City at the Water’s Edge” describe scenarios that are not unique to New York. The author successfully describes industrialization effects that many people do not think about (ever or) often. The images are very dramatic in New York because the changes due to industrialization have been dramatic….so many people have been a part of the changes and so many people are affected by the changes. MOMA hits the mark when they show great young creative minds collaborating to solve environmental challenges. A common theme in the MOMA “Rising Currents” projects seems to be un-buildings, which create connections between buildings and the natural environment. I especially enjoyed the “Zone 3” segment illustrating the structure built over water from top to bottom, where waste is stored on site….amazing! People certainly will create less waste and use fewer resources if their waste is not leaving their immediate environment and they know where it goes.
    In a short time, industrialization disconnected us from nature. I strayed into sections of McCully’s book which describe lost native cultures of New York. These stories sicken me as much as the stories about oil spills and collapsing mines. Not too long ago, human culture survived in harmony with nature, and they did it for thousands of years. I am not sure that we have created a world that will survive for thousands more. Defining what constitutes pollution is not as important to me as these stories. We should learn from history and take responsibility for what we have created (and destroyed) and respect a balanced universe that consists of many living things, most of which are un-human. In the context of architectural history Ruskin said, “Take care of your monuments and you will not have to restore them.” It is impossible to recreate what was past, but we can try to understand it, make it better, and preserve what we have left.

  8. Reading these chapters interspersed with hearing news coverage of the current oil spill and its long-term environmental devastation has been poignant–but depressing. The topic reminds me of a recent post by someone (sorry, but forgot who) who referred to the 60’s and how sad it is that today the meaning of those times has been reduced to a tie-dyed T-shirt. One of the important legacies of that time was the concern for our impact on the environment. Remember the TV commercial with the chief in the headress crying by the side of the highway as people threw trash out their car window? Those leading the charge of reducing our environmental impact were often minimized as “Berkenstock-wearing granola eating tree-huggers.” Now decades later our environmental consciousness and behaviors to minimize our personal impact are quite mainstream; to a greater or lesser degree, most people try to do something to recycle if nothing else. (It’s like the narrow misrepresentation of “women’s libbers” created by stereotypes in the media. On the first day of my women’s studies class, we talk about what feminists look like and pull out the visual ideas that exist in my young students’ heads about that important social revolution that they have all benefitted from. It’s always kind of sad to hear what little they know of that time–and how inaccurate what they think they know is. Then one of the last days of class when we see a video about the modern women’s movement, they often journal about the difference between their initial thoughts about feminists as compared to the understanding they have by the end of the semester.) We need to acknowledge the courage and contributions of those lone early voices who alert us to the need for change who get dismissed as radical and extreme–until our social norms come around and their ideas become more broad-based and widespread. I feel as if I’m really inarticulate and meandering this morning, but one last reaction to these readings is surprise at how far back the problems of environmental destruction and some public awareness of it really go. I could not believe some of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s references in these chapters.

    On another note, I finished watching On the Waterfront last night. It was great seeing Marlon Brando in that role, and my viewing of the movie was enriched by the previous reading I’d done about some of the issues.

  9. jennifer hauss

    Just to further complicate your students’ definitions and images of “feminism,” Meghan Daum wrote an op-ed piece in Thursday’s LA Times about Sarah Palin’s use of the “F-word.” Palin uses the metaphor of the mama grizzly bear to allow for an expansion of the term to include a conservative feminist identity.

  10. Addell Austin Anderson

    Chapter 6 “Muddied Waters” descriptions of early-New York wildlife and waterways recalled for me similar tales from explorers and religious leaders during the late-17th and early-18th centuries concerning the region around present-day Detroit. They wrote of the area as teeming with fruit, stags, wild goats, and bears, while claiming the Detroit River was filled with an abundance of fresh water fish – including sturgeon as long as a man’s reach.

    Like the Hudson River, the Detroit River suffered from toxic dumping. However, in recent years, millions of dollars have effectively been used to revive the river and make it habitable once again for fish that had almost been depleted from the waterway.

    Chapter 10 “Weathering” reminded me of the inanity and tremendous cost of fighting against the inevitable changes of our landscape.

  11. “Let your reach exceed your grasp, or what is a heaven for?” If we aspire for “clean or pristine,” we are more likely to see some improvement and restoration. This is evidenced in McCully’s “Muddied Waters” chapter, where the diligence of environmentalists has ushered in such things as the return of the Alewives in Long Island waterways. Every small success should be celebrated, but we need to strive for more.

  12. I keep thinking about the car’s role in all of this. My question is, Does any other country on earth pay as little for gas as we do? My impression is that Europe and Mexico pay for a quart about the same as we pay for a gallon. So long as gas is so cheap, is there any way of changing our love affair with the car and therefore having oil spills?

    I remember the gas shortage of 1973 that transformed this country from big American cars to foreign compacts. But periods of higher gas prices these days seem to be just blips that people complain about but keep on using SUVs and Hummers. You hardly see a Smartcar here whereas in Europe (I think, though I haven’t been there in 6 years) they’re everywhere.

    Sorry to get off on this digression.

  13. In Houston we live in an area that naturally is flat as a table top and is a semi-tropical swamp. The area is a natural flood plain and historically floods regularly until the flood waters evaporate. In order to put an urban population of several million here, they had to fundamentally alter the geography here, changing the rivers and bayous so that the area does not flood and the swamp is gone. In doing so, even if they can prevent pollution, the area is not pristine. It takes constant inputs of energy and work to keep it like it is now. New York went through a similar process to be turned from a rugged, swampy area into the flat grid we know today. So I think we’re asking the wrong question if we ask if an area should be made pristine or if whether it would be better if we had something natural vs. unnatural. The better question to ask is whether or not what we have is sustainable and worth the costs in terms of capital, energy, pollution and resource depletion to keep. If not, what should we do to make what we have sustainable.

  14. I agree with Deb Socci when she says that the ideas in McCully’s book are not unique to New York. The parts of her book that are unique are the personal touches she intercuts with the hard scientific evidence of pollution. ( ) The pollution problem is not new nor is it local. Despite Al Gore’s _An Inconvenient Truth_ and several television stations’ “green” campaigns during Earth Day, the impact humans have on their environment is huge and many people still refuse to acknowledge it.

  15. The MoMA Zone O clip places this issue, polluted vs. clean or pristine, in a broader perspective. Certainly cleaning up polluted waters should be top priority, especially when one visualizes 20+% of contemporary lower Manhattan as an estuary with the advent of global warming.

  16. I am happy to “meet” my former colleague again, (and happy to be up-and-running again after making my way the past week or so through mounds of papers and finals); Betsy and I worked together at Kingsborough Community College in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn from 2001-2004. After my first son was born in NYC in 2004, we moved west to Los Angeles– ah, as I made my way through her acknowledgements and her powerful book, I am reminded again of all the ways a life can turn out, mine! And of all the ways an estuary can turn wrong.
    I enjoyed her Whitman-esque catalogue of various species on page 77 and following; the listing here of the diversity of species found in the estuaries, fiddler crabs, white marsh periwinkles, menhaden, mullet, mummichog, killifish, stickleback and sheepshead is lively and colorful. A sad point of contrast with the present.
    And the writing — the “story of a place” — became most powerful to me when it turned to, what, meta-critical ruminations pointing out some ironies of her larger subject, when for example she notes that “A more sustainable way to connect to nature is, paradoxically, by coming home to the city” (x), or “One of our most cherished beliefs about nature is her balance and equilibrium, a kind of steady state that we humans disrupt. In fact change is the way of nature” (147).

  17. Yes, I believe it continues to be useful to think of environmental issues in terms of polluted vs. clean or pristine, but as we know, environmental issues are varied and extend well beyond these terms. McCully’s book tells the story beautifully. Climate change, wetland preservation, harvesting controls, habitat reconstruction and preservation, and tighter environmental controls associated with building practices all fall under “environmental issues” and deepen and complicate the language of polluted vs. clean. If we just focus on “polluted vs. clean,” the bigger picture is rendered less visible.

    Off shore dumping makes me question whether or not I should eat any seafood at all. Maybe farm-raised salmon is better for me than wild caught salmon after all. McCully has me questioning such things. Her final question is also thought provoking, “Should we be building at all on shifting sands?” History tells us doing so is inevitable, but along with such “building” in the modern age come consequences of alarming magnitude.

    I live in St. Louis, located at the confluence of the Missouri River and the Muddy Mississippi River. In the early 1960s my grandfather had a boat and family members spent lots of time swimming and water skiing in the Missouri River near where the two mighty rivers merge. I cannot remember, but do not believe anyone was talking about the “health” of the water we were in. McCully tells us that environmentalist efforts have, indeed, made some “clean-up” progress, but with unquestionably so much work to be done. Local clean-up progress or not, I would not swim in these rivers that swirl around my city. Certainly not the Atlantic Ocean and its local waterways, but St. Louis is a “city at the water’s edge.” It is in so many ways defined and dependent on the rivers around it.

  18. If we gave our children and students the gift of recognition, understanding and compassion for the natural world instead of pushing them towards the competitive realms of consumption and materialism, “clean or pristine” would follow. Betsy McCully has given a beautiful rendition of her own appreciation for and understanding of this good earth and its components. Unless people feel that access to a tromp in the natural world is valuable, where that old cigarette butt or greasy french fries bag ends up is meaningless. How to capture the imaginations/interests of the disaffected and the disenfranchised?

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