Someone left this on Rediscovering Brooklyn, so I’m passing it on:
Great blog! Congratulations! This post about the shipping industry back in the 50′s is very interesting and, of course, raises many questions. I can only recommend a novel by Valerio Evangelisti, Noi Saremo Tutto (2008) or in French, Nous ne sommes rien soyons tout. The book tells the story of Eddie Lombardo and his family, the dock culture between 1920 and 1960.
Someone also left a comment about how I’m a horrible videographer, but I’m keeping that gem for myself.
Tour up Newtown Creek yesterday with Jack Eichenbaum. Amazing East River views of Domino Sugar Factory and Williamsburg waterfront. Having the perspective from the water was meaningful and started completely new conversations. Wouldn’t want to swim in Newtown Creek but the view was nice.
I’ve posted two links for those who would like to learn more about some of the connections between the film On the Waterfront and labor/corruption issues in Brooklyn.
The first link is to a New York Times article from 1990 describing the final days of Brooklyn ILA local 1814:
The second link is an excerpt from a new book on the New York waterfront called Dark Harbor. The excerpt describes the infamous case of Peter Panto whose life and legend is said to have inspired both Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan to pursue film projects set on the New York waterfront.
Walt Whitman was certainly a poet of the people! Beal’s lifeless city view (discussed by Haw) was an urban self-image, but lifeless, without evidence of or desire to include workers, materials, or ugliness. On the other hand, Whitman’s view of the river and its surroundings include the bustling of the people. The place, the view, and the river, all belong to the people, people now, and “so many hundred years hence.” I enjoyed, too, the way Whitman sees beauty and significance in just about everything, for he even finds the ordinary or ugly worthy of inclusion. For example, in #3 he refers to the floating and glistening seagulls, then moves on to the schooners and steamers, including the flags they carry. Surprisingly, even the “fires from the foundry chimneys” are treated as worthy of attention, “casting their flicker of black contrasted with wild red and yellow light over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.” Whitman owns it! And he seems to proclaim that it is all good, it is all parts of the whole, and available to all, past, present, and future.
Susan McClung, Tampa
An essay by Alex Prud’homme on the subject of oil spills appeared in Sunday’s New York Times (An Oil Spill Grows in Brooklyn, published May 14, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/opinion/16Prudhomme.html). In the essay, Prud’homme says that the Deepwater Horizon petroleum spill now in progress in the Gulf of Mexico falls short in terms of volume of organic compounds released, at least to date, of the Newtown Creek spill. Prud’homme reminds us why the spill gives the Newtown Creek awkward status as a landmark: “an estimated 17 million to 30 million gallons of oil, benzene, naptha and other carcinogenic chemicals pollute Newtown Creek and a 55-acre, 25-foot-deep swath of soil in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.” The Deepwater Horizon has released so far roughly four million gallons.
During the period that the Newtown Creek was a key industrial production site, manufacturers of chemicals and refiners of petroleum were a great deal more casual about their waste streams than present day practice allows. Still, one could cite the present situation in the Gulf of Mexico to argue that the petroleum extraction industries are not in a position to boast about progress.
Our interest in Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront is largely an interest in history. Most of the industries that we study are no longer here. Newtown Creek is extraordinary for a number of reasons. The site is large enough to cruise for the best part of an hour, but as a major waterfront industrial site, it is small. The Creek is about three miles long; in contrast, the Houston Ship Canal runs 50 miles, from a site on the eastern side of Houston south and east to the Gulf of Mexico. As a chemist and thinker about chemical technologies, I find it striking that the Newtown Creek, despite its present-day ghost town feel, is the place that that very important methods and technologies relating to the production of chemicals, materials, and fuels were developed and put to vigorous practice. Technologically significant developments happened there, in the midst of the country’s most important center of trade and finance, technologies that created great wealth and supported the growth of several of the country’s largest corporations. To use a chemistry term, the Newtown Creek was a catalyst for the growth of the American chemicals industry, a site at which reactions can happen more rapidly than they otherwise would. It is also chemistry-speak to describe a catalyst as being “poisoned,” as for example when an impurity or reaction product coats its surface and renders the catalyst incapable of supporting more chemistry.
One other thing about the history of Newtown Creek: like that of the Deepwater Horizon, it is not yet over. As litigation and cleanup of the site’s industrial and petroleum pollution slowly continue, the Newtown Creek may begin to be identified as the site for development of landmark decisions and technologies in the area of environmental remediation.
We have been so far been considering the past. The Brooklyn waterfront, which was so radically altered by changes in shipping technology, is facing, like all coastal cities, the effects of global warming. Certainly, all of the architects in the Rising Tides exhibit at MOMA are in tune with Betsy McCully’s suggestion that soft solutions to storm surge and flooding will be more effective than hard ones. Two of the architectural teams designing for the exhibit developed ideas for sites on the Brooklyn waterfront: New Aqueous City and Oyster-Tecture. Can you imagine a future where either one of these visions might become a reality? Oyster-Tecture points back to the past of the Gowanus. While this project couldn’t ever be a restoration, could it be considered a monument to a long-gone ecology?