Newtown Creek: Don’t judge a nature walk by its smell

August 22, 2018 By Alex Wieckowski Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Visitors will finally see nature when they make their way into Whale Creek Path. Photos by Alex Wieckowski
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Tucked away in the corner of Provost Street and Paidge Avenue in Greenpoint, between two places people try to avoid — a sewage treatment plant and a Time Warner Cable office — is the Newtown Creek Nature Walk.

One would assume a nature walk would be similar to a stroll in a park. But at Newtown Creek, there is no grassy lawn, hiking trail and very little wildlife. Instead of smelling fresh air and grass, visitors are greeted with a stench from the nearby waste treatment plant. On a windy day, the smell is so strong it becomes difficult to breathe.

The NYC Department of Environmental Protection, which built and operates the space, warns visitors to avoid contact with the water since it may be contaminated with chemicals and to not eat any fish, crabs or shellfish caught in the creek.

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DEP also states that pets are not allowed and guests are not permitted to bike, skateboard or rollerblade in the space.

With all that said, the nature walk is still worth visiting — at least once, that is.

Opened in 2007, the space was designed by George Trakas, a well-known environmental artist whose work has been shown in New York, Miami and Florence, Italy. DEP writes that nature walk was designed to be an “open space as a vibrant intersection, where multiple histories, cultural identities and geologic epochs coexist.”

The walk’s main feature is the 405-ton staircase with geologic eras, life forms and Newtown Creek marine life etched into the granite steps.

The space pays tribute to the Lenape people, who lived in Greenpoint before the Europeans and to the thriving cooperage, ship-making and lumber industries of 18th-and 19th-century Greenpoint.

The entry gates to the nature walk are made of 9-foot-tall stainless steel pipes assembled in a wave shape meant to mimic the movement of water. Past the gate and up the stairs a 170-foot vessel with bowed walls that mimics the way old boats were built along the shore of the East River in Greenpoint during the 19th century.

According to DEP, “The original boats were nearly twice the size of the Nature Walk vessel” and were delivered to Whale Creek from Nova Scotia.

Continuing down the nature walk, visitors will find seven granite circles. Etched into each granite stone are the native place names used by the early Lenape people, who were indigenous to the area. Greenpoint, for instance, was originally called “Keshaechquereren” or “grassy expanse.”

The main feature of the nature walk is a set of nine 12-inch-thick granite slab steps that form a massive 405-ton staircase. The steps ascend directly out of Newtown Creek and symbolize the common origin of life from sea to land. Each granite step is engraved with the scientific names of various life forms native to Newtown Creek.

Next to the staircase is a sitting area with a 1,400-pound granite table in the shape of an enormous shipping bollard. Atop the table, is an etching of Newtown Creek’s original watershed — before the first Europeans came to inhabit the land.

Continuing down the path, visitors will finally begin to see nature in the nature walk. Named Whale Creek Path, this area of the space is richly planted with native trees and scrubs.

Throughout the path, there are free-standing plaques that identify the indigenous plants and describe their industrial and medicinal uses. Along the path, there are also granite picnic tables, solid wood benches and giant boulders. The nature walk ends with a view of the treatment plant and visitors must turn back to exit the space.

Surrounded by a scrap yard, sanitation building and sewage treatment plant, to call the journey a “nature walk” may seem ironic, but the space is worth visiting — perhaps not for the nature, but for Greenpoint’s art and history.

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