Construction and gentrification have been a rising cause for controversy across urban centers. Greenpoint, Brooklyn is the site of a new and polarizing luxury high-rise development project, Greenpoint Landing, scheduled to break ground next year.
In the last half century, coupled with the end of the last World War and the decline of industrialization, the neighborhood saw dramatic decline in wealth and growth. Today, on Mitch Waxman’s Greenpoint’s Industrial Past walking tour, many blocks spoke softly of a richer past buffered by commerce and trade. The peeling paint and well-worn bricks spoke volumes on the condition of Greenpoint today.
A girl in her mid-twenties sat waiting in her wheelchair for the tour to begin. She was poised, effortless in her chair, donning rugged yet fashionable black boots, although they would never get any use. A few strangers were crowded around her, interested in something else she wore though. They were anxious to hear about her Google glasses, a protrusion from the right side of her face, with nose pads and another anchoring arm on the left.
“It’s blue-tooth, so it’s really convenient when I’m travelling. I can answer my calls and make other demands,” said the girl naturally, as if she has had the device for years.
The tour began on a drizzly morning at Greenpoint’s Nassau Street subway stop. The group weaved in and out of local crowds passing a liquor store, bodega and a 99 Cent World on the cramped streets of Manhattan Avenue. Max paused at on the corner of Noble Street to admire a towering Neoclassical structure. The Greenpoint Savings Bank, built in 1868, boasts three-story Greek columns and a large dome that towers over its recently constructed neighbors. The grandiose appearance lent credibility and assurance to the building’s clients during an era without FDIC insured bank accounts and rampant bank runs. Today, Capital One has a small silver plaque affixed at street level, below the elaborate “Green Point Savings Bank” emblem etched into the stone high above the columns.
Other areas of Greenpoint were less beautiful. The neighborhood is stained by the remnants of its once prominent past, when it was the epicenter of the maritime industry, erecting more ships than all of Great Britain, processing coal, metal ores and thousands of other cargo through the gateway into America.
Today, as we approached a vast mural of graffiti scrawled artfully across an otherwise dingy warehouse wall, the paint of this past era shown through on a nearby building that was ravaged by a 2006 fire. The complex of buildings next to the water is shrouded in mystery over how the fire started. Some believe it was caused intentionally as a means to jumpstart its transformation into a profitable commercial-residential high-rise, while officials blame the fire on squatters. Its rusted walls reads “Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse”, and once stored troves of cotton, rope, copper and other traded goods. Today it sits empty, dilapidated and crumbling on the East River in front of the gleaming Manhattan skyline.
The girl in the wheelchair didn’t miss a beat as she steered down the quiet street of broken glass and weeds. “Okay, Glass. Take picture,” she commands. Her audio recognition headpiece takes a photo of Manhattan and Greenpoint, two neighborhoods in contrast, as she rolls along keeping pace with the walking tour.
Greenpoint is filled with many elements, old and new, classical versus modern. One such example was a beautiful outdoor statue of a woman sitting with her legs bent in front of her. She was made from a pale pink stone and etched gracefully, staring off into the distance, perhaps into Newtown Creek, a nearby waterway that is equally beautiful yet polluted in its own right. Perched atop several broken concrete slabs covered in bright graffiti, the statue looked iconoclast and lost, yet exactly where it should be.
In September 2010, the EPA listed Newtown Creek as a Superfund site, joining it with more than 1,200 locations across the country contaminated by hazardous material deemed worthy of federal funding to begin the arduous clean up. Newtown Creek, flanked by Brooklyn and Queens was the major waterway for one of the largest industrial hubs into the twentieth century.
Maritime manufacturing, oil refining, and coal production were just a few of the booming industries that eventually led to the massive levels of pesticides, PCBs, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other contaminants found in the Creek and its tributaries. At the water’s edge, oil tar stained the concrete steps into the water.
Additionally, there are twenty-three combined sewer outflows sited on Newtown Creek. Every time it rains more than a quarter of an inch, the municipal sewage system becomes inundated and releases a raw sewage rainwater mix into the Creek.
Greenpoint Landing, a 10-building luxury development planned to sit on twenty acres on the northwest tip of Greenpoint has left many residents confused, angry and full of contempt. The plot sits at the entrance of Newtown Creek and overlooks the Manhattan skyline. Some residents, Waxman states, are weary that while the population will swell due to the new development, “no new hospital beds will be installed, no new police officers will be hired, and no new schools will be built.”
Other controversies include plans to appease the developer by removing an unsightly sludge tank sited near the proposed Greenpoint Landing site. In doing so, the city will be required to commission three $380m sludge boats to compensate for the lost plant. To offset these public costs, the developers are required to incorporate low-income housing and green space into their project.
To be sure, change is eminent in Greenpoint. However, the elements of the neighborhood, the creek and the timeless structures built in a prosperous era have many possibilities for revitalization. Is the Greenpoint Landing project the answer to the deteriorating landscape of the neighborhood and a return to its prosperous years? Or is it the mark of poor city planning?
Waxman, a native New Yorker and Newtown Creek Alliance member, concludes the tour. “It’s not up to me, but you. What do you want this space to become once the EPA finishes its clean up? Do you want a reinvented industrial center, or another Central Park, or something else…”
By Yon Lam