Prior to this week’s excursion I again solicited location suggestions from friends and coworkers, with the condition that I wanted to go somewhere in Brooklyn or Queens (boroughs often neglected on this blog due to non-proximity) and near water. Easy enough! People wrote with various suggestions, internet research conducted, and a location was chosen: Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and the surrounding area.
I was told the plant had a visitor center, but research revealed that it’s closed on Saturdays, the chosen day for the excursion. I went anyway, hoping to check out the adjacent Nature Walk that would take me near the creek itself. I set the nature walk’s starting point as my GPS’s destination and set out that windy afternoon.
After some traffic on the way down I made it to Greenpoint. The neighborhood was somewhat familiar to me, a good friend lives there. East of McGuinness, where the plant is located, is a much more industrial area, however. I easily found a parking spot here next to some warehouses and started off on foot headed towards the Nature Walk. I reached it in about a block though the sidewalk leading to it was still snow-covered so it was a bit slow going. That didn’t seem promising and, indeed, the gates to the trail were locked. The sign said it’s open “weather permitting” and a brisk but clear day should “permit” one to do a nature walk! A teenage couple was also disappointed by the locked gate.
I debated climbing the fence for a second, but there was too much civilization and possibly cameras around so I turned back instead. I had a vague plan to walk the perimeter of the plant and see what I could see. There were interesting sights as I walked down Provost Street next to the plant. I even walked a bit up a sidestreet to investigate some of them. These kind of industrial districts are beautiful to me in a way – so imperfect, grimy, utilitarian.
Various views of the plant were also presented to me on this walk. It’s comprised of many modernist buildings, pipes, and unidentifiable structures spread over a large area.
As I got further the sights along the street got stranger: dilapidated warehouses, a memorial around a tree including a faded hockey jersey, and a run-down diner. Occasionally, a truck would back into or pull out of one of the warehouses or lots, but not often since it was a weekend.
The part of the treatment plant closer to Greenpoint Avenue was still under construction, though it wasn’t clear what exactly was being done. There were lots of orange cones and barrels, port-o-potties, and some mounds of dirt. Is the facility so new that they’re still building part of it? Or is it being overhauled again so soon?
Just around the corner on Greenpoint Avenue was the plant’s (closed) visitor center. The architecture was quite interesting: A low, glass front; indoor waterfalls cascading over layers resembling topological maps; the same layers echoed outside; an almost yin-yang shaped vestibule; a looming orange-tiled wall; a protruding windowsill invoking the window design of the Whitney Museum. I spent much time here exploring the contours of the exterior, fitting myself into the spaces the architect had created.
It was only when I was about to move on that I noticed a plant security guard staring at me disapprovingly trough the glass. Oh well! I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I suppose it’s not every day they see people taking photos and video of a closed visitor center.
I paused one more minute, standing next to a high fence on top of the curb enclosing the topological layers, enjoying the whirring and buzzing sounds of the plant.
Walking east on Greenpoint Avenue I passed a garbage facility of some kind and snapped a picture of a banner promoting the industrial district. The latter had a clean and modern design and could have passed for an industrial band’s album cover or show flyer.
As I approached the Greenpoint Avenue (John Jay Byrne) Bridge, I saw the plant’s digester eggs through the fence. This is the part of the plant most people recognize. They were designed by Polshek Partners (now Ennead Architects), and are apparently dramatically lit at night and visible from the highway.
Here, the plant made other whirring noises (hard to hear over the powerful wind). I didn’t linger too long as I figured I might get a better view of the eggs elsewhere.
I was excited to cross the Greenpoint Avenue/John Jay Byrne Bridge. The ascent to the center of the bridge was rather steep, but there were interesting things to see and hear all along the way. Approaching the center I turned around to face where I came from. Manhattan’s skyline appeared over the horizon. I stood in the middle and looked first northwest, sort of back towards the treatment plant. Due north I could see the elevated Long Island Expressway (I-495) and beyond, the Queensboro Bridge and the distinctive smokestacks of the power plant across from Roosevelt Island.
Beginning my descent from the bridge’s span I saw the control station for the drawbridge and noticed the racecar-like rumble of cars driving over the ridged, concrete bridge span.
Underneath the bridge, perpendicular and on the north side of the creek, are train tracks. I’m not sure what trains they carry. They run through this industrial district so they seem like freight train tracks?
It was looking too dangerous to cross Greenpoint Avenue in the middle of the bridge, so I got all the way to the north side, crossed the street, and walked halfway back on the other side to get the view from the opposite sidewalk. I especially wanted to see the Kosciuszko Bridge to the east, which takes cars over Newtown Creek on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
When I came off the John Jay Byrne Bridge for this second time, I wasn’t yet satisfied with my far-away view and photos of the Kosciuszko Bridge. Although my eventual plan was to loop back to the west towards the car, I decided to follow Review Avenue (which runs perpendicular to the bridge and parallel to the train tracks) for a little bit in the opposite direction.
I was glad I did. Just a handful of cars sped down the street while I was walking. It’s clearly a road people take to get somewhere rather than a destination in and of itself. Warehouses and factories of varying eras lined the right side of the street, their backs facing the train tracks.
The payoff came when I neared the bend where Review Avenue turns into Laurel Hill Boulevard. The train tracks come near to the road here, and there’s a decent view of the Kosciuszko Bridge and some of the old warehouses.
I was very interested in seeing the Kosciuszko Bridge in particular. I’ve driven on it a handful of times and know it’s a nightmare. I read later they are planning to replace it! I can’t wait to see the new design, whichever one is chosen.
All the time that I had been walking down Review Avenue there was a cemetery to my left across the street. A stone retaining wall taller than me holds back the graves and runs the length of the long block. I found it a little creepy that dead people are right there on the other side of the wall, but I suppose it’s no stranger than mausoleums or walking around on top of graves! The cemetery gates were old and beautiful. Given more time I would have explored this place too.
I headed back, this time on the cemetery side of the road. Walking was much more difficult here – tall piles of dirty snow remained, and in some places trash had been just dumped on the side of the road.
I continued my walk, back past the John Jay Byrne Bridge and further northwest on Review Avenue. This part of the walk was tough. The wind was intense and blew my hood off my head. Warehouses became (for the most part) more modern, sterile, and uninteresting. I couldn’t wait to reach my next turn, Borden Avenue.
When I emerged at this diagonal intersection, the Long Island Expressway (LIE, I-495) was suspended high in front of me. It was amazing to see the scale of it. However, I have not often if ever had occasion to drive this stretch of road so I had no revelations about where I stood then on foot versus driving up there so high. Maybe I should drive it one day to see.
After turning onto Borden Avenue I encountered a frightening sign that explained that when it rains that raw sewage may be discharged here. I was vaguely aware of such things thanks to coworker’s blog entry, but it’s frightening to read it in person on a sign stamped by the DEP.
In just a short block I came to the Borden Avenue Bridge, a small two-lane bridge over a tributary of Newtown Creek called Dutch Kills. A sign explained the bridge was built in 1908. It was currently (yes, workers on a Saturday!) under construction, but I was able to cross on the north side. I was a little surprised that Dutch Kills was frozen, though I suppose it’s not so deep.
I continued on Borden Avenue towards the Pulaski Bridge. Soon I came to a railroad bridge above the road. This carried the same tracks I was walking parallel to earlier on Review Avenue.
The LIE paralleled me on the right this whole time. Soon the establishments on the street got hipper: graphic design studios, production houses, and Fresh Direct headquarters. All of New York city’s grocery deliveries come from here?
As I neared the Pulaski Bridge the area became more confusing. I turned on 21st Street because it looked interesting and I thought I spied a pedestrian bridge at the end of the block. I was right, this bridge crosses over the Long Island Railroad tracks and under the LIE. I snapped a quick picture and scurried across the pedestrian bridge (as much as I might have liked to stay and wait to see a train go by), mostly because of a ranting homeless man crossing in the opposite direction. I took a quick glance at the LIRR station just past the pedestrian bridge. I could tell at the time that it looked like LIRR, but I later found out it’s the Hunterspoint Avenue station.
A side note here too, it’s funny how close I was to places I know in Queens at this point in my journey: MoMA at PS1, Gantry State Park, and even not that far from Queensboro Plaza. Had I walked a slightly different path I might have run into these things.
As it was, I wasn’t quite sure of my location other than I was headed vaguely towards the Pulaski Bridge. Instead of consulting my smart phone I followed car signs for the bridge. I passed some entrance ramps for the Midtown Tunnel, then wound around and found myself at the Queens end of the Pulaski Bridge, a place I recognized.
I began the ascent up the ramp to the Pulaski Bridge. The pedestrian walkway is only on the west side of the bridge, which is wonderful for skyline views but bad for seeing the wastewater treatment plant.
Before crossing the water, the bridge goes over the Midtown Tunnel entrance and tollbooths, then over the LIRR tracks overlooking the Long Island City stop.
As I got over the water, things got more beautiful and more windy. Bikers and walkers passed me. I felt like I almost blew away a couple of times. The views of the creek emptying into the East River and the skyline were absolutely worth it.
There were a couple of guys making a comedic music video in a little scenic overlook that jutted out from the bridge. I almost took a picture of them, but decided against it. Just past them, a barge carrying dirt emerged from under the bridge. I stopped and captured the moment.
Descending the ramp from the Pulaski Bridge I could see the tops of the wastewater treatment plant’s digester eggs over to my left. My journey had come full circle! I will certainly have to return sometime to visit the plant’s nature walk and visitor center.
Looking back on this excursion now that I write, I realize I covered so much ground and didn’t really stay and experience any one space, I always kept moving. It was more about taking in as many things as I could than letting a single place invoke feelings. I like both approaches. I think the tone of this one was influenced by the fact that I’m so unfamiliar with the location so everything was something to explore, and also the sheer quantity of infrastructure in the area.