How much of the history of your neighborhood do you know?
What about the environmental history of it?
In Newtown Creek and the surrounding areas of Brooklyn and Queens, that environmental history is often not well-known, even to those who have lived there for years. But in order to move forward with a sustainable future, we have to look at the past, the lessons that we’ve learned, so that we can avoid making the same mistakes again.
Lisa Bloodgood is the Director of Advocacy and Education at Newtown Creek Alliance and a wealth of knowledge about the environmental history of the area. Lisa and the team at Newtown Creek Alliance are working to restore NYC water quality, community health, habitat, access, and vibrant commerce along the creek. In partnership with them, we’re helping to put a number to the benefits of green roofs, while educating the community about their benefits as well. You can learn more about how we’re doing that here.
I recently spoke with Lisa about the journey that lead her to her work today, the environmental legacy of Newtown Creek, and the role that community plays in green infrastructure as part of our ongoing Stories of Community Engagement Interview Series.
Jessica Califano: The first question that I ask everyone that I do the interview series with is what communities are you a part of and how did you get involved?
Lisa Bloodgood: That is a great question, and a hard one for me to answer, only because I feel like nothing is ever linear. I guess my connections and community is really my local community. I live in Williamsburg. Before I lived here I was in Bushwick for 10 years. And so that North Brooklyn community is my home. It’s where I have my family, walk my dog and all that stuff and I’ve chosen to also make it where I work. That was a conscious and intentional decision, because I do love and care so much for my community.
I know that there are so many environmental injustices in my communities that have been here and developing and metastasizing in so many different ways over 200 plus years. When I first came into this work I was not schooled in how bad some of the environmental problems were in my community. And as I learned more, I wanted to go deeper into it and I wanted to be part of that solution and be one of the agents change for the better, for my community.
My community is not an island. It’s so interconnected to everything else: the rest of the city, the nation, the global community. Especially New York City. I think we’re intimately connected in ways that we don’t really realize. So, part of the joy that I found in my work over the last couple years is, you know, what are those touch points where my community is connected to what’s happening in the city, or what’s happening in another borough?
I love to use our shared waters and estuary, as an example to show that the waters that we’re surrounded by have no boundaries. So is the work that I do, and that Newtown Creek Alliance does. We don’t just stop at the creek. And so, the city is maybe my larger community, in that respect.
Also all the water communities are deeply intertwined with work that I do. I’m in really great volunteer roles. I’m the chair of the Harbor Estuary Program Citizens Advisory Committee, and that allows me to be in deeper connection and communication with folks in New Jersey and folks in the Bronx, and across the city, so I really love that role. I feel very, very privileged that I get to do that. There’s all these other groups and organizations that I’m affiliated with and work with also. I have been on the board of an organization called North Brooklyn Neighbors, which was originally two groups: Neighbors Against Garbage and Neighbors Allied for Good Growth. They merged and became this larger organization, and is really focused in North Brooklyn on social and environmental issues. So I’m very invested in my community.
JC: One thing that is really cool about the work that you do is that you’re invested in and care about all these environmental issues in the place where you live and work. So going way, way back, what sparked your love of the environment? How did you become interested in that, even going back to your childhood?
LB: Well, it’s lot of different things, but I think my mother was a main driver. She’s a deeply spiritual woman. She would bring us camping and it wasn’t just like we’re going camping and tramping into the woods. She was always very thoughtful in how she would explain things. And I think that really had a profound impact on me.
But then also, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a place where we lived on a really small street. I grew up in Rockland County, so just outside of the city in West Nyack, and we lived on a street that was surrounded by woods. It was connected to other streets so that the kids over there and the kids on my block, we could go back and forth through the woods. And that was my childhood and I’m really fortunate to have been able to grow up like that.
Then I moved to California when I was a teenager. So, I had that experience of the West Coast and what’s happening over there. We moved to a really small, really small town. It’s bigger now, but it was small then, and that was, at first, a real culture shock and really kind of freaked me out. But those years that I spent in California also really cemented for me, just the power and beauty of the earth and how we’re very connected to it. I think in New York City, it’s sometimes harder to see that connection. My mother and my experiences in different states and places really impacted me.
I didn’t go to college straight out of high school. I tried, but it wasn’t really sticking. And I did some pretty crazy things that were connected to the environment like, I dropped out of college and went to Alaska to work in a salmon processing plant. The college experience didn’t resonate with me. It didn’t feel real. So I wanted to try and experience something that was very real. Alaska, and salmon felt real to me. So that’s what I did, and then some time went by, and I did lots of backpacking and I did a lot of Pacific Crest Trail. I guess I’ve maybe always just been really interested in the environment and being in it. And then I woke up in my 30s and was like, I really need to be practicing more of this, really trying to influence my world and play a role in protecting the environment and making it better. And making sure that other people could have some of the experiences that I had, because they were so profound.
JC: That’s great. So what led you back to New York and in Brooklyn? How did your story develop from there?
LB: So I came back to New York, because I was living in Southern California, in Los Angeles, and I had fun at first. I was practicing as an artist—I was a painter and did graphic design and worked with lots of musicians and things like that, and I just kind of got fed up with it. I was also really tired of the weather. I was like, it’s too beautiful all the time!
So, yeah, I missed New York and I missed my roots. My family has been in New York for a very long time and I’m one of the only ones left now, but I missed it. I came back here thinking I would get more serious with my art career, and I did for a little while, and kind of that same frustration that I felt, doing it in Los Angeles, I felt it here in New York. I think the art world was just not for me.
So I went back to school and got involved in community gardening and I helped build a school garden in Bushwick, in 2009. I think going back to school and getting involved in the community was really the key for me. I worked at an art gallery, and at a coffee shop. My future boss was a customer at the coffee shop and running for local election, and won it. And then we talked and he heard that I had built gardens and was interested in environmental science, which is what I went back to school for. And so he was like well why don’t you come and intern at my office? I never even in a million years contemplated politics being part of what I do.
And so I think that that challenge and that feeling of something very new was really exciting and compelling to me, so I volunteered with him, and then just never left. And, like, a year later, he was like ‘you’re still here’. I’m like yeah, I love it. And then he offered me a job. And so I spent five and a half years working for him, and learned a lot, and he gave me the title of environmental advisor. Every single thing that had he was even remotely related to environmental issues, he gave to me, to deal with. And I didn’t know what I was doing at first, but I learned very quickly. Suddenly sitting in meetings with your city’s state and federal agencies and other elected officials, it was really, really eye-opening and kind of mind-bending.
I loved it and I got to know so many of the problems. I got to really understand the depth and the breadth of the environmental injustices that were really impacting, still, every single day, the people that live in the communities in North Brooklyn. It was the profound awareness of what needs to be done, what’s not being done, what’s overlooked, how organizing happens, how change happens, and what policy can do for an environmental movement. It just really cemented everything for me.
It was a really important couple of years, and I finished my degree in earth and environmental science. I did it at Brooklyn College with CUNY, and that was a great experience. I can’t recommend CUNY enough. I think city and state schools are phenomenal. Round of applause for them.
And so then, I left the council members office, and was going to join the board of Newtown Creek Alliance, but it worked out that they had some extra money through the Exxon Mobil settlement in Greenpoint from the oil spill up here. They had some grant funding and so I came on as a contractor at first, and started working for them. I was able to help bring more money into the organization so that my position went full time and now I’ve been here for four years. We just hired new staff and it’s wonderful.
JC: Wow, that’s awesome. What a journey!
LB: It was very roundabout, you know, not a direct line.
JC: I think that’s how most things happen. Most people’s lives aren’t really set up like here’s my degree, here’s my job. It’s usually in that roundabout way that things happen.
I think we should dive into a bit about Newtown Creek. Maybe we could start by outlining the history of what’s happened there and the environmental issues in the area.
LB: I like to begin everything with geology, because that sets the stage for the physical formation of where we are. Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island in general are glacial deposits. Manhattan you feel the bedrock. These beautiful boroughs and wonderful island are the outwash of one Glacial Maximum after another. That’s part of how Newtown Creek formed, was those glacial deposits. Basically they left this area that was shallow, and over time, was lumped with tidal marshes and forests and was the most beautiful thing you could probably imagine.
Brooklyn and Queens pre-colonization was probably a gorgeous place. It was inhabited by the Leni Lenape people. They lived here successfully and peacefully for a very, very long time. Colonization happened in the early 1600s—that’s when the first settlers decided that North Brooklyn and Western Queens were desirable places to begin starting farms and setting up their own little villages. Over the course of maybe 100 years or so, the struggle for dominance played out and the Lenape were finally pushed out.
The area started to develop for industry in the early to mid 1800s. So in the 19th century industry really started to to flourish here, and it was because of the creek. Well, it’s because of two things: Williamsburg as a landing point for for Manhattan, to get over here (there was a little village that started in Williamsburg), and along Newtown Creek industrialization happened because it was really calm water that was really centrally located. This is before New York City was actually formed and Queens and Brooklyn were their own cities. That waterway was still and calm, and you could you could sail from the Atlantic from either direction and find this little respite for your ship. The whaling industry was booming and so whalers would bring these big animals into the calm waters of Newtown Creek and do their work. We have one of the small tributaries, it’s actually right behind the wastewater treatment plant, where a new nature walk just opened called Whale Creek, and it gets its name from the whaling industry that was there.
And then it really took off into refineries, chemical plants, rendering plants, sugar refining—all of these all of these industries that kind of dominate our world today, started out on Newtown Creek. Standard Oil was there. When oil refining began, the very first refineries were on Newtown Creek. Kerosene, was discovered or invented, however you want to look at it, on Newtown Creek and is still used throughout the world. Fossil fuels—we’re still figuring out and grappling with the repercussions of all of that. The first oil wells were drilled and dug in Pennsylvania, and that was brought to Newtown Creek. It’s really an important and pivotal waterway. I often say that, arguably, it’s played a major role in the industrialization of the world. There’s statistics that say and accounts that documented that there was more traffic in Newtown Creek annually than in the Mississippi. So it’s really important as an active waterway.
That all started to change when the shipping industry changed. Ships got bigger and they needed bigger ports. Newtown Creek stopped being a viable option in the middle of the 20th century, after World War Two. Things started shifting and now our big ports are in Elizabeth and in New Jersey. Newtown Creek has just a few businesses that are actually actively using the waterway. Highways, and the changes of ships really transformed, not only Newtown Creek, but all of New York City, from a manufacturing, industrial city into something that was very different than that. It was a big decline, that really, I think precipitated and led to the bankruptcy of the city in the 80s and the 90s. The turnaround has been that we’re living in what came next, now, with luxury development. It’s pretty wild to look at some of the old maps of where luxury developments are being built. They’re right on top of or next to, some of the foulest industrial activity the world has seen, and it’s still in the ground. Pretty crazy.
JC: Yeah, that is crazy. Can you tell me a little bit about Superfund designation and how that came about?
LB: As with everything else, it came about because of community activism. We got the designation in 2010 and are still in phase one, which is the remedial investigation phase. But we got our designation after years of advocacy and multiple lawsuits, real recognition on some other levels about some of the onland solution too, and how that interacted with the water. That Greenpoint oil spill, I think, played a really big role.
The Superfund is from bank to bank, and it’s all about the sediment, and the contamination that is still in the sediment. It’s interesting because Newtown Creek is a tidal waterway so it’s really influenced heavily by the Atlantic Ocean and the tidal action there, but also the East River, which is the tidal strait connecting to the Atlantic through the Long Island Sound and through the New York Harbor.
The first two miles of Newtown Creek, which the whole thing is 3.8 miles, have a lot of tidal influence from the East River. So, the water’s moving pretty quickly. Stuff that settling at the bottom, does get moved out. And so that first half is is significantly less contaminated than the second half. A good marker is the Kosciuszko Bridge. So from the Kosciuszko Bridge back, that’s where the vast majority of the contamination is, with a little asterisk and caveat saying also Dutch Kills, because that’s still a tributary that’s within that first two miles that goes up into Long Island City, and that is also significantly contaminated, just as bad as what’s in the back half. And then there’s other further tributaries. Part of the reason of that contamination is where industries were located, but also that the hydrology and how the water energy kind of drops out once you go past the Kosciuszko Bridge because the water opens up, and it’s very deep in the turning basin. When you’re out on the water it doesn’t feel like a creek. It’s not a small waterway. It feels almost like you’re on a lake, but you don’t really feel that unless you’re actually on the water.
All the contamination, all of the combined sewer overflow input that has been entering the waterways since the 1860s, a lot of that stuff just sits there. It doesn’t move. It’s stagnant water. And those back tributaries are also supposed to be navigable by large boats as well, so it’s pretty deep in some of the back channels and tributaries. Some of them are shallower now because of the CSOs and that just does build up, which is oh so gross to think about. But once you hit the turning basin, you are in very polluted waters, especially after rain, and the sediments are just awful.
JC: So you mentioned that the community was a big reason that Newtown Creek was was designated as a Superfund site, and Newtown Creek Alliance is a community-based organization. Why is community so important, and how does that play into the the work that you do?
LB: Well because we are the community, and we try to distill the voice of the community and what we hear from people. And that’s everybody from the industrial workers that work on and around Newtown Creek, kids that are going to school and have to cross busy streets that are federal truck routes, it’s families, it’s people that want to not only be able to access their water but also engage in their water. So even though it’s an industrial waterway and we very much think that it needs to remain an industrial waterway for a lot of different reasons, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be a clean waterway, and one that the community can access and have a relationship with, and love.
We try and take all those desires and and present them in such a way that it’s clear what’s possible. That’s why we created a vision plan where we’ve worked with the community over a year, and determined what are all the existing groups, who are all stakeholders. Are we making sure we’re really capturing the voices of everybody that has an opinion or wants to see a better future for the waterway? What are those ideas? And we compiled them into this report or plan that stuffs the courts and says there is a better way. There is a brighter future. And these are ways we can get there.
I think it’s really important to also acknowledge that a lot of people don’t know that Newtown Creek exists, or if they do, don’t know about the legacies that come along with it. People are afraid of it. People have written it off. Anytime that there’s an issue in the neighborhood, somebody’s going to throw something into Newtown Creek. I don’t know why necessarily. The creek has been written off for a very long time. It’s important to continue to show people that it’s alive. It’s full of life. And we can have a relationship with it that is different than the relationship that we’ve had with it over the last 300 years. We don’t have to have an abusive relationship.
JC: Moving on to green infrastructure, which is the focus of the project we’re working on together, could we talk a little bit about why green infrastructure is so important? What are the benefits compared to traditional gray infrastructure?
LB: Okay, let’s back up a little bit. When New York first became New York, there was no concept that it would become the city that it is today, or the density of the city. That it would become the built environment icon that it is. I feel like most people around the world would recognize our skyline. That’s how important buildings are to the DNA of New Yorkers. But just as the original builders and settlers in the city didn’t really fully understand how big the city was going to get, I feel like even today people don’t understand how the buildings and the density has a real impact on a typical environment.
So the sewer systems that were built early on were basic engineering wizardry back in the day, to put it in kind of a silly way. It was great when we were building our first sewer systems and that they were combined systems, didn’t really matter. That your drain in your house went to the same pipe that meets in the street didn’t matter because there weren’t that many people. It was wonderful that there were pipes, taking their waste away so that we were not getting sick. But those pipes went straight into the nearest water body. And there was no real thought that that would ever become the problem that it ultimately would became because the idea was that the ocean can handle just about anything you put in. It was limitless, or so it felt, and there weren’t enough people to actually make that big of a difference.
And so as the city grew and developed and more and more people came, more and more waste was entering our waterways. Then came the realization that we have to start fixing this and that’s when gray infrastructure came about. We started building wastewater treatment plants, and built our first ones in the 60s. Which is absolutely insane, that we were just putting all of our sewage, for a very long time, straight into all of our waterways. That’s why have we lost all our oysters. That’s why all the whales left. That’s why nobody would get in the water because it was a disgusting cesspool. And that’s how we dealt with everything for a very long time, our trash went in the water, human waste went in the water, everything went in the water. We passed the Clean Water Act, forty years ago, and we’re finally realizing that we are way behind. The ocean can’t take all this stuff.
We’re also finally realizing that all this development is paving over all of the soil that would otherwise take all the stormwater, all the rain, all the snow, all the runoff. It usually just percolates down into the ground. But now we’ve built all these buildings, paved over as much as we can possibly pave over, and the water has nowhere to go. Now, when you’re flushing your toilet and it’s raining, there’s nowhere for all that water to permeate down into the soil. It all goes into our pipes, and our systems just can’t handle it. So instead of overwhelming our enormously expensive gray infrastructure or wastewater treatment plants, they close the gates and say, sorry, it’s all got to go to the nearest waterway again. Sometimes that’s as little as a tenth of an inch of rain that closes those systems down. Everything that’s coming down into the street and in from everybody’s pipes goes to the nearest water body.
People forget that they live in a waterfront community. It doesn’t seem like it’s a problem. Say I have a small backyard, in Bed Stuy maybe. Why is this my problem? People don’t realize that the sewer pipe that connects to that mythical house in Bed Stuy goes straight into Newtown Creek. People in Bed Stuy are connected to Newtown Creek and they may not know it but it’s true.
Green infrastructure in NYC is trying to combat that and reverse that a little bit, and say, okay, how can we capture the stormwater as it’s running down the street there? We’re building bioswales or rain gardens where you have a little bit of the curb of the sidewalk cut out, and the water is rushing down the street can go into that. It’s like an engineered tree bed that has a tree or a plant. Then you have a whole big pile of gravel, which leaves lots and lots of lots of spaces. It can fill up with all that water and you can hold a significant amount of water in one rain garden.
So green roofs are the same, where we have all these roof spaces that could hold plants, solar panels, all kinds of different things. We’ve finally gotten to the point where we’re saying we need to capture the stormwater so that we’re protecting our waterways and that we don’t allow so much of the volume to foul our waterways anymore. If we had green roofs across the city we would be capturing significant amount of water and stormwater runoff.
That’s why green infrastructure is phenomenal. The city’s goals are modest when you really think about it. We’re trying to capture 10% of a one inch storm, which is not a lot, but it actually is a huge amount. We’re not even close to getting to that number. I think we’ve gotten like 15% of the way there, so far.
JC: Does community have a role to play in green infrastructure? And if yes, what is the role?
LB: Community absolutely has a role to play in green infrastructure. For one, we need to know what it is and why it’s important, so that when we see it, whether it’s in the public right of way, or in any context, we know it’s there for a reason. So maybe if you see trash in a rain garden, you’ll take it out, because you know that this is part of a functioning and living system designed to improve not only our waterways, but our quality of life on the streets. Rain gardens not only capture stormwater, but they’re providing greenery, which lowers temperatures, cleans oxygen, and just makes us feel better. As human beings, we need to be around greenery. So, having it all around the city and all of our communities is a benefit and it’s positive. If people know that they’re there, and they can take a little extra care of them, they’re going to work better. They’re going to be healthier. With some kinds of green infrastructure, like green roofs, if people are aware that it’s an option for them, as maybe a homeowner or as a renter, they can work towards having them installed on their building or their home and help to play a part in this effort.
I think community has a role also with advocacy. If people know that green infrastructure is a tool, then they can say to their elected leaders that they need and demand more of this. It’s a big part of the whole Green New Deal conversation. What are the jobs of the future? Well, a lot of the jobs of the future are going to be designing, installing, and caring for green infrastructure. This is a year round career option, and it’s one that a lot of people can do. You don’t have to have a higher degree to help maintain green infrastructure. You need to know about plants, but you can learn that by simple training.
So it’s making sure that people know that this is the future of what we’re going to be doing in New York City. There’s already laws on the books that require that any new development has to have green infrastructure, a green roof, or solar panels, or both. I actually really like both. Having a green roof, along with your solar panels, keeps your temperatures down, which will allow your solar panels to function better.
So not only is green infrastructure making our waterways better, our neighborhoods on the streets and on the ground, better, cleaner, nicer places to be, it’s also an economic driver. It is. It is a green job of the future and now too. We have a horticulturalist to help us maintain our green infrastructure. We’re creating jobs, and we want to create more of these jobs. I think there’s going to be thousands of people working in this field in the future.
JC: Absolutely. That actually segways perfectly into my last question. What do you hope to see for the Newtown Creek community in the future?
LB: We still have like 20 years for the Superfund cleanup and the long term control plan, which is the city’s Department of Environmental Protection Plan to capture the vast majority, or in our case 63%, of our combined sewer overflow problems. So that’s slated for completion in 2042. It’s a long time, but I will be alive. I really hope to see that in tandem with these state and federally sanctioned and motivated cleanups, that our communities are also getting safer and getting cleaner. I hope we’re transitioning away from fossil fuel infrastructure in general. I hope that what’s now fossil fuel storage that’s on the creek, transitions into renewable energy around the creek. I don’t know why we can’t have microgrids and solar fields and biogas production happening along the creek. I also hope to see thousands of green roofs, all along the watershed. I hope to see a lot more rain gardens, built in the public right of way, in all of our parts.
I hope that we are really paying attention to the very specific and place-based resiliency strategies that we need to deal with climate change. Sandy happened nine years ago now. It’s inevitable that we’re going to see more storms like that. Precipitation and heat are going to continue to increase and we have to mitigate that.
Industrial areas are really important to the health and well being of the city and how it functions. Around Newtown Creek, we are dealing with all of the waste of the city. There are other places around the city that also deal with waste, but we’re dealing with wastewater, with all of our trash, all of our recycling. All these different things happen on the shores of Newtown Creek, and if they are not protected, what are we going to do? I very firmly, strongly, passionately, believe that industrial areas are neglected areas. They’re intentionally left for the end. Industrial areas are an afterthought. And we can’t treat them that way. They shouldn’t be devoid of plant life. The temperatures that industrial areas are are hitting in the summer is terrifying. It can be 20 degrees or more different, in an industrial area from a residential tree-lined street. That’s just not okay. It’s not okay for what that means to the climate change and temperature conversation but also the workers that have to work in an environment like that, that’s not okay. Those workers are fathers or brothers or mothers or sisters. These are family members that are going to work, and they should not have to be in these hellscapes, to be quite frank.
So what I want to see around Newtown Creek is this very holistic, bringing up into the 21st century. To see it be productive, with lots and lots of great jobs, and clean. I want it to be a model for ecology and industry and how they can function together in the future, for helping communities that are not gentrified.
JC: That’s awesome. Was there anything else that you wanted to highlight or share with our readers?
LB: Just a note on our partnership. Everybody approaches learning and understanding in different ways. And what we’re trying to do, working with you guys is provide another avenue for awareness, for education, and also so we better understand how a green roof works, what’s happening beneath the soil. You guys are giving us a glimpse of that.
We can use science and data, we can use art and creativity, and we can use the history. We have to hit all of these different things to communicate to as many people as possible what it is that we’re doing and why.
JC: Thank you so much again for your time. I really appreciate it and I feel like I’ve just learned so much. You are truly just a wealth of knowledge so thank you so much for sharing. I didn’t know so much about the history of the area. I lived in Williamsburg for 10 years or so and have been to the creek. I have friends who canoe in it. There’s just so much that it’s contributed to the world that I never even knew about.
LB: Right? It’s so wild. I can’t even tell you how many people are like, I didn’t even know anything about the creek until well after college. It’s not something that we talk about. It would be great if all the local schools had their Newtown Creek focus chapter.
JC: Why not? Why not teach everyone about the the place that they live in, the history of it? That hyper-local education could be so important for getting people to feel even more connected to where they are, and that leads to behavioral change.
LB: Hopefully. Yeah, it’s so true. As Maya Angelou once said, “You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.” It’s so hugely important, and the power in that can’t be overstated or overestimated.