Place in History

Newtown Creek Initiative

Year: February - October 2000

A community planning and urban design process examining the industrial waterway that marks the western section of the Brooklyn-Queens border.

  • Copper on the Creek: Reclaiming an Industrial History

    In November 2000, Place in History, in collaboration with Laurel Hill Works, published Copper on the Creek, an illustrated, interdisciplinary history of the former Phelps Dodge copper refinery, which until its demolition in 1999 was located on the creek's north bank in West Maspeth, Queens.

    Click here to order a copy of Copper on the Creek

  • Newtown Creek Community Planning Process

    Between February and October 2000, working with local representatives and activists, Place in History, the Queens Department of City Planning and the New York City Council on the Environment coordinated a Creek-wide community planning initiative, which gave area residents a chance to influence the development decisions that will determine their neighborhood's future.

    To kick off this process, more than 50 Queens and Brooklyn residents assembled in Greenpoint to discuss the history of this much-maligned waterway, and what lessons this history holds for those shaping the area's future.

    Using these stories as a guideline, landscape architects Jamie Purinton and Matthew Potteiger then developed a series of schematic plans for the Vernon Boulevard street end in Long Island City. In November 2000, these plans were presented to neighborhood workers and residents.

  Transcripts - Part II  




Part II

“The first reaction of the students to the Creek is it’s disgusting, it smells, but after a while an aura of peacefulness comes over you. Maybe it’s from the water, and the little plants are creeping up through the concrete, and now you can see how nature is fighting back against all this.”

“There’s nobody here, there’s nothing here, just factories. We come and go and nothing. We need a prison: it will free up space in New York and get us some money. I have been in the area for 11 years. I remember a diner, lots of good people, chefs, waitresses, and months later nothing. Now it’s a porn shop. I want a 7 story jail with 38 exits which are between the plant and the water. On the other side, I don’t know what else you can do with it, it’s empty. Why not a jail? It would make money.”

I was a teenager, and the lumber yards then didn’t have an edge, no fences, nothing. We could get much closer to the East River. It hurts us not to be able to get to our river. As citizens of New York, we have the right to the river. I don’t know how important this is, but when I was a teenager growing up in the inner city, we had to initiate to get into this gang. We had to sneak into the lumberyard, grab a two-by-four, and me and three guys would go over to Manhattan and then take the subway back, laughing.”

“I looked for a place to live in Long Island City, couldn’t find much, and soon after that began doing tours of Long Island City, which I still do. Newtown Creek was this southern boundary. Boundaries to geography are very interesting things: sometimes boundaries create interaction, sometimes they keep things from interacting. And Newtown Creek was always so inaccessible, I never did much with it. I knew it was there and I just had to get into it….Newtown Creek has the name of a town that was founded in Queens along with two others – western Queens, Queensboro as we know it now, consisted of three towns historically: Newtown, Flushing and Jamaica. They take their names from the waterways that led to their founding. Newtown Creek enabled people to sail up to the very end and found a community in Maspeth in about 1642.  Not a good place for a community, cause there’s no good farming land there, you know, the land is not high enough. Forget about pollution, the land isn’t high enough and eventually the community settled in Elmhurst, Queens where the land is high enough to do farming. And Newtown Apple, Newtown Pippen Apples were the product of Newtown, of the town of Newtown’s agriculture….At the same time, Flushing Town was settled from Flushing Bay and Flushing Creek, and Jamaica Town was settled through Jamaica Bay and a series of bays that lead up to where Jamaica is, only Flushing had the arable land close to the waterways, the others had to move. The next instance of Newtown Creek in history with the change in the meaning of the Creek is in the 1840s, after Manhattan banned cemeteries…

"Manhattan’s a growing place, we don’t want cemeteries there anymore. Cemeteries have to move, let’s put them on this glacial hill, on these glacial moraine hillsides in Long Island where no one will ever want them because it’s too inaccessible. You can get to them by sailing boats up Newtown Creek and hiking or by horse & buggy, or by primitive roads into the cemetery. People would spend the whole day at cemetery outings from Manhattan, sailing up the creek and getting to the cemeteries like Calvary and all the others you’ll see on any roadmap. All that green stuff isn’t parks, they’re cemeteries and they were accessible by Newtown Creek. The third phase is the railroad. The railroad was built in 1860 on the Queens side and it’s still there. It’s lost all its stations in the last 2 years but you can still ride on the weekdays. In trying to find a spot on Newtown Creek for my tour group…[I found] a road you can follow going from underneath the Greenpoint Bridge on the Queens side and it eventually leads to the railroad right away, you never see a trespassing sign, although you are. Eventually you can walk all the way back to Dutch Kills and where that railroad crosses Dutch Kills there’s a colony of birds and plants that makes you think you’re someplace in a wild flower community of some distant National Park on the weekend, cause there’s no trains. The trains don’t run through there. That’s a very special place and that shows what Newtown Creek can be again.”

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