2018-03-21 / Front Page

The Hunters Point Civic Association Discusses Tributaries

By Thomas Cogan

The Hunters Point Civic Association had a meeting in March that covered a couple of topics, the traffic situation in Hunters Point and the polluted Newtown Creek and its tributaries.  Both topics are considered vital, not only because they are important but also because their problems at times seem too hectic or complicated ever to be solved.  Two representatives of the Department of Transportation addressed the gathering at the New York Irish Center on Jackson Avenue and were courteously treated, which is not always their fortune.   Then a Newtown Creek Alliance speaker came in to relate a short history of the waterway and its long accumulation of deep industrial pollution, followed by extensive attempts to alleviate its toxicity.

Albert Silvestri and Craig Chin were the representatives from DOT.  Silvestri, its Queens deputy director, began by lauding Vision Zero, the traffic safety program that Mayor Bill De Blasio made one of his first acts when assuming office in 2014.  Vision Zero’s great effect, Silvestri said, has been to reduce traffic fatalities to a point lower than any since 1910.  One can assume, in all probability of being right, that this is something no one still alive has ever seen in New York before now.  He added that all over the United States last year, traffic fatalities were up 13 percent but in New York they were down more than 20 percent.

He then explained, on the assumption that many in the room need to realize, the difference between speed humps and speed bumps.  Humps are laid widely across a street and are lower in height, though they must not interfere with the operation of manholes, gas outlets and driveways.  Bumps, more likely found in parking lots, have less width but more height and can jar drivers going over them faster than parking  lot proprietors would like them to go.  If encountered at a higher speed than 25 miles per hour, both humps and bumps can cause rattling discomfort.

Matt Wallace, chief of staff to City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, on hearing about requests for traffic calming devices (humps, stop signs, traffic lights), said that so far as Center Boulevard in Hunters Point is concerned, the time has come to stop examining it to see what traffic calming devices might be installed and put them in place, since the street is dangerous,

especially for children.  A man in the audience asked Wallace what might be done and he favored more stop signs or traffic lights, also suggesting that Center Boulevard be made narrower, a suggestion his inquirer seemed to find vexing.

Another man thought narrowing the boulevard would be a fine idea, saying its current width encourages idling, which usually involves running engines and polluting the vicinity.  Silvestri said idling, common with taxi and truck drivers, can be controlled by police.  HPCA President Brent O’Leary said valet cars are on notice from the police about it.  A woman who called herself a new resident in the neighborhood had to ask about one-way streets that become two-way, to her confusion.  She pleaded that something must be done about Vernon Boulevard at 50th Avenue, where if all that angle parking at the 108th Police Precinct headquarters can’t be cured, at least we should maintain a little upkeep at Vernon Mall.

If it’s Hunters Point, the burning concern is about parking.  Silvestri said, “We never go into a project saying, ‘How many parking spots can we eliminate?’” but there are those who might have said he could’ve fooled them about that.  One man demurred that he’s seen plenty of parking space seized at the start of a project and not returned when it was over.  He also complained about missing tiles on some streets’ crosswalks.  He has supplied photographic evidence to DOT but has still been informed, “We can’t find that” or “We’ve fixed that” when, he said, they clearly hadn’t.

Will Elkins of the Newtown Creek Alliance came to talk about the history of the creek and its problems.  Mitch Waxman, who has photographed pretty much all of it, projected some slides while Elkins spoke.  The first slide was a map from 1844, when small streams abounded and fed the creek.  As industry expanded, the creek was made more “hard-edged” and forced into its now-familiar shape.  Standard Oil and Phelps Dodge had mammoth facilities that over the years deposited untold amounts of toxic pollution.  In recent decades, in the time of the

Environmental Protection Administration and the Superfund, the owners of those industries have had to contribute to the clean-up:  ExxonMobil, Phelps Dodge and the city of New York among them, with eight more polluters drafted last year.  The timeline for the Superfund process began in 2010 and is expected to run until at least 2035.

The largest underground oil spill in U.S. history, the “Greenpoint Spill,” was first noticed in the creek in1978.  Elkins said ExxonMobil has a “very sophisticated” clean-up system, but it’s still a huge task to take on.  He said another huge oil plume was later discovered, coming from a refinery that had been shut down in 1960.  Dumping that comes from random sources into the creek still remains heavy, enough to make one wonder if the pollution removed versus the pollution still dumped in turns out in favor of removal.

Elkins said the entire Newtown Creek is a superfund site, but its superiority varies.  Downstream, where it ends by flowing into the East River, clean-up efforts during the past 30 years have left it remarkably improved, but upstream, past the Kosciuszko Bridge, the contamination remains severe, he said.  Also downstream but heavily polluted is Dutch Kills, a half-mile long waterway situated at rather a right angle to the creek. 

Elkins, who finds Dutch Kills very interesting, says the angle and the fact that it proceeds northward to a dead end make it a trap for the pollution that continues to come into it.  The water is stagnant where it comes to a head, he said.  (Head indeed—on the map, Dutch Kills resembles a hammerhead shark.)  He believes maritime use can be revived, though it is relatively shallow and must be dredged.  It comes close to La Guardia Community College and draws visitors, so something should be done to make it suitable for recreation and study, he said.(Waxman also showed a photograph of a Brooklyn project in sight of the creek:  a 20,000-foot garden of wild grasses and the like growing of the roof of the Broadway Stages studio off Greenpoint Avenue.)

Elkins also said that all-in-all, there’s cause for hope.  Newtown Creek has been improved to the point where more than 50 species of birds have returned.  They and the many who love it can’t stay away.


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