Sweet Sweep of the Creek!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

HarborLAB’s Newtown Creek Sweep, part of the Riverkeeper Sweep event at sites from NYC to Albany.

HarborLAB volunteers, environmental science students from CUNY LaGuardia Community College, and a mix of visitors from other schools and walks of life had a fantastic time tending to the Newtown Creek on Saturday! Our work was part of the annual Riverkeeper Sweep of Hudson River and estuary sites from New York City to Albany. Our Newtown Creek home base is a waterway so blighted with pollution that it qualifies for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup program.

HarborLAB’s Newtown Creek Sweep had two basic components, cleaning and gardening. We offered a variety of activities so that people of all ages and abilities could participate. More than 30 people helped over the course of the day. We were especially grateful to have educators among us to add learning to the labor. Holly Porter-Morgan, Diana Szatkowski, Harald Parzer, and Thomas Dieter brought knowledge and encouragement to our students and volunteers.

The core of the program was removing plastics from our shoreline and the creek itself. Volunteers wend their way through broken bulkheads and boat lines to pick trash from the shores while our canoes went out in two waves to scoop up litter, mostly plastic bottles and bags. These smaller items filled seven large trash bags. Larger hauls included a lawn mower, two chairs, a 55-gallon steel drum, a bird feeder, and antiquated electronic sound systems.

13177153_782640391836247_2121871728077104651_n

We’re under no delusion that our cleanups will remove the tonnage necessary for an ecosystem rebound, but the exercise educates people about the severity of the plastics problem. So what works if picking up plastics is a measure that’s too little, too late? Recycling is also an inadequate solution by itself because it requires a great amount of energy (often from carbon-releasing fossil sources) and sustained administrative focus. With petroleum and other commodity prices low, private carters in New York City are recycling even less material than usual despite New York City’s public commitment to eliminating waste. While a reduction in unthinking, rampant consumerism is laudable, instilling new virtues across the culture will be a slow process. Real penalties and enforcement for littering will help a bit, but not enough. That leaves voters and activists to demand a reduction in wasteful packaging at the design and production stage. We must also push to eliminate combined sewer overflows, which gulch marine debris as well as pathogens and other pollutants.

IMG_4187

Gardening was also a big part of the day, and is a huge part of HarborLAB’s work. Volunteers — especially a group from New Hyde Park High School — made thousands of native pokeweed seed balls that we’ll distribute as we land at rest stops on our harbor journeys across to stabilize shorelines, buffer storm surges and waves, feed birds, and sustain pollinators. Those up for heavier lifting helped restore our shoreline by layering cocoa husks from MAST Brothers Chocolate with burlap sacks, kitchen scraps, and soil in a system called “lasagna composting.” This fresh soil covers a broken brick substrate that mimics the glacially transported rocks of our region. The resulting slop will be planted with staghorn sumac, pokeweed, goldenrod, milkweed, and other indigenous species, and footed by smooth cordgrass and shellfish. Some of these species are already making headway. We were delighted to see that our dozens of shadbush saplings were fruiting copiously and our hackberry and American persimmon are also thriving. Our raised bed and container-grown dessert cultivars are doing great too, including apricots, apples, pears, and figs.

We’re tremendously grateful to all who came and helped, and to Riverkeeper for creating this unifying event and helping direct volunteers to sites.

 

 

 

“Jane’s Walk” to Our Reawakening Waterfront!

 

WP_20140503_003

Mitch Waxman, crouching, and MAS Jane’s Walk participants in front of the HarborLAB gate and boats. Newtown Creek Alliance board member Laura Risi Hofmann towards the left, in bright blue shirt. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB was honored to be a featured stop on the Greenpoint-to-Long Island City “DUPBO” 2014 Jane’s Walk.  Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman guided the tour, a walking conversation, sharing insights about development, preservation, sustainability, resilience, and cultural vitality. In NYC, the prestigious Municipal Art Society organizes the annual, free urban planning walks honoring Jane Jacob‘s spirit of criticism and query.

Erik Baard, who interviewed Jane Jacobs in the 9/11 aftermath, greeted the crowd that arrived at the end of Vernon Boulevard, where a bridge once spanned the Newtown Creek to Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn.

What made our site so interesting? It’s that we’re creating the greatest length of green, soft shoreline on the Newtown Creek!

Many thanks to Citizens Committee for NYC for our seed grant (more on that to come) to begin transforming our 125′ waterfront, kindly provided to us by Schumann Properties. Rather than rebuilding our crumbling bulkhead, we’ll follow New York State Department of Environmental Conservation guidelines for using salt tolerant native plantings to stabilize shorelines. We’ll also restore wetlands in the intertidal zone with spartina, mussels, oysters, and other indigenous life. Upland we’ll grow edibles in planters, including hardy kiwi and grape for shade. To maximize the service learning value of this project, we’ll invite college students to participate and follow the advice and directives of biologists Dr. Holly Porter-Morgan and Dr. Sarah Durand of LaGuardia Community College.

HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson will oversee safety stairs, platforms, the dock, and other improvements, aided by Mairo Notton and other skilled volunteers. Our space has been too crowded with bricks on pallets since occupation to do much work, but that’s scheduled to change over the next few weeks.

HarborLAB has also begun a campaign to create a bioswale and rain garden at the dead end of Vernon Boulevard. In some sense, this revives a decade-old effort that New Yorkers for Parks ushered into a design in 2006. With our launch site reworked and a green pocket park, Vernon Boulevard will end in a beautiful long stretch of green that improves Newtown Creek water quality by reducing combined sewage overflows.

The Newtown Creek Superfund designation, however, is based on carcinogenic sediments that line its bed and can sometimes rise through the water column when disturbed. Advocacy for dredging is our chief activity on that front. Our vital ally there is the Newtown Creek Alliance. We were happy that this Jane’s Walk included Newtown Creek Alliance Board Member Laura Risi Hofmann, a greenpoint health and green spaces activist, among its saunterers.

Because of the sometimes high sewage bacteria levels (common to all of western Queens’ waterfronts) and industrial pollutants (exceedingly high also in Anable Basin and Steinway Creek), HarborLAB has two blanket policies:  1) We bring boats to cleaner, safer waters in the region for children to enjoy. The Newtown Creek launch is for adults only. 2) We use canoes for venturing East of the Pulaski Bridge, and sit-on-top kayaks for paddling west, where water quality is much better.

 

WP_20140503_011

HarborLAB boats and the raw 125′ shoreline, facing East to the Pulaski Bridge. Photo by Erik Baard.

The HarborLAB "boat ladder," a launch system used by cultures around the world. Note the crumbling shoreline that we'll slope and stabilize with plantings.

The HarborLAB “boat ladder,” a launch system used by cultures around the world. Note the crumbling shoreline that we’ll slope and stabilize with plantings.

WP_20140503_009

Intertidal area that will be planted with spartina or other native species. Photo by Erik Baard.