Paddle and Potluck!


Photo by Erik Baard

HarborLAB closed out our paddling season much later than expected, as mild air and water temperatures continued. We’d say “thanks to unusually warm air and water,” but even such a pleasant and localized anomaly brings to mind the global warming trend — and related ocean acidification and sea level rise — that threatens all coastal and marine ecosystems.

But all that said and considered, we were blessed with a terrific day of urban exploration. The outing also afforded us the opportunity to gather enough seaside goldenrod seeds for at least two classroom seedball making days, and do some phragmites scouting. We plan to cut down stands of this invasive reed to make boats in traditional Ethiopian, Bolivian, Greek, Iraqi, and Egyptian styles!

This outing was also a fundraiser for HarborLAB, arranged as a birthday present by LIC resident Maura Kehoe Collins for her husband, David. Their son, Zach, brought helpful muscle and knowledge of detritivores to the party. We were delighted to be joined by the Collins’ special guest, Curtis Cravens, author of Copper on the Creek. No less of a grit-and-brine maven than Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman (author of Newtown Creek for the Vulgarly Curious) is a huge fan of the book. Cravens worked for our neighbor across the creek, Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, and now serves as Senior Advisor for Coastal Resiliency at New York City Office of the Mayor.

Our course took us to the mouth of the Newtown Creek to view the Manhattan skyline and then back Plank Road, where the Newtown Creek Alliance has placed an educational sign and planted native habitat with support from the NY-NJ Harbor & Estuary Program and New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC). The site was once the Queens side of a wooden bridge. Cravens pointed out the landings of a former Penny Bridge, which led from Brooklyn to Calvary Cemetery. More about that in Forgotten New York. We all admired the engineering marvels behind the construction of the new Kosciuszko Bridge.

At Plank Road we were delighted to encounter a fine artist at work! Painter Scott Williams was patient with our disruption, warmly sharing the stories behind his work. He’s made the Newtown Creek his occasional subject since 1992! HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard quickly envisioned a showing of photos and paintings by Waxman, Williams, Bernie Ente, and others called “Picture a Creek.” We’ll be exploring this educational opportunity over the winter.

Another future program inspired by the outing is our planned June 5 “Bunker Symposium.” One of the hottest restaurants on the creek was our walk-up from Plank Road, Bun-Ker Vietnamese. It happens that “bunker” is a local name for Menhaden fish, which has been dubbed “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” for its ecological services and commercial value. The creek is crammed with bunker each late spring and summer.


Photo by Erik Baard

Our guests scooted off (with our great thanks!) to their next celebration, while we had ours! Despite the chill, our Thanksgiving Potluck was warm with joy. Thomas Dieter brought a delicious quinoa dish while EJ Lee made an amazing assortment of stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and other delicacies. David Pugh and Becky Chipkin contributed yummy pickled beats and crisp apples while Erik Baard and Danushi Fernando baked apple pie pockets. Diana Szatkowski rounded out the feast with the indispensable and scrumptious butternut squash with cranberries. It was all vegan, not only to be inclusive but because the United Nations Environment Programme found that “a substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”


Photo by Erik Baard

We’d barely cleared the table when our cloudy day transformed into a golden dusk by the alchemy of atmospheric refraction. The wondrous beauty only deepened as purples and pinks ascended. The contrasting textures of cloud layers rode over each other like woodwinds and brass over strings, over percussion. What a glorious way to close out our 2015 paddling season!


Photo by Erik Baard


“Estuary Escape” to a “Living Dock”


HarborLAB’s outing with the Van Alen Institute visits the Newtown Creek Alliance’s “Living Dock.”

On November 8, HarborLAB was privileged to provide a Newtown Creek tour to the Van Alen Institute. Billed as an “Estuary Escape,” we also hope that the time afloat was a reminder that we live within a water wilderness that’s both marvelous and in need of better care.

We shared a bit of local lore and history gleaned from authors who are also our friends, Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman and founder of the Center for Algonquin Culture, Evan Pritchard. Other highlights of the trip, however, were glimpses of a green and blue future. That’s fitting for an organization like VAI, which started as Society of Beaux-Arts Architects but evolved into an advocate for design and architecture that serves public interests.

HarborLAB Founder and Executive Director Erik Baard walked participants through our GreenLaunch, a waterfront strip that we’ve cleaned and cleared for three years without machine aid, owing to soft ground, and planted with more than 30 native trees and bushes so far. We’re also cultivating goldenrod, pokeweed, and milkweed, which are important native food sources for birds and beneficial insects. Simultaneously we’re creating large amounts of fresh soil through composting. Coming soon will be more plantings, green structures, solar power, our larger dock (thanks to Pink Sparrow Scenic and in part a Harbor Estuary Program grant via Waterfront Alliance), and eco-educational installations.

We paddled out in two waves, totaling 24 participants. We discussed the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and the ongoing combined sewer overflow problem, and the huge Sims Metal Management (a founding HarborLAB sponsor) recycling facility. Baard noted the presence of morning glories, which help remove lead from soils. The greenest stop on our tour was the “Living Dock,” an educational project of the Newtown Creek Alliance. The dock is fitted with modules growing spartina, our region’s salt marsh grass, a cornerstone of estuarine ecology. Other life then just showed up — sea lettuce, killifish, shrimp, and more! NCA Program Director Willis Elkins explained the project as providing both the immediate benefit of nature observations, and the broader message that we shouldn’t give up hope and turn away from blighted waterways — a phenomenon Baard coined “biodecathection.” Recovery is possible, and is slowly happening. The “Living Dock” helps render the data more visibly.

It was a beautiful and meaningful day, one that we’ll look back on with fondness and gratitude for a long, happy while.

Many thanks to volunteers Thomas Dieter, Diana Chang, Becky Chipkin, David Pugh for their help as safety escorts and to Patricia Erickson, Phillip Borbon, Scott Wolpow, and all others who helped ashore! We also thank VAI for its donation in lieu of a speaker’s honorarium for Erik Baard.

Seedball Making at LaGuardia Community College!


Seedballs. Photo by Maureen Regan, president and founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens.

Hurricane Sandy, pollution, and development have stripped away much of our dune and coastal meadow habitats, so HarborLAB is joining the effort to restore them! To this end, HarborLAB and other conservationists are following Permaculture farmers in adopting an ancient Japanese and North American no-till agriculture tool that mimics the natural dung distribution of seeds (called endozoochory). It’s simple: make a ball of clay, compost, and seeds and toss them over the area to be revived. The warmth and rains of spring and summer then signal the seeds to germinate. Before long we’ll green the shores of NYC by bombarding them with seed love from our armada of kayaks and canoes!  😉

HarborLAB volunteers learned the art from SeedBall NYC‘s Co-founder and President Anne Apparu in a room made available to us by Dr. Sarah Durand of the Natural Sciences department at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. We made several hundred seed balls, and will make thousands more! The trick is to get the proportions right so that the balls hold together firmly but dry out before the seeds germinate. In terms of consistency, think cookie dough.

Another great instruction resource comes from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

HarborLAB used seeds we gathered with Hunters Point Community Middle School and Dr. Stephen Grosnell‘s Baruch College conservation biology students from Gantry Plaza State Park, Hunters Point Park, and our own GreenLaunch, along with seeds provided by SeedBall NYC and Briermere Farms. Hunters Point Parks Conservancy Vice President Mark Christie kindly help guide us in our seed gathering. Species included aster, milkweed, beach plum, beach pea, goldenrod, viburnum, pine, switchgrass, pokeberry, and the humorously named panicgrass (gallery below). These salt-tolerant species support endangered monarch butterflies and other pollinators, and feed birds. They also stabilize the shoreline, allowing complex ecosystems to develop while also protecting property from surges and erosion. We also gathered beach rose from Hunters Point South Park but must be very careful about where to use them, if at all, for biological productivity without enabling invasion.

See Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman‘s great write up of one of our outings at Queens Brownstoner.

We’re also grateful to Maureen Regan, president and founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens for participating and to Gil Lopez, president and co-founder of Smiling Hogshead Ranch Urban Farm, for inviting a naturalist to join us. We also thank the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation for permission to gather seeds. An especially welcome newcomer was Philip Anthony Borbon, a sailor who moors on the Queens waterfront of the Newtown Creek.

Our next step is to go into classrooms to make seedballs with kids, and to then bring the balls with us when we paddle to areas in need of habitat restoration! If you’d like a classroom talk and seedball making activity with HarborLAB, please email us at!

The EPA Must Test the Plants of Newtown Creek.

HarborLAB caused quite a stir recently by drawing attention to the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn’t testing plant tissues in the Newtown Creek. This great research gap had not been addressed before. We raised the point at the October meeting of the Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group with the EPA about Superfund progress.

Our concern is informed by our periodic biota surveys. We thank the United Nations Federal Credit Union and Con Ed for their support of our environmental work.

The EPA noted in its presentation that it tests the tissues of some fish species, especially those most likely to be eaten by people, but admitted in response to HarborLAB’s questioning that no plant tests were conducted or scheduled to be conducted. The EPA also asserted that because the creek was so thoroughly bulkheaded, there wasn’t a plant population to test. HarborLAB has conducted bioblitzes of the creek and strongly disagreed, suggesting that nonprofits and universities could begin plant tissue tests even if the EPA wouldn’t. Representatives from Riverkeeper, North Brooklyn Boat Club, and LaGuardia Community College quickly seconded HarborLAB’s concerns.

HarborLAB’s launch already boasts indigenous, salt-tolerant goldenrod, pokeberry, milkweed, and other species that support birds and pollinators. We’re working to add cordgrass, beach plum, and more as part of our GreenLaunch project. Marsh grasses, reeds, and other plants fringe the creek where there are no bulkheads or where bulkheads have crumbled. Above the bulkheads but still within occasional flood zones are a number of plant species, whether native, invasive, or cultivated. There are even fruit trees, including fig, apple, pear, and mulberry. Within the creek, HarborLAB has observed sea lettuce, bladderwrack, mosses, and more.

At the request of LaGuardia Community College biologist Sarah Durand, PhD, HarborLAB has been photographing shoreline and aquatic plants. Dr. Durand and her students have begun growing marsh grass in buckets and planters as experiments in anticipation of installing habitat restoration platforms. We will soon join the Newtown Creek CAG, which counts Dr. Durand as a steering committee member, in formally urging the EPA to reconsider its assessment and add plant tissue testing.

It’s absolutely necessary that the EPA expand testing to include plants and smaller animal organisms, like invertebrates and killifish who spend their entire lives in the creek. These are the complex organism building blocks this blighted corner of the estuary. As Newtown Creek Alliance Mitch Waxman remarked to HarborLAB after the meeting on the narrowness of the EPA’s work: “What the EPA is doing is a human health impact study, not an environmental impact study.”

Gallery of Newtown Creek plants by Thomas Zellers and Erik Baard.

Videos by Roy Harp showing moss and algae.

Video by Roy Harp showing spartina installations.

“Jane’s Walk” to Our Reawakening Waterfront!



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.



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.


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