As if Newtown Creek isn’t a far enough stretch for a pleasant taste of nature, city naturalist Erik Baard has chosen a narrow, and even more obscure, inlet of water north of the creek to try and restore.
“You’ve got to adopt the nastiest place,” said the 37-year-old Flushing native, standing amid a pile of trash bags and a submerged barge. Indeed, this finger of water may well be the nastiest.
The Dutch Kills Waterway forks northeast from Newtown Creek—itself often called the most polluted waterway in the country—under the Long Island Rail Road tracks at 27th Street. It heads up through the industrial neighborhood of Blissville where it’s crossed by several small bridges, used mostly by trucks, and the Long Island Expressway. All along the sides it’s lined with warehouses and industrial businesses and offices, including a concrete company at its northern tip.
Baard sees more here than a broken down waterfront. Having just established the Long Island City Community Boathouse in Hunter’s Point, he wants to bring paddlers to this abandoned stretch of waterway too. “There’s no commercial (boat) traffic, it’s a safe boating area,” he said pointing out the stillness of the water.
But that stillness also means that there is probably very little water churn, which makes it likely that the decades of dumping and neglect is worse than in other industrial waterways. Baard hasn’t tested the water or the soil yet, but he hopes to do so as part of a plan he proposed to the National Park Service to restore the area to a natural wetlands.
“We can have some soft edges, some marsh grasses. And this really excites me,” he said pointing to areas where nature has already taken over. Defying the garbage are wildflowers, wild berries and butterflies.
At the northern tip, where the waterway makes a T-shape, a community garden was just created by local volunteers. Baard envisions this as the starting point for a boat-launching area. The waterway is just a couple of blocks south of LaGuardia Community College, which Baard hopes to include as part of the program, perhaps using the area to study the reintroduced local flora and fauna.
But what about the businesses that have called the area home for years? “I think this will add to jobs, not take them away,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to get people to work in a beautiful place.” Thinking optimistically, Baard hopes that local businesses might even contribute.
But beautifying an industrial place, as has been the case in other waterfront neighborhoods, often causes it to turn residential. “If the price of ecological restoration is that an ugly storage building goes, so rich people can look out and enjoy a view, so be it,” Baard said with a shrug and smiled. “Then it’s a lot easier to get them to help us.”