Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Designer: George Trakas
Whenever a major infrastructure project gets built, such as electrical transformers or a telephone exchange, federal law requires that it be built above the 100-year flood plain so as not to fail during certain natural disasters. Twenty-three years ago, when the city’s Department of Environmental Protection began retrofitting the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint—the largest of 14 in the city—it faced the daunting task of surmounting this 13-foot plain at the water’s edge.
For George Trakas, this was horrible news. A self-described environmental sculptor, Trakas paddled the creek often, not least because his work often involved transforming derelict industrial land into parks and other public spaces. “There’s nothing that high anywhere on the creek,” Trakas said of the 14-foot floodwall the city had proposed for the creek.
In 1997, when the city began looking for public art projects to satisfy the retrofit’s Percent for Art mandate, Trakas saw his opening and submitted a plan to move the wall back a handful of yards, carving out waterfront access in the process. “Fortunately, the community agreed with me,” he said.
Greeting visitors are two massive boulders that have been etched with directions to the nature walk. One of them has lingered around the neighborhood as long as anyone can remember, a memento from the receding glacier that formed the creek at the close of the ice age. A giant, 1,400-pound granite table is etched with a map of the creek’s historic watershed, before it was altered to accommodate factories and barges, which are also referenced in the table’s shape, that of a massive shipping bollard. Another table resembles the silhouette of a boat’s prow.
Further linking the space to its nautical past, when shipwrights lined the creek, is the “vessel,” a 170-foot concrete walkway shaped like a ship’s hull. It not only brings visitors down to the water, but in its barrenness, it serves as a blinder that builds suspense until the full industrial landscape explodes into view at the walkway’s end. Not to leave the real boats behind, a massive granite stairway was built at the apex of the walk, allowing access both to and from the water. Even the handrails up the steps gesture to the water, taking the shape of H20 molecules. The stairs are planted with native species, like the rest of the nature walk, which was implemented with landscape architect Quennell Rothschild & Partners.
Christine Holowacz, the community liaison for the Newtown Creek Monitoring Center, said it is the only park of its kind that she knows. “Sometimes you have parks, but hardly ever do they provide an education or historical aspect,” she said. “Here, you can relax, but at the same time you can learn about the community.”
Still, the nature walk’s greatest achievement remains how it brings the community down to the still-industrial waterfront, creating a connection with factories and docks that were once this city’s lifeblood. It also makes them bear witness to the poison that lifeblood could be at times.
“The more people come to the waterfront and see the past—the good and bad parts—the more they will do to prevent the atrocities of the past,” said Jimmy Pynn, the plant’s superintendent. “Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a new chapter for Newtown Creek.”