Depending on where you look, North Brooklyn is still replete with rusty reminders of its fairly recent manufacturing past, but as that history recedes farther off into the distance, pushed along by developers mining the cityscape for residential conversions (and now, slick new tech office space too), the memory of what stood there before is fading too. The area’s transformation has proceeded so quickly and dramatically that many new residents have no idea that they’re living next to an old pencil factory, or in some cases a Brownfield site.
But a new interactive website could change all that. Last week, NAG unveiled their Toxicity Map– and no, it’s not a late-to-the-game ode to System of a Down, but what they’re calling “an interactive map of toxic ‘hot spots’ in Greenpoint in Williamsburg,” aimed not only at newcomers who might not fully understand the area’s history, but at curious longtime residents too. We were first introduced to the Toxicity Map when it was still in beta-testing mode. As of last week Wednesday, the map is fully functioning.
“Things have changed a lot since the 2005 rezoning,” explained Allison Currier, an environmental organizer for Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG), a homegrown community planning activist network. For more than a decade, NAG has closely monitored the aftermath of the city-planning revamp, which unleashed a deluge of development in exchange for neighborhood improvements such as green space and public schools. While the city has yet to make good on many of those promises, developers have made enormous gains with projects that have added thousands of new residents to the community. That growth will only continue with projects like Greenpoint Landing, which will add 5,500 new apartments in the next few years. Additionally, the de Blasio administration’s ten-year plan to dramatically boost the city’s affordable housing stock has encouraged real estate actors to jump the gun and buy up industrial sites across the city even before rezonings are in place.
When Greenpoint Landing is fully realized, 10 towers will loom over the very tip of Brooklyn, where Newtown Creek cuts between Greenpoint and Queens. The surrounding area has a long history of environmental degradation. In fact, residents lovingly referred to one of the lots where Greenpoint Landing is sprouting as the “sludge tank” before it was cleaned up in preparation for construction, and across the street is a Superfund site at the former Nuhart Plastics site, which has also been slated for residential redevelopment.
As you can imagine, the proximity to toxic waste has left the neighborhood feeling uneasy, but all of this came to a head last fall when the developers allowed Cityfox, a notorious party promoter, to organize a massive Halloween rave on the site. The party was called off by the Fire Department before the festivities got underway, but it was too late– the neighbors were already infuriated by the owners’ apparent reckless negligence.
When the Halloween rave caused an uproar, NAG made sure to devote a portion of one of their regular meetings to informing residents about the toxic rave that almost was, and pushed the developer to speak frankly about what happened and what they were going to do in the future to prevent such egregious lack of oversight. While NAG has hired on environmental experts to conduct an independent remediation study on the Superfund site, which parallels the developers’ own pre-construction cleanup assessment, it became clear that they could only go so far in understanding the extent of environmental damage, not least of all the various toxic plumes scattered around the neighborhood. “Our computer estimates say [the plume] might be across the street,” the expert told the crowd. “But we don’t know because we don’t have access.”
When it comes to toxic waste, what you don’t know can really, really hurt you.
That explains why the Toxicity Map, the result of a collaborative effort between NAG and Pratt’s Spatial Analysis and Visualization Initiative (SAVI), is so important to the community. The map compiles public information about toxic spills, for example, with Brownfield boundaries and even flood risk, sourcing from oversight at the city, state, and federal level. The result is much more than a visual aid. “Our goal with this project is to create an easy-to-understand way to educate the community about environmental health issues and environmental social justice,” explained Currier, the environmental community organizer at NAG. “It’s a visual, interactive way for the community to understand environmental health risks.”
For the nail biters among us, the Toxicity Map might initially seem like a horrific endeavor. I mean, why would you wanna know what’s putting you at risk of cancer when there’s probably nothing you can do about it anyway? Well, NAG would probably say that’s not the best attitude.
“It’s scarier when you don’t know exactly where these things are,” Currier said. “At the very least, the map offers clarity, but it also encourages people to get involved– more people are coming to the DEC hearings, community board meetings, they’re emailing us, and talking to each other. With more education, we see more involvement.”
Even if you’re not at all familiar with the nuances of Brownfields, Superfund sites, and “(E)-designations,” NAG presents the information in an easily digestible format– definitions are readily accessible (just click the tab that reads “About the Data”) as are brief historical run-downs of the area’s most serious environmental hazards, including the Meeker Plume and the Exxon oil spill.
By adding different layers to the map, you can easily see the spread and precise location of various concerns, variables, and indicators, including potentially polluted sites, truck routes, flood risk, asthma rates, even median household income. Users can even find their street and zoom in on their address. Last Wednesday, NAG took this idea of interrelated elements many steps further when they teamed up with several local organizations that have “issue-focused maps” of their own, and held a sort of open house for the community– “science-fair style” as Currier put it. NAG described the effort as “intersectional” in that it brought together different communities working toward various social justice initiatives and worked to find common ground across their activist causes.
“We talked about, ‘Well, how do these all effect each other?'” Currier recalled. She pointed to Ghost Bikes, the organization that’s responsible for those gut wrenching whitewashed bikes around town that serve as memorials for cyclists who’ve been killed on their bikes. They’ve also created a map to help spread awareness about where these kinds of fatalities happen across the city. When the two organizations compared their maps, they found some interesting patterns. “The Ghost Bikes show up in areas with heavy truck traffic, so that might be related to Toxicity in that some former industrial areas are seeing heavy construction and development,” she recalled.
Inside Airbnb, a data mining initiative spearheaded by Murray Cox that provides the public with accurate information about the apartment sharing service, including listings and review data, was also there. (We first heard about Inside Airbnb at the recent #HackHousing event.) Cox has made his data open-source, but thankfully he has also shared a map for those of us who aren’t budding statisticians.
Several more mapping initiatives from the Newtown Creek Alliance, Northwest Bushwick Community Group, and one group with possibly the best acronym ever, the Organization United for Trash Reduction and Garbage Equity (OUTRAGE), among others, were also represented. “The New School made a map based on segregation, and there were gentrification and housing maps too,” Currier added.
While Currier said NAG doesn’t have immediate plans for another collaborative meeting like this one, even just one meeting was indication that community activists and social justice initiatives are finding ways to communicate and coordinate now more than ever before. And with the new Toxicity Map, there are fewer excuses for not getting involved. “Education is very important,” Currier said. “Ignorance might be bliss, but when it comes to health and safety, ignorance can be very dangerous.”