The Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning transformed the East River waterfront area (and other pockets, including along parts of the BQE) from “mixed use” industrial districts to solely residential ones. Things may have proceeded quickly since 2005, but the transition has not been a seamless one– a new interactive resource, the Greenpoint-Williamsburg ToxiCity Map tells us why.
The map, spearheaded by Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG), a community group with a long history of fighting environmental degradation in North Brooklyn, reveals the sometimes toxic remnants of the area’s industrial past as a colorful barrage of moveable dots and lines. “A lot of factories were there, operating with a lot of chemicals, a lot of spills– I think that’s important to remember,” explained Rita Beth Pasarell, a board member at NAG. “For good old history, but also because there are a lot of health impacts associated with the chemicals, and in order to avoid them we have to know what chemicals are where.”
On Tuesday night, NAG convened a meeting at the Sunview Luncheonette (an old-school diner turned community space facing McGolrick Park) to present the beta version of the ToxiCity map to their neighbors. The organization has a solid history of North Brooklyn advocacy: NAG played an active roll in the 2005 rezoning process, which is seen as something of a double-edged sword by many environmentalists and longtime residents.
The rezoning birthed a demon monster baby– the current North Brooklyn real estate climate that only seems to be swelling, growing ever stronger day by day and threatening to gobble up the current residents like tiny, inconsequential ants. While the City has kept some promises it made to the neighborhood, others were broken (one of them being the ongoing drama of Bushwick Inlet Park). But one indisputably positive thing emerged directly from the rezoning– a great deal of useful information is now available after the City conducted an extensive environmental impact survey of the area. Much of that data appears on the ToxiCity map.
But as the neighborhood continues to grow, it’s more important than ever to understand the potential risks embedded in the ground thanks to decades of unimpeded, dangerous industrial activity at the end of the 19th century and, even after regulations were put in place by the 20th century, environmental neglect at the hands of corporations, for which fines are a drop in the bucket.
The ToxiCity map, a result of nearly two years of data mining and number crunching, is intended to be an easy-access tool for the community. “We wanted it to be an easy thing for people who are not experts to use,” Rita told the guests at Sunview. A collaboration between NAG and the Spatial Analysis and Visualization Initiative (SAVI) at Pratt (aka a bunch of data dorks with enviable skills) as well as a slew of rotating interns from Columbia, Hunter, and other universities around the city, the map was also made possible with a grant from the New York State Department of Environmental Cleanup (DEC). The group is just now rolling out the beta version of its ToxiCity map to the community, and NAG is staging a series of community meetings just like this one to share their findings with neighbors and listen to questions and concerns.
None of this information is new, exactly. In fact, each number you can access through the map corresponds to a public record. “Everything that went into this map was public data, but it didn’t always exist in the most accessible way,” NAG’s Ward Dennis explained. To illustrate how difficult it is to access all the relevant information, it took the team (plus interns) a year and a half to gather all this already existing data.
Lucky for them, NAG was already one foot deep in this kind of stuff. “We had a a lot of internal knowledge about all these different sites over the years that had been remediated and had different industries,” Ward said. When the organization was founded 21 years ago as “Neighbors Against Garbage,” it was a protest group– a bunch of North Brooklyn residents rallying together to reverse what they saw as the City’s inequitable distribution of waste to the neighborhood. Apparently, a few other people agreed with them. In 1997 NAG won a Supreme Court case that pushed the city to shut down the waste transfer station in their neighborhood and reassess the placement of these plants.
Organizations like NAG represent the importance of longstanding residents and local grassroots alliances to the persistence of memory– without experience and neighborhood “elders” like the people at NAG, the city is just an anonymous wash of land without a history. Newer residents might never fully understand the implications of this neighborhood’s industrial past without efforts like this.
“Up until this point, there’s been a real disconnect between the people who know the legacies, and those who don’t,” Emily, also of NAG, explained. “It’s lucky there are really strong advocates in this neighborhood going back generations who have said, ‘What you’re doing on that site, I remember what was there— and actually, we should check that out.’”
That’s where NAG, and a resource like this map, come in. “In Greenpoint and Williamsburg, we know there are particular issues– related to the Exxon oil spill, or related to the Meeker Avenue Plumes, which [are] just north of here– but there are also a host of other things going on,” Ward explained. “Having all that information out there and being able to access it hopefully makes you more informed and gets you more involved, and if there is a construction site down the street, you can monitor it, you can be aware and know. So it’s really just about having knowledge– the intention really is not to scare people.”
Throughout the evening at Sunview, each of the speakers reiterated what basically amounted to: “Don’t have a panic attack.” But it’s hard not to interpret this information as scary, particularly for people who live in the neighborhood, drink water out of their taps, and especially for anyone who has seen The Pelican Brief. Toggle one of the various layers for “environmental risks” on the map (waste transfer stations, potentially polluted sites, or future flood risk), and a swarm of scary looking dots will appear.
The violet dots indicate spills over 100 gallons, while small lavender dots represent spills less than 100 gallons. While “spills” sounds pretty intimidating, a young woman who introduced herself to the room as Korin Tangtrakul (one of the data miners) found the DEC keeps track of pretty much everything from a “paint can that spilled over” to disasters like the 1978 Exxon Mobil Oil Spill. The map explains that “spills” are regarded by the DEC as “all accidental releases of petroleum, toxic chemicals, gases, and other hazardous materials.” Just take a look at the map — there are a ton of spills.
“Don’t be alarmed when you see a lot of dots on the map, or a lot of colors on the map,” Jessie Braden, a Professor a Senior Fellow at SAVI advised. “What it allows you to see is the overall pattern of potentially harmful things in the neighborhood — some of them are polluted, some of them are remediated.”
That last word, “remediated,” was mentioned quite a few times last night, and was cause for multiple rides on the ol’ emotional roller coaster. If you’re not familiar with Superfund Sites or environmentalist lingo, “remediated” is used a lot and basically means, “don’t freak out.” Technically, in this context “remediated” indicates that contaminants have been removed from the land (that includes dirt, groundwater, rivers and streams, and even rocks).
The red dots, however, offer a whole new level of horror. “We included things that are highly regulated — that does not necessarily mean it’s something bad happening there, that just means it needs to be monitored,” Jessie explained of the red dots. In fact, each and every speaker took a moment last night to gently remind the audience members to cool it, that there’s no need to get the hell out of North Brooklyn, but emphasized the importance of paying attention.
Since this is a beta version (the map will find a more permanent home on the web by the new year) there are some issues with user-friendliness, including the (sometimes) lack of visible street names for non-thru ways, the inability to plug in an address and search from there (you have to move the map around manually and zoom in and out), and some less than ideal data mixing. For example, sites classified as “polluted” and that are in the process of being cleaned up are grouped under the same symbol as completely remediated sites, which could lead to some serious confusion. Additionally, once you do find out a site is “polluted,” the map provides you with a link to various websites.
Take 11 West Street, for example– the building there is awash in bright yellow, click on it and you’ll find a description, the cleanup program responsible for remediation, contaminants of concerns (in this case, SVOCs– semi-volatile organic compounds– and heavy metals), as well as a reference number and link to the DEC. Follow that link, and you’ll find a slew of vague information along with a table with more than a dozen contaminants of concern including the big boys like lead, mercury, and arsenic– all problem children in their own right. Next to those scary specters is a perhaps more terrifying indication, “quantity of waste: unknown.” Well, that was helpful.
Call me a plebe, but the government documents aren’t exactly easy to decipher. I’m sure I could find out pretty easily, with a little research– but isn’t this map supposed to be easy to use for people who aren’t willing to do the research, or don’t have time to do it? The point of maps like this is to simplify complex knowledge into an easily digestible format, not create pathways that plop you out in a discernible-information desert (i.e. government websites).
And based on what the data-miner Korin said, this seemed intentional. Instead of making concrete conclusions or even an informed estimation about how far along cleanup of, say, a Federal Superfund site (land contaminated with chemicals known to be hazardous) is, the map underscores the difficulty in seeing the whole picture. Particularly when it comes to the red dots, which indicate the most troubling (but consequently the most regulated) sites of known environmental damage.
“If you click on any one of [the red dots] you’ll have a link for more information and there’s a reference number, that will take you to a government site,” Korin said. “It’s still hard to tell what the story is, but we’re trying to be fair and portray information in a not-so-biased way.”
“Biased” is a very sticky word she chose to attribute to data and public information, and it’s strange that people ostensibly working to clear things up for the public and make information more easily accessible would want to contribute to the existing opacity of information about pollution– or in this case, tacitly acknowledge its legitimacy by failing to work around that (which admittedly might be extremely difficult) or at least explicitly acknowledge transparency problems on the map.
“It’s too much to put in one little pop up box,” Jessie smiled. Or, maybe it would be bad to bite the hand that feeds– the feeder being the DEC? Though Ward hinted toward these problems in answer to a neighbor’s question about exact numbers for chemical dumps and plumes: “Sometimes that data just isn’t there,” he said.
I followed up with Ward today and asked him about the map’s links directly to government websites, what seemed like a dead end and proof of the eternal secrecy surrounding industrial waste an pollution. “A lot of that is what we’re trying to de-mystify through all of this, and some of it will remain mystical, I guess, just because of the sources of the data,” he admitted. “We’ll continue to try to put this information as much as possible into a context a layperson can understand, but at the end of the line there’s always this data table out there that does become impenetrable.”
One major strength of the map, a unique aspect of the designers’ approach, is the inclusion of a snippet of the waterfront’s industrial history. “It’s really important to the story of the neighborhood and understanding the context of what’s happening around you,” Jessie explained. The map’s glimpse of the past weaves all the way from the old Chelsea Fiber Mill (built at the end of the 19th century at the northern tip of Manhattan Avenue all the way down to the Domino Sugar Factory (site of the massive Two Trees development). The various sites of interest appear as blue dots connected by a thick black line, which corresponds to a walking tour created by NAG, which neither demonized nor glorified the industrial past. It’s a very straightforward account of both the contributions of the various industries and the problems they left behind, but it also offers a real-life window into what actually happened here. It makes the numbers and symbols all the more real.
NAG’s effort to dig deep in this instance proves their good intentions, but it doesn’t make up for some of the large question marks floating around the map (yes, it’s beta– so we’ll give them a break), as hard as they’re working to straighten them out. Thankfully, by all accounts this version of the map is only the beginning. Ward told the audience that NAG hoped to continue working on ToxiCity, not only by making it more accessible but also by adding more data to it. He said he hoped they could eventually “cross-reference this with where construction is happening,” before adding, “we are already talking about the next steps.”
This is all very interesting stuff to be sure, but an older gentleman in the back echoed what everyone seemed to be feeling: “Besides scaring the hell out of a bunch of homeowners, how will people be able to make use of this in a practical way?”
Well, one way is to put pressure on specific construction sites and developers who appear to be building on land without going through proper remediation or taking necessary precautions. Emily pointed to the Nuhart building on the (aptly named) Dupont Street near the Greenpoint waterfront, a site known for having toxic plumes.
“One of the advocates in our group said something about [that] building and we’ve been monitoring it with what’s called the TAG Grant,” she recalled. “If that person hadn’t spoken up and said, ‘I actually know there are toxic chemicals under the ground there,’ who knows what would have happened with that development?”
Rita added there was some “digging” going on and “a question as to whether they were following the procedure properly.”
Apparently DEC responded promptly.
“If [developers] are converting to residential, they need to at least do a study to see what’s on the site– there may be nothing, there may be something,” Ward cautioned. “We’ve seen some sites that have been converted to residential where there was significant pollution going on and they’ve had to do significant remediation in order to make sure the vapor or whatever isn’t coming up– a lot of those are sites that need to be thought about.”
Everyone seemed to agree that more construction and development could only mean more potential slip ups like the ongoing issues with the Nuhart site. “I think there’s a false sense that people who are coming in to produce real estate in the neighborhood– which we’re going to see a lot more of, really soon– that they’re gonna fix it, right?” Emily said. “We have to be really vigilant.”