Newtown Creek Narratives Make Pollution Personal

The Toll of Contamination
By Athena Ponushis, Photo by Maria Howell

Laura Hoffman grew tomatoes in her backyard. She made sauce. She fed her six children. But every morning, when the stay-at-home mom would walk out to her Greenpoint garden, she would see her tomatoes were grey – yes, grey – as if someone had dumped an ashtray on her red fruit. This was the mid-‘80s. Laura simply picked up her hose and washed the ash off her food.

As her five boys and baby girl grew, the Hoffmans moved further down Dupont Street, trading their backyard garden for a rooftop view. From her new perch, the once unsuspecting mother saw smoke stacks. Images started streaming together in Laura’s mind – the smoke stacks of the former Greenpoint Incinerator drifted to the ash on her tomatoes, the foul smell at the softball field led to the sewage sludge tank, the oil spill she grew up hearing about still rippled along Newtown Creek with a sheen of “black mayonnaise.”

“When I put two-and-two together, I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s the ash I’ve been washing off my vegetables all these years,’” remembered now 51-year-old Laura, a white Kleenex in her hand. “My kids had basically been eating from contaminated soil, soil laden with cancer-causing toxins.”

Laura has recently recorded stories similar to her tomato eye-opener for a developing health study, the Newtown Creek Community Health & Harm Narratives Project (CHHNP). Through neighbors interviewing neighbors, the study aims to document the public health concerns of residents living along Newtown Creek.

After her revelation on the roof, Laura’s childhood memories of sipping from her grandmother’s old water well no longer felt safe and her mother’s brain cancer felt like more than bad luck. Her father’s degenerative brain disorder seemed more than coincidence, notably adding the loss of the family Chihuahua Poco to yet another rare brain disease.

“My mother and father may have been married, but they weren’t related. And they certainly were not related to their dog,” Laura said frankly, sitting across a glass table from me in her fifth-floor living room. Paintings of sailboats and light houses hung on her seafoam-green-colored walls, walls she had been decorating with maritime knick knacks and coastal flea-market finds for 24 years, before words like “environmental offender” were part of her vocabulary. Now she could spell her family’s afflictions – progressive supranuclear palsy, central nervous system lymphoma, even Poco’s diagnosed encephalopathy – for me to write down in my notebook. A lifelong Greenpoint resident, Laura blames these medical ailments on the stagnant pollution and stagnant politics surrounding her home.

“You have to take control of your health, be your own doctor. Okay, I do that. I go online and research the symptoms, see what these diseases are about,” said Laura, who has been diagnosed with lupus and fibromyalgia. “If I went to school, I’d be on my way to a medical degree. I’ve accumulated too much medical knowledge just via my family. This isn’t stuff you want to know.”

The first time I interviewed Laura, I sat at her table for three hours. She was not anxious to tell me her story. She was not hesitant, but she was a little armored. What would I do, scribble down a pretty quote with dirty words? Was I just another reporter sensationalizing her neighborhood’s neglect? It is a sexy story – industry drowns decades of troubles down Newtown Creek, millions of gallons of spilled oil continue to swell underground, locals say do not dip your middle finger in the water, you might end up with two.

Was I worthy of the details of her oldest son’s seizures, her younger son’s asthma, her daughter’s migraines? Arguably, the Newtown Creek contamination has created a community of victims. Affirmatively, the Newtown Creek contamination has created a community of disappointment. But this did not stop Laura. Despite the researchers who have disappeared, despite the unreturned emails to the Department of Environmental Conservation, Laura again shared her story. Not to have her picture in a monthly newspaper, not because I asked the dog’s name – no – Laura spoke so her neighbors may speak.

Twenty-nine-year-old Rachael Weiss spearheaded the CHHNP health study after listening to vocal residents like Laura stand up at public meetings. Wanting to give them more than a town-hall audience, Weiss secured roughly $46,000 from the state to fund the narratives project. Now local voices can be taped by an audio recording, composing a touchable, playable oral history of what their neighborhoods have been and what they have become.

“This area has been neglected for so long, I really want to empower the residents,” said Weiss, the project’s principal investigator. “Community-based projects like this may do. Residents can say their experience and document it. Then they see it matters, so they see they matter. They see they deserve better. Maybe they will fight harder for recognition. Maybe it will give them a voice to demand changes.”

With a master’s degree in public health, Weiss has poured over many reports where people seem to get lost in the numbers. The Newtown narratives project was designed to be less statistical, less sterile, more human. Residents living in Greenpoint, East Williamsburg and Maspeth, Queens are asked open-ended questions like, what do you do in your community? Where do you go? What do you see? What does your neighborhood mean to you? How would you describe it to someone who has never been here? What do you think will happen here? What would you like to see?

Investigators intend to collect around 50 interviews, then edit the narratives into sound bites accessible through HabitatMap.org, an environmental justice social networking site. Additionally, a formal analysis identifying common themes throughout the narratives will be prepared, complete with a recommendations page.

“We’re sending it out to everyone,” said Weiss, anticipating the report to be finished early next year. “Out to elected officials all over the city, agencies all over the state, it’s going everywhere.” Equal to the many places Weiss plans to send the study are the many perspectives she hopes to include. Not just Greenpoint, not just oil, not just people who associate illness with the neighborhood, but all views along the creek.

Caridad Estevez has lived in or close to Williamsburg for over 50 years. The 67-year-old native Puerto Rican lost her mother to cancer. Her brother died from cancer. Three years later, her other brother died from cancer too. While all three relatives had lived in Williamsburg, Estevez does not connect their deaths to their neighborhood.

“In Puerto Rico, many people die from cancer. Puerto Rico is beautiful. There’s no big pollution in Puerto Rico,” said Estevez, leaning forward on her elbows. “As far as I know cancer is hereditary and I don’t believe pollution helps with that.”

Estevez covers her couch in plastic. She admits local pollution may act up her allergies or clog her sinuses. She sneezes a lot when she walks outside. But when she hears someone blame cancer on their surroundings, she says it’s not true, reiterating, “You get cancer from family background.”

Estevez participated in the Newtown narratives project because as a community member, she holds herself accountable for the conditions of her neighborhood. Laura Hoffmann participated in the project because she wants to see state agencies assume accountability, she feels community voices warrant hard data from the Department of Health. Living her whole life in Greenpoint, Laura has seen factories wind down, she has seen steam ships fade away. But she says she has never seen the industrial pollution properly cleaned, just prettied up, just tucked away.

So I ask her, why live in a place where you constantly wonder, who’s next? Why not move? “If I move, I lose my footing,” said Laura, a file folder bulging with years of collected maps of Newtown Creek in her grasp. “I guess in their eyes, if I move, I lose my right to fight.”

Laura will stay. And two or three times a week, she will walk past all the names she knows playing dominoes on her block, she will walk underneath the overpass at McGuinness Boulevard, past graffiti-sprayed garage doors to the Newtown Creek nature walk, a walkway paved around the sewage treatment facility. Walking a trail where others would see trash and hear tractors, Laura will see a path to the water that did not use to be there. She will see blueberry shrubs growing wider and mocking birds getting fatter. She will see change, a crumb to some, but enough for Laura to see beyond a contaminated creek, to see a well where she can throw her hope and make a wish.

CHHNP will hold an information session Friday from 4 to 5 p.m. at the Maspeth Public Library. Another session Wednesday, August 26, starting at 6:30 p.m. at Word Bookstore, 126 Franklin St. by Milton Street.

To learn more about CHHNP, contact newtowncreekstudy@gmail.com or (718) 577-1359