Newtown Creek: An Urban Oasis

By James Folta

I used to think I knew a lot about my neighborhood, but that was before quarantine shrank everything. As the weeks of staying home became months, and the months became seasons, my socially-distanced walks in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where I live, became more than just mental health exercise, and began to be more exploratory.

A lot of my walking discoveries were small: buildings and facades I hadn’t stopped to consider, strange statues in front of an art gallery, a giant industrial gear installed (or abandoned?) on the sidewalk. But my favorite discovery has been the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, a small promenade on the extreme northern border of the neighborhood.

On paper, it's the last place you'd think to go to relax: the walk is along Newtown Creek, a small offshoot of the East River that, due to years of industrial run-off and a massive oil leak, has the ignominious classification as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the U.S. As if that weren’t enough, the park also abuts a wastewater treatment plant -- yes, that waste -- and a metal scrapyard that is usually crushing and stacking the twisted remnants of cars and appliances. 

But this little strip of shoreline has become my quarantine oasis.

The park is properly named a “walk.” Beginning with a small staircase, the walk is narrow throughout, threading its way through the treatment plant, past a parking lot, and then around the shoreline of the creek in a jagged fish-hook shape. Its length is full of beautiful details -- an austere, boat-like entrance, large steps that dramatically descend into the river water, views of Manhattan’s skyline -- but the designers’ master stroke was managing to obscure the brevity and slenderness of the park. The park feels larger and more intimate than it would otherwise due to clumps of plants -- all native and labeled with facts about their traditional uses -- and recessed seating along the water. These obscure continuous sightlines, making the space feel more intimate, and larger than it is, full of small nooks.

It's a surprisingly tranquil, yet unapologetically urban space. It's not a place to hide from the city, but rather an oasis squarely within the city. So many of New York’s bigger parks let you feel outside of urbanity for a while, but Newtown Creek has no pretensions of being anywhere but right in the middle of the city. No matter where you are, you see and feel New York around you. 

I like the city. I like living in the city -- though it can be hard, and grinding, and tougher than it needs to be. City life is dense and full of wonderful wrinkles and juxtapositions to lose yourself in. But the pandemic has made me think a lot about escape and how it relates to my comfort and security. So many of us are wondering whether the city is ”worth it,” whether it’s better to get out, whether we need some kind of escape. Newtown Creek Nature Walk has been a reminder that the city always has something new to offer. You don’t need to run away. The city will always reveal a new fold to hold you in.

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