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A blog from CityRealty (Links below will take you to the 6sqft site)


Since Greenpoint started to attract displaced Manhattanites in the early 1990s, the cost of renting in Greenpoint and nearby Williamsburg has shot up a staggering 78.7%. According to a 2015 study published by NYU’s Furman Center, Greenpoint/Williamsburg is the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in New York City. What many newcomers don’t realize is that despite the neighborhood’s name, Greenpoint has historically been anything but green. Indeed, it is also one of its most polluted. In fact, Greenpoint’s Newtown Creek is one of three Federal Superfund Program sites in New York City. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, these sites represent “some of the nation’s most contaminated land,” and Greenpoint’s Newtown Creek was chosen for the protection program because it is “one of the nation’s most polluted waterways.”
Newtown Creek in the early 20th century Newtown Creek in the early 20th century

Greenpoint’s Industrial Past

Although people have lived in Greenpoint, originally known as Green Point, since the 1600s, the community did not start to rapidly develop until the mid 1800s when it became a center for shipbuilding. Between 1840 and 1870, an estimated 35% of local residents were connected to the shipbuilding industry in some way. Workers often toiled up to 15 hours a day in the shipyards, creating a demand for barracks and inexpensive housing designed to accommodate workers and their families.
As Greenpoint’s ship building industry flourished, other industries grew up along the community’s waterfront too. By the mid 19th century, Greenpoint was also well known as a center for printing, pottery, glass, ironworks and gas. While some of these industries would eventually disappear, the oil and gas industry would persist and ultimately come to define both Greenpoint and its toxic history. In 1867, Astral Oil was established by Charles Pratt. Eventually, the company was sold to John D. Rockefeller and became part of oil industry giant Standard Oil.
Aerial view of Greenpoint. Newtown Creek defines its northern and eastern boundary
How polluted was Greenpoint by the early 20th century? While we do not have the benefit of contemporary environmental watchdogs and data to answer this question, the author of a 1914 pamphlet on Greenpoint’s history offers some insight. Speculating on what Pieter Praa, one Greenpoint’s earliest inhabitants in the mid 1600s, might see if he returned to Greenpoint, the author speculated, “he would see a modern industrial beehive. Smoky skies, blazing blasts from fiery furnaces, and never ceasing machinery in a hundred factories, where thousands of laborers spend their busy days, the loaded trucks and heavily laden ships would all meet his gaze.” In other words, by the early 20th century, Greenpoint was already a heavily industrialized neighborhood with high levels of airborne and groundwater pollution, but throughout the century, conditions would grow increasingly toxic.

The Greenpoint Oil Spill

In 1978, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter spotted a large oil spill flowing out of Newtown creek. As it turned out, the Coast Guard sighting was just the tip of the iceberg. Later, the spill would be linked to an earlier incident. On October 5, 1950, a concrete sewer exploded in the center of Greenpoint. The force of the explosion reportedly blew manhole covers three stories high, shattered windows and ripped open a section of pavement on Manhattan Avenue. What investigators didn’t realize at the time is that the 1950 explosion was the first indication of a slow but massive oil leak. Remarkably, even as the oil spill became increasingly visible on the water’s surface in 1978, no charges were laid and no serious clean up actions were taken by ExxonMobil or any other local oil refineries. This meant that the problem continued to escalate well into the 1990s.

While ExxonMobil is typically seen as the sole culprit behind the Greenpoint oil spill, as Riverkeeper emphasizes, “Research has determined that ExxonMobil, Chevron/Texaco, and BP refining operations leaked the oil and refining products into the soils and aquifers of Greenpoint over the course of decades. The oil spill is not the result of one distinct event but the toxic culmination of 140 years of spillage.” Sadly, the spill was so extensive, restoring Greenpoint to its pre-industrial state is now impossible. While an estimated 8.8 million gallons of oil and oil products have been recovered from beneath Greenpoint and the Newtown Creek waters since 1978, the companies responsible for the clean up operation estimate that at best, 70% of the oil lingering beneath Greenpoint will ever be recovered and even that will take well over two decades to accomplish.

Nature Walks, Paddling and Environmental Renewal in Greenpoint

Given Greenpoint’s industrial history, it may come as a surprise that today Greenpoint is a great place to explore nature in the city. Thanks in part of the ongoing efforts of several resident-driven environmental groups, over the past decade, the neighborhood has made considerable progress on cleaning up and containing polluted sites and educating local residents on the neighborhood’s environmental history.
To learn more about Greenpoint’s industrial history and ongoing greening efforts, start by going on the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, but be forewarned—the nature walk, designed by artist George Trakas, runs alongside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. If you’ve ever looked at the Greenpoint waterfront at night and wondered what those large illuminated multi-colored eggs are doing, now you know—they are part of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant (the city’s largest sewage treatment plant). While a nature walk along the side of a sewage treatment plant may not be for everyone, the short walk does offer a close up look at the wastewater treatment plant’s futuristic “digester eggs” and brings visitors into contact with artifacts culled from Greenpoint’s industrial history as well as a variety of native plants.
McCarren Park, located at the southern, less industrial end of the neighborhood
For an even more immersive encounter with Greenpoint’s environmental history, try a free public paddle down Newtown Creek. Details on upcoming canoe trips are posted on the North Brooklyn Boat House site, but even if it is a hot day, be careful not to tip your canoe. Swimming in the Newtown Creek is strongly discouraged as is fishing and eating wildlife caught in the creek. While the creek may now be clean enough to paddle down, it remains a highly toxic mix of oil and other pollutants that is never expected to be fully restored to its natural state.
Stately brownstone homes line the streets of Greenpoint's 363-building historic district

Is it Safe to Live in Greenpoint?

To date, there is no definitive study suggesting that it is dangerous to live in Greenpoint on a short- or even long-term basis. However, according to the Newtown Creek Alliance, depending on one’s precise location, they are advised to have their home tested for “vapor intrusion.” Vapor intrusion is a process that involves toxic chemicals found in soils and groundwater seeping into homes. The good news is that having one’s home tested for vapor intrusion is free (if you think your home is impacted, contact the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation), and if vapor intrusion is discovered in your home, the DEC will install a mitigation system free of charge to help reduce exposure levels.
Greenpoint with the East River and Manhattan skyline behind. Photo courtesy of Kgwo1972 at Wikipedia

Additional Info About the Building

Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.