Pollution in Newtown Creek (Part I: Affect)

I “visited” Newtown Creek on a cold, rainy February afternoon. Newtown Creek isn’t a single locality that one can simply “visit.” The creek is 3.5 miles long, a tributary of New York’s East River, running along the boundary between Brooklyn and Queens, alongside the neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Sunnyside, Maspeth, and East Williamsburg. It is also one of the most heavily polluted rivers in the United States.

Here is a brief recap of the creek’s past, as detailed in Niles Eldredge and Sidney Horenstein’s book, Concrete Jungle. Before heavy industries arrived on its shores, it was used by farmers on nearby lands on Long Island to transport their fresh produce into the city. Soon after the 1860s, petroleum refiners rushed into the shores of Newtown Creek, as New York City is on its way to becoming the nation’s manufacturing powerhouse. Oil refineries then rushed into the creek more chemical plants, who were more than eager to digest all the by-products of petroleum refining and turn them into money. During the time of environmental non-regulation, some of nature’s harshest toxins and pollutants were pumped into the air about, drained into the waterway, dumped near its shore, and slowly seep into the riverbed. Protests from nearby communities had few effects, and early pollution regulations were often rendered toothless as they arrived at the Congress. For much of the twentieth and early twenty-first century, wildlife was nearly non-existent in Newtown Creek (while oil companies with evolving names such as “ExxonMobil” flourished and rooted in the riverbank to this day). Designated as a Superfund site in 2010, the creek remains polluted, given that it no longer receives freshwater sources. The cleanup of the creek is still in the planning stage.

Now, what is perhaps true about today is that we are already saturated with news about the environment. Flashing images and videos about the latest environmental catastrophe, from disintegrating ice caps to the Australian bushfires, have perhaps rendered a lethargy in many consumers of media, me included: they evoke in us, either a response of indifference or perhaps a brief, generic sense of concern, which would soon be washed away with more occupying thoughts. This blog post should make no difference. These mediated facts about the environment lack in what Teresa Brennan would call affective energy.

In the first chapter of her book, The Transmission of Affect, Brennan talks about this seemingly unusual aspect in psychology: it is the “atmosphere” that one “feels” as they enter the room; it is what she calls “the physiological shift accompanying a judgment.” The keywords here are “physiological” and “judgment”: “physiological” emphasizes that affect is not simply imagined, or “in the mind,” but is a “real” (to badly put it) physical response in our body, and “judgment” implies that affect is more than simple, sensory “feelings” such as “cold” or “painful,” but is always in connection with meanings: how we interpret and process what we sense.

To me, the difference between being in Newtown Creek and reading about Newtown Creek on the screen (as you are doing right now) is ultimately the difference between “in the atmosphere” of affect and the lack of affective power. I read that the creek is the site of America’s largest oil spill in history, the waterbed remains covered in oil and “sludge acid,” etc, but I take in no other than mere “information,” as I am sitting comfortably in the library. Meanwhile, as I was walking along Greenpoint Avenue towards the river, I was greeted, first with a smell of sharp odor from industrial exhaust lingering in the air, to the familiar sight of salons and delis along the street slowly giving away to barbed-wires on top of concrete walls and tree-less streets. Standing on Kosciuszko Bridge (which carries the busy I-278 freeway) means getting inundated by sounds of engines and sights of broken metals and dead trees.*

It is more than just my physical irritation from the smell and the noises. Because together, these “things” assault me with senses of strangeness and uneasiness, as I find myself in an ecology that is alien to me, and even slightly hostile. For Brennan, such impressions of Newtown Creek on me is the “transmission of affect,” from the environment to my body. At the same time, “being out-of-place” would describe me standing on the bridge over Newtown Creek as much as it would describe Newtown Creek being in New York City. What I saw was the humdrum of oil refineries and sewage plants juxtaposed against the backdrop of Manhattan’s and Long Island City’s shimmering skyline,* and the irony here is that Newtown Creek is simply “out of sight, out of mind” for the people (such as me) in Midtown, on Union Square, or even in Williamsburg, which is just a bit south of the river. As much as the affective power of the smoke and the sewage is all too powerful when one is situated in it, such affective power is also highly localized in this case.

And so this leads to the biggest challenge that I would face in this project, which speak through media, which demonstrably fails to transmit the many affective aspect of the peril to the environment, about the affect in Newtown Creek — especially when we are increasingly accustomed to taking what is on the screen as a replacement for what is “in real life”: false emotions and feelings as substitutes for affect. To me, this challenge is a challenge, not about representing (say, for example, dramatizing) Newtown Creek, but about presenting it.

*Photos I took can be found here.

Works Cited

Brennan, Teresa. “Introduction.” The Transmission of Affect. Cornell University Press, 2004. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt5hh05z.
Eldredge, Niles and Horenstein, Sidney. “Fouling, and Cleaning, the Nest.” Concrete Jungle: New York City and Our Last Best Hope for a Sustainable Future, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2014, pp. 131–159. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt13x1gw7.8 .

~ by tonywu on February 17, 2020.

8 Responses to “Pollution in Newtown Creek (Part I: Affect)”

  1. This post establishes the issue very well, making it extremely informative.

  2. There was a lot of data revealing the situation of the pollution of the creek. Great job!

  3. This one really stood out to me as a well-rounded piece. Great job!

  4. This post was chosen as the most informative because it explained the action and results of the issue. I thought the storytelling in this post was really well done. The way the history of the issue was explained, as well as the current context in our world really made me think about Newtown Creek. The way you explained affective atmosphere was really well done as well and helped me better understand the affect of your ecology.

  5. I like the depth of your research and how it reinforces your point/the challenges the creek faces.

  6. Generally really captivating, and shedding light on how the city is not serving the creek!

    • I feel like your language really captivates the affect of your location, as well as your perceptions of the site!

  7. Great utilization of personal narrative and fact, it reads seamlessly!

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