Just back from a peaceful Sunday roll through the industrial wasteland of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Maspeth, Queens, along the potholed streets clinging to the banks of notorious Newtown Creek.
Training for a marathon you get around. As your weekly mileage goes up you seek new routes to keep things fresh. And you can end up in some odd places. Sometimes these new journeys off the beaten paths become favorites. That’s what happened after I found this route a few years ago, and it’s one I return to once every week or two.
For over a century this waterway off the East River has been home to refineries, fertilizer plants, whiskey distilleries, recycling warehouses, city bus and sanitation depots, and is still the site of several outflow points for the release of raw sewage when the NYC sewer system is overloaded during heavy rains. One of the most polluted waterways in the world, the creek is largely stagnant owing in part to a thick bottom of toxic sludge that is twenty-feet deep in spots. From decades of leakage at crude oil processing plants, the soil surrounding the creek is saturated with one of the largest oil spills in the U.S., larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. Newtown Creek won the honor of a federal Superfund site cleanup designation in 2010.
Yet I swear there’s something special about a jog on the quiet Sunday roads of this blighted landscape along the Brooklyn and Queens shores of this poor abused waterway. On every other day of the week it’s just its usual ugly seething self, jammed with trucks and activity—probably not the best time, I have learned, to try to introduce any subtle charms of the route to your Manhattan friend who is already skeptical of all the hype about living in Brooklyn and Queens*—but on Sundays this neighborhood of garbage transfer stations, warehouses, cement factories, and clanging trucks and forklifts is shockingly silent and feels almost holy.
Against a backdrop of so much ugliness, little bursts of beauty stand out starkly on the empty streets, from stately plane trees and prowling feral cats to the giant half-mile-long, twenty-foot-high boulder wall alongside Calvary Cemetery on Review Avenue and the soaring views as you run underneath the Kosciuszko Bridge and its replacement, which is now under rocket-speed construction.
It is the only day of the week this savage place two miles as the crow flies from the Plaza Hotel lives up to its name you can find on old NYC maps: Blissville, named for 19th-century New York developer Neziah Bliss, who not only had the best name in the history of ever but who founded the neighborhood and nearby Greenpoint.
* “You’ve been brainwashed,” she said. “This place is a nightmare. The absolute worst. You have to get out of Brooklyn.” Then she sent me her own annotated map of the route.