3rd World Congress of Environmental History

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Newtown Creek Reimagined: New York City’s Aquatic Discardscape in Historical Memory

Thu, July 25, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Centro de Cultura e Eventos, Sala Goiabeira


Newtown Creek in the popular imagination is a polluted place. To use the terminology of historian Joel Tarr, the water in and land around the creek have served as sinks for New York City’s wastes, including the biological wastes from one-fifth of the city’s toilets and industrial wastes from the variety of manufacturers that operated on and alongside the creek in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although the city’s largest wastewater treatment facility disinfects sewage before discharging it into Newtown Creek, combined sewer overflow events regularly release untreated sewage into the water. The industrial past continues to affect the waterway through the presence of persistent organic pollutants on the creek’s bed, in its water, and in the land and groundwater in its vicinity. This paper discusses the conflated and conflicting ways in which the waterway has been used to handle wastes since the mid-nineteenth century – as sink, as vital system of urban metabolic processes, and as a cog in the circular economy – and considers how assumptions of these three narratives shape contemporary planning in the United States’s megacity.


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