I first went to the northernmost point in Brooklyn after reading an article in The New Yorker about the oil spill there – 17 million gallons, half again as big as the Exxon Valdez – which at a geologic pace, made its way from a long gone Standard Oil holding tank in the eastern part of Greenpoint, to the aquifer beneath the neighborhood, to the creek that marks Brooklyn’s northern boundary with Queens. The article said there was only one public access point to the water, “a rickety assemblage of wooden boards at the end of Manhattan Avenue,” and one Saturday morning I ended up standing there with my friend Dan. We spied the shining water, the Pepsi distributor in Long Island City, the Pulaski Bridge in its muted red, scraps of fishing line, a metal ruler screwed down to the dock and marked at eight and ten inches to measure fresh catch.
Two years later, I moved to the end of Manhattan Avenue – two blocks from the Newtown Creek, caddy corner from a notorious S.R.O. called the Greenpoint Hotel – into a one bedroom apartment with crooked wooden floors, a pressed-tin ceiling, and my girlfriend, Erin. We talk about leaving New York like farmers talk about rain, but we’re happy where we are for now, cozied into our little place at Brooklyn’s end, well past the Polish storefronts, two stories above the final bus stop, diagonal from the hotel, and down the road from the creek.
Long before I read of the Greenpoint Hotel’s troubles – the drug dealing, the violence, the hard-up boarders called “a mix of addicts, AIDS sufferers, the recently homeless, and those who are all three,” by the New York Times – I was spying on it like a nosey neighbor. Almost everyday, I’d stare at its crumbling face, pock-marked with buckling tiles. I’d wait for the bus in its messy shadow and sneak peaks past the browning curtains and the spider-cracked glass to the front office where black and white monitors cut between high-angle hallway shots, and mop buckets and milk crates rest on one another like neatly stacked eggshells.
The sign above it says, “HOTEL,” but from the outside it looks like four homes draped in a quilt of siding. The building farthest to the north, the one on the corner of Clay Street and Manhattan Avenue, has a laundromat downstairs and five almost arrow-slit windows splattered along its northern wall. Their slap-dash pattern gives no clue to how many floors or rooms there might be inside, but offers the impression of a low, narrow, dark interior filled with an improbable number of perpendicular junctions.
Around dinnertime, I’ll usually see some of its residents in front of the P&A deli and nod to the guys I know by sight. There is the young skinny kid with oily ribbons of hair in his face and bad legs who sits folded outside of the expensive grocery store hustling for change at Christmas time. And there’s Eddie with the tremens who everyone calls Elvis on account of his matted pompadour. He has the sunken cheeks and the slow stutter of a long-broke drunk and always feeds Rachel’s dog; feeds her big bull terrier right out of his shaking hands. Sometimes I talk with Charles – a skinny black guy who wears a mesh-backed union cap and drinks coffee after coffee with my downstairs neighbor Segundo and always nods and waves when I pass him. We’ll mostly talk about the weather or the headlines. Sometimes we talk about Flatbush – where he used to live – or his son, or girls. No matter what their age, they’re girls. Whenever something happens on the block, we’ll talk about the changes and The City. We talk a lot about The City and what it’s doing.»
On the Fourth of July that followed my first trip to the northernmost point in Brooklyn, I found myself standing again on the creek’s lone dock. We had been riding bikes and drinking beer, looking for a place to watch the coming fireworks. There was a chubby little boy, maybe ten or twelve, out there as well. His hair was wet and his shorts were too; his body goose-pimpled by the breeze. He insisted the water was fine for swimming, cannon-balling to prove it. As his head bobbed on treading legs, he called, “it’s great,” and sprayed a jet of water from his mouth to our feet.
The City replaced the dock at the end of Manhattan Avenue with a vest-pocket park last year. It’s still under construction, but the wooden planks are gone, swapped for plantings and benches and mosaic stonework that came in sheets and shows its seams. There is still plenty of oil in the water, along with green and brown films, truck tires, pocket trash, and a few crab pots made from five gallon buckets and chicken wire. The view, save for some residential skyscrapers now off in the distance, is just about the same.
The City is working on the hotel too. Federal prosecutors filed a motion of foreclosure for it a few years back. In the supporting documents, they allege that since 1998, 20 people have died there, at least one of which was a drug-related murder. 194 rooms, that’s how many the brief says are in there; 194 neighbors who might step out to buy milk and bread and 25¢ cakes and return through a labyrinth of halls to find a body.
When there are police cars, fire trucks, or ambulances out front, the shop keepers, coffee shop girls, and Pentecostal church kids who play touch football on the sidewalk across the street keep on with their business. Deli-front chatter opens from its circle to an observant U.
You can still get down to the water by walking under an industrial building’s back stairs. And the Department of Environmental Protection opened a new waterfront park a few blocks south and east of the Avenue. The path there snakes around a bit – through a water treatment plant, past a sand and salt storage yard – but once you’re out there you’re right on the bank of the Newtown Creek. The City’s grasses flap with the gusts of wind that move from midtown across the East River up the inlet. The water laps at the cement-lined shore with heavy, brackish indifference.
Graham T. Beck is a writer and editor. He lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and rides his bike to work.