Public Place

Kelly McMasters

I turned my face away from the small, squat building and into the open air, watching the cloud-white jetstreams streak through the blue Brooklyn sky. Leaning against a pea-green fire hydrant, painted the same color as the house behind it, I waited for the real estate agent to return from touring the other prospective renter around the basement-level space.

The Craigslist ad had called it a “1-bedroom garden apartment,” although after weeks of scouring listings and visiting disappointing place after disappointing place, I knew a converted basement when I saw one. But I loved the frontier feeling of the block, whose two lumpy residential buildings were sandwiched between small factories and a short warehouse. And there was something about the open lot on the other side of the street that made it a little easier for me to breathe.

Stretching out beyond a chain link and razor-wire fence, the lot was more dust than soil and there were hardly any trees, but the size of the open space—multiple acres, I figured—was foreign in the Brooklyn landscape I had come to know. I’d lived in some of the borough’s softer neighborhoods, like Park Slope and Windsor Terrace, during the previous five years and I was struggling to cross the Gowanus Canal and make it to Carroll Gardens, closer to the city and, of course, more expensive. A few blocks away were fancy cheese shops and cafes, and although I would have preferred to live among them, this basement apartment was at least at the foot of fabled Smith Street. Granted, Fifth Street, home to this lumpy little house and big open lot, was not really part of the neighborhood, but over the past few weeks it had become quite clear that this block would be the closest to Carroll Gardens my bank account would allow.

I stared past the strange casket-sized blocks of graffitied cement strewn throughout the lot, and looked above the curling spiral of barbed wire that topped the six-foot fence. A section of subway punched out of the ground just beyond the lot, tracks arcing through the sky in the distance. Two F trains shuttled towards one another, brakes squealing as they braced against the turn, scuffed silver bullets on a collision course. For a moment it looked as though one train was swallowing the other whole, and then they crossed, continuing on their separate trajectories.

The street was quiet again. I looked back at the squat one-and-a-half story house in which I was trying to rent an apartment. An old sheet was pinned unevenly across the upstairs window in front and I wondered who lived there. Then the door to the basement opened and the man who had answered the apartment’s Craigslist ad before me slunk up the cement stairs and hurried back up the street. The real estate agent waved me in.

In 1895, Citizens’ Gas Company set up shop on a section of land in Brooklyn where the Gowanus Canal curves like a comma. Workers dug three large circles into the ground, and then dropped a swimming pool-sized concrete storage tank in each. One of ultimately two-dozen manufactured gas plants in Brooklyn, this Citizens’ Gas plant supplied nearby homes and businesses along the Gowanus with fuel for heating, cooking, and light. In 1925, the plant was taken over by Brooklyn Union Gas Company, which expanded the site in response to Brooklyn’s growing population and utility demands.

The gas was produced using a process called coal carbonization. Clumps of coal were shoveled into large, beehive ovens, which allowed the black rocks to heat to just under the burning point. This released vapors, which were then collected. Once the gas was skimmed off, all that was left in the beehive ovens was coke, a grainy black substance that burned hotter than coal itself, and this by-product of the gas production was also sold off. The vapors, including a flammable mixture of methane and carbon monoxide, were then combined with petroleum products to create more methane. This gas was then pumped through large underground pipes throughout the neighborhood.

By the 1960s, manufactured gas was being replaced by natural gas, a cheaper alternative, and like many other coal gasification plants, this one hugging the curved hip of the Gowanus was shut down. The property was transferred to Keyspan, but left inactive. The weeds pushed up, and the unused cement disks and holding tanks and other machinery sank deeper into the dark earth.

The Monday after I moved into my new apartment, I awoke to diesel fumes and the chugging of loud engines penetrating my basement bedroom at 5 in the morning. What I took on my first Sunday morning visit to the apartment to be a warehouse next door was actually a commercial bakery, and the delivery trucks came at the break of each dawn to fill up with sticky buns and bread and muffins. Every half hour after that the house shook as heavy trucks made their way to and from the cement factory at the end of our short block. Out back in the massive garden, which featured a lean-to with a giant hole in the middle that the landlord said had once been used for making wine, the heady fumes from the trucks mixed with the treacly scent of cinnamon rolls.

When the landlord came over to fix a loose bar on one of my windows, I asked him about the lot across the street. Why is it empty? Are they going to build something there? With Smith Street’s recent commercial explosion I was surprised that an open space of this size would still be untouched. John, a smooth-faced trim man of fifty who worked as a plumber, rubbed his hands together.

“It’s supposed to be a park. The state’s involved, because it’s polluted or something, but they are going to make a beautiful park. Now that the Gowanus is getting cleaned up, this area is gonna be like the Venice of Brooklyn. And once there is a nice park there I’ll knock this building down,” he said, pointing to the squat green house. “Then I’ll build something big.” I imagined packing up again and starting the agonizing search for another place as John rushed to reassure me. “But that won’t happen for a long time.”

I asked what kind of pollution was in the lot.

“I don’t know. Something to do with Keyspan or coal or something. They say it’s bad for you, but I used to play in there when I was a kid, before they put the fence up. We’d build forts and hideouts in there, play stickball.” He shrugged. “I’m still here. And this block will be the most expensive in the neighborhood soon. You watch.”

The lot was named “Public Place” in 1974. This is when talk of plans for a park seem to have started. In 1990, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation declared the space an Inactive Hazardous Waste Site. Coal gasification plants were proving to be a tricky problem because of the chemical soup left behind; solvents, coal tar residues, arsenic and cyanide, tar-soaked bricks and timbers, and carcinogens like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene remained beneath the surface, migrating through soil and bubbling up in inky black patches.

In 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency began its Brownfield Program and Public Place joined the more than 450,000 other properties across the country in the effort to sustainably reuse and redevelop land that was otherwise too polluted to build upon. Tax incentives and other perks sweetened the deal for prospective builders and environmentalists were happy, too: technically, reinvesting in these sites—rather than leaving them to rot because of the prohibitive clean-up expenses—ultimately slows environmental degradation because developers can reuse this land, rather than tearing down trees and putting pressure on or ruining other undeveloped natural spaces. The brownfield designation made Public Place the largest open space available for development in all of Brooklyn.

I taped sheets of clear plastic over the shoebox-small bedroom windows, but they just puffed like sails against the diesel fumes and wind. Some nights, when the bakery was closed and the delivery trucks stood silent in the parking lot down the street, I would peel off the tape from a corner and pull back the cloudy plastic to see into the sunken square in front of my house where we kept the garbage cans.

Often, I would spy Louie, a small, shrunken man with a voice like a duck and a face like a raisin. He was harmless and babbled constantly, but often left the sunken square littered with beer bottles or hypodermic needles. Once, that first summer, he must have shot up in the small cave-like privacy by my submerged front door, and as I stepped out of the house in flip-flops I narrowly missed the needle’s sharp glinting stick.  Another time, my parents were visiting and as we left the house my father pointed out one of Louie’s needles nearby. A diabetic lives next door, I lied.

Often, though, there were faces I didn’t recognize. The bakery left bags of bread out every night, and the desolate block was a place to come for food and a bit of quiet. But when there were too many, or when they hopped down from the street to curl up inside the sunken square outside my bedroom window, or when I would peel away the plastic and find myself staring at a man cupping his penis and directing a yellow stream into my garbage can, I would call the cops.

When it was just Louie, I didn’t call the cops. Instead, my boyfriend would walk him to the corner and ask him to stay away. On those nights, Louie would cry as they walked, and tell of the days before the fence, the days when he and the others lived in the vacant lot in peace. When the fence went up, the homeless lost their access to Public Place, and to their hideaways, the small secret spaces between the cement blocks or deep inside the mouths of wide gaping pipes. Louie said when the fence went up, he lost his home.

Tar contains volatile chemicals that have the ability to vaporize. If you kick the toe of your sneaker into the sandy silt of Public Place, or if you are a little boy rolling around in the weeds during a game of stickball, or if you are a homeless person bedding down for the night, chances are you will release these chemicals into the air.

I learned that most of the polluted structures—the gas holders, the oil tanks, the ash dump, the coal piles—were within the fenced area across the street, but there once was also a 5 million cubic foot Gas Holder on my side of the street. This giant keg used to tower over all of the other buildings on the block. Its footings are still buried beneath one of the warehouses on the other side of the bakery.

The main pollutants at Public Place are particularly nasty byproducts of petroleum processing called BTEX and PAHs, whose exposure pathways include inhalation, skin absorption of airborne benzene, direct contact with groundwater, soil vapors, or secondary intake from crops. The legal Maximum Contaminant Levels for BTEX is 5μg/L, or five micrograms per liter (one microgram is one millionth of a gram). In 2005, when I was living in the stumpy green house across the street, BTEX contamination at Public Place registered between 540 and 2,600μg/L. The highest contamination level found for PAHs was 500μg/L; the Maximum Contaminant Level is 0.2μg/L. Though still smaller than a quarter teaspoon per liter, this means the level of PAHs was 2500 times over the level considered safe.

Much of the BTEX sludge migrated into the Gowanus Canal, sinking to the bottom in slick, oily drops that never burst, shattering instead into hundreds of smaller drops, like the mercury in a thermometer. I imagine the bottom of the Gowanus as a bed of glittering black pearls.

I worked on my garden at the beginning of the summer until the fat, insistent mosquitoes forced me back inside. But a few weeks after I cleared a patch of weeds and planted some small beans from a paper packet I bought for a dollar at True Value around the corner, vibrant green vines crawled up the stakes I had leaned against the bakery’s cement wall. Then the beans kept growing, climbing the wall and sending shoots out in every direction. I harvested juicy green beans as big as plantains all summer long. When some friends invited me to their summer house in Connecticut one weekend, I brought along a bag of my beans and steamed them, tossed them with some garlic and butter, and served them. No one could believe they came from my garden. They were the biggest beans we’d ever seen. After a while, I couldn’t keep up and the beans dropped off the vines from the pull of their weight, the pods shrinking as they dried out into thin papery wings, rotting and returning to the ground.

A few months later, I walked out my door and up the front cement stairs and saw moon men moving slowly through the weeds in the open lot across the street. I stopped and stared for a while at the group of people walking around the lot in heavy white suits. These suits covered their whole bodies and heads, complete with gloves and bobble-head helmets. They lumbered around wielding silver instruments and notebooks, planting sticks into the ground like flags, shoveling bits of dirt here and there.

I later read that these were Columbia University Engineering students. They were testing contamination levels and measuring the landscape of the lot so that they could create final projects and presentations for a school project about remediation. Urban Design, Landscape Architecture, and Contaminant and Remediation Engineering professors were working with a group called the Public Place Alliance, a cooperative effort of nine local organizations, in an attempt to create some ideas that combined both community and commerce goals. First, though, the level of pollution needed to be determined.

I didn’t know who the people in the white suits were that morning, but I realized the pollution must be worse than my landlord and Louie made it seem if these folks were wearing protective gear to this extent. I continued along my way up to Smith Street for a croissant and coffee from one of the nearby fancy cafes, pulling my thin cardigan around me. I held my breath until I got to the corner and then I couldn’t hold it anymore.

I only lasted a year at Smith and Fifth. The single streetlamp on the block burnt out after a few months and despite my weekly visits to the neighborhood councilwoman’s office further up on Smith Street, our street remained pitch black throughout the winter months. The upstairs neighbor with the old bedsheet curtain fractured his back at work a few weeks after I moved in and recuperated at his parents’ house for the next few months, so the single mother and her daughter who lived next door were suddenly my only neighbors on the very dark block. Louie the junkie got married and he and his wife grew increasingly hostile, refusing to leave when we asked them to, getting into fistfights with each other that left blood on the sidewalk. In early spring, a man with a heavy, scraggly beard and red backpack appeared and took up residence in the corner between the bakery and my apartment. He stood like a block of wood, staring deeply into the empty lot, all night. During the day, when the bakery was operational, he sat on a milk crate next to a bodega around the corner, staring into a bush. He gave me the creeps in a way that Louie or his wife or the other visitors never did, and by spring I had called the cops so often that they stopped sending patrol cars. Instead, if it was before midnight, a man with a shaved head in a blue uniform would pedal his ten-speed up the block and weakly try to move people along.

Then my boyfriend became my husband, and with our combined paychecks we crossed to the other side of the elevated subway tracks. Our new apartment was two blocks away in a real brownstone, and our old Italian landlady spent most of her time mopping and bleaching the hallway floors. The first time I saw our squat green house after moving out, I was on the train as it swooped in its arc over the giant open lot. The house looked small and sagging, and I noticed new pink survey ribbons dotting the empty lot’s curling barbed wire.

The Columbia University students who had stomped around in the moonsuits produced a school project based on their findings at Public Place. Working with a professor from the School of Public Health, they developed a blueprint for an urban Vertical Farm to be built on the lot, in concert with open walking paths and a community center. In October 2007, the city opened a Request for Proposals from builders regarding the Public Place site. Proposals included suggestions for brownfield contamination remediation, as well as ideas for between 400 and 1,000 units of housing, commercial units, and a combination of affordable and luxury rentals. Apparently, the Vertical Farm didn’t interest them. David Walentas, the developer who had single-handedly turned the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO from a slum to a luxury artsy enclave in the previous few years, was named an early favorite. While the winning developer would be saddled with the responsibility of cleaning up the toxic waste, the tax breaks involved promised to be incredibly lucrative.

The developers and the community groups fought for years, and the old lot just sat, waiting. Meanwhile, more studies were requested, and more moonsuited folks descended on the area. More attention was drawn to the Gowanus, and soon the word Superfund could be heard at community meetings. Some folks worried that the developers would take too many shortcuts in cleaning up the waste or that even more toxins would be released during the construction process, and that a federal Superfund designation was the only way to be sure the land was remediated correctly and safely. But many feared the Superfund designation and the potential construction freeze that could follow, more than they seemed to fear the pollution itself. Some locals, like my landlord, who were hoping the new construction would be a boon for their property values and nearby stores, cautioned that the Superfund process would take too long, be too complicated, that once government became involved there would be no development, just a slow clean-up and tax dollars down the drain. The pollution isn’t really even that bad, they’d say at meetings. Think of the money! The idea that illness due to exposure to the chemical soup could preclude their—or their children’s—enjoyment of the windfall didn’t seem to enter into the equation.

But as more studies were done and it became clear just how much of the shoreline of the Venice of Brooklyn was compromised by the area’s industrial past, concern grew. The EPA estimated that cleanup of the 1.8-mile canal would take more than a decade and cost in the ballpark of $500 million. On March 2, 2010, the entire Gowanus Canal was inducted into Superfund, and the high-flying hopes for shiny new rows of apartment buildings and restaurants caught and stuck in the downward swirl of the canal’s shit brown sludge.

In the meantime, I’d left the brownstone and Brooklyn altogether, crossing the East River into Manhattan. I still returned, though, and sometimes, walking around my old neighborhood, I see my former landlord, John the plumber. I don’t mention Superfund. I don’t mention the developers who fought like so many sharks in the murky water to take over the toxic waste or the way the promise of the high-rises went poof. I don’t mention how biology students from the New York City College of Technology detected gonorrhea in a drop of water from the Gowanus Canal. Instead, we talk about the weather. During these conversations, I notice that his shoulders seem perpetually slumped, like flat tires, and he has the look of someone whose sure thing fell through.

And every so often, in local newspaper photos, I see the pea-green face of the old squat house just beyond the overgrown weeds and barbed wire fence, peeking through like a distant artifact, someone else’s home now. The house also seems to have slumped, even more so than when I lived there, as if at any moment the structure could give its final groan before collapsing in on itself and getting caught in the quicksand suck, joining the chemical sludge, the glittering black pearls, and the swirling dreams of real estate riches, sinking back down into the dark, moist earth, like so many rotting vegetables.

Kelly McMasters is the author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, a memoir that is the basis for the documentary film The Atomic States of America, a 2012 Sundance selection. Her essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, and River Teeth, among others. This essay is forthcoming in the anthology Still the Same Hawk: Reflections on Nature and New York, available October 2012.