Monday, April 18, 2016

Scenic views of my ancestral homelands

I used to commute to work by bike, from my home in Queens, through Brooklyn, and into Manhattan, a route which took me across the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge. This bridge separated the two most harrowing parts of my commute, connecting a poorly marked bike lane and heavy truck traffic with no bike line, heavy truck traffic, and an excess of double parking. The bridge itself has no bike lanes, and the incline is enough that once you've crested the hill on a bike, you're pretty invisible to cars coming up behind you. As a result, I usually walked my bike on the sidewalk, and took advantage of the delay to take in the scenery.

Newtown Creek from Greenpoint Avenue Bridge 02
Newtown Creek from Greenpoint Avenue Bridge 02
Postdlf from w [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant
By Jim.henderson (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Inspiring, isn't it? It's not exactly the most picturesque part of Brooklyn, and certainly bears little relationship to Park Slope's brownstones or Williamsburg's trendy boutiques. And yet it never failed to move me, on some level. This industrial Brooklyn is my Brooklyn, my ancestors' Brooklyn. They didn't live in Greenpoint, of course; they lived in Red Hook. But here on the Newtown Creek in Greenpoint is where I felt the most connection to the gritty, industrial Brooklyn that they would have experienced.

I was once out with friends in Brooklyn Heights, and as we walked past the building that had been the Hotel St. George, I mentioned that it was where my grandparents had been married. A Brooklynite friend asked me, slightly exasperated, "Seriously Kathleen, why don't you live in Brooklyn?" As nice as it is to walk past the place where my grandparents were married, though, those special-event, one-of-a-kind locations are not what connect me the most to my family history. It's there on the Newtown Creek, where I wouldn't dare touch the water. It's when I got stuck in growing lines of automotive and bicycle traffic as they raised the Greenpoint Avenue drawbridge to let some industrial, waste-bearing barge pass beneath. It's the sight of sewage treatment plants, shipping containers, and storage warehouses that line both sides of the creek. These are today's equivalents of the shipyards and grain elevators that employed my Mulvaney and Toner ancestors along the Red Hook waterfront, the modern counterparts to the industry that would have been the backdrop to their daily lives, and these are the elements that make me feel the closest to them.

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