Transmissions from the Wreckage: What’s Universal About the Eco-Struggles of Polish Communities in New York

Multi-layered collage: A swimmer in the toxic waters polluted by the Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, New York. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Migrant and immigrant workers, who often live in the most densely populated and polluted urban areas, struggle to belong, not only for reasons of cultural and geographical assimilation, but also because they are exposed to the ecological-industrial ruins that bear witness to the capitalist devastation of the past, as Tusia Dabrowska argues in her contribution to the “Kin City” series, focusing on Polish working-class communities in Greenpoint, New York.


It was our 11th year together and it was time to formalize our relationship. I was very pregnant and my partner needed a green card. It was not lost on us that in a system of free-market capitalism that prioritizes individualism, one of the least thorny paths for him to remain legally in the United States was through the family unit. A rare instance of the state recognizing the value of a relationship. We were grateful.

For the wedding, I wore a dress inspired by Marzanna, the Slavic goddess of death and rebirth. In Poland, at least when we were kids, at the first hint of warm weather, children burned or drowned her effigy so her body could replenish rivers bringing spring. Rebirth is always violent, I suppose. It is also circular. For the ceremony, we thought about Zofia Stryjeńska’s “Slavic Gods” series created in the1920s, “in which she revived and transformed archaic Slavic mythology.” In Stryjeńska’s depiction, Marzanna is a water goddess wearing an elaborate headpiece and holding a fish. She symbolizes abundance, recurrence and the continuous flow of life.

The focus on Slavic land traditions was a surprising wedding theme for these two urban Jews, but we felt strangely proud to bring these traditions of circularity and respect for land into the wedding ceremony. The event also doubled as a welcoming of sorts for my partner into a new country, on a stolen land, and these were the gifts of folk epistemology that we bore. Friends commented that it is the immigrant traditions that make up the fabric of this country. And I thought about the immigrant labor that supports the U.S. economy.

A landscape of post-industrial wreckage

As the theme of immigration was intricately connected to the wedding, it seemed fitting to get married in Greenpoint: New York’s Polish neighborhood located on the northern edge of Brooklyn, cordoned off by the Newtown Creek in the North and the East River in the West. Here, for at least 150 years, countless newcomers from Poland, in the tradition of so-called “fresh off the boat”-immigrants, have struggled through the administrative, material, and affective processes of immigration. We were not alone.

We got married on a street off of Greenpoint Ave, just a few blocks from the heart of the Polish neighborhood and a short walk from the futuristic domes of the Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment plant. Described on its website as “iconic,” this new iteration of the plant was completed in 2017. By the time my now-husband began visiting me in New York in 2013, the old plant was routinely overflowing. On a weekly basis, it discharged “about 500 million gallons of raw sewage directly into New York Harbor each time.”

As Niles Eldredge and Sidney Horenstein point out in “Concrete Jungle” (2014), according to the plant’s website at the time (the new website’s corporate lingo steers away from scientific data), “trash, pesticides, petroleum products, PCBs, mercury, cadmium, lead, pathogenic microorganisms, and nutrients[,] which reduce the dissolved oxygen content of the water[,] [were] dumped into Newtown Creek” . Even now, the surrounding businesses include a waste solutions company, a scrap metal place, auto repair shops, an e-waste business, a wood exchange site and parking lots – a landscape of post-industrial wreckage.

Grid of industrial promise and environmental destruction

Greenpoint has been a wasteland for a long time. Between the 1850s and early 20th century, over 100 oil distilleries appeared on the shorelines of Newtown Creek. As a historical review explains: “These distilleries were dumping more than 30,000 gallons of chemical-laden byproducts into the creek every week.” Petroleum refiners anchored a network of “varnish and paint manufacturers came for access to the oil used in their products; chemical companies came to produce the sulfuric acid used to improve the odor and color of kerosene and expanded to include other products.” The overflowing sewage treatment plant fit perfectly into this grid of industrial promise and environmental destruction.

This patch of ravaged landscape with an aspirational view of Manhattan’s skyline is the United States of America that immigrants from Poland were welcomed to. By the mid 1890s, as if planting a flag, Poles erected their first church in the neighborhood, and twenty years later, they built another one. Here, they felt understood. Safe.

When I arrived in the U.S. in the 1990s, Greenpoint smelled like rotten eggs on many nights, and the local Polish language clinics anecdotally had a surprising number of stomach cancer cases. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the neighborhood playgrounds were located in proximity to superfund sites, like the one that is across the street from the now defunct NuHart Plastics, a plastic and vinyl manufacturing plant that was in operation for about 50 years. Underneath it – even now, twenty years after the factory closed – a thick 5ft. / 1.5m layer of toxic phthalates (which are used as plasticizers) floats on top of the groundwater table.

As Lisa Bloodgood, a community environmental health expert and North Brooklyn activist and organizer, told me during a research conversation, “There is no place [in Greenpoint] where I would feel comfortable putting my baby in the grass”. This toxic wreckage on lands stolen from those, who for thousands of years had stewarded them in ecologically efficient ways, is what my child will consider our place in the world.

On the edge of habitable space

The free-market ideology of individualism, like much of the “American Dream,” can be seen as a story of struggle over who – human or more-than-human – has the right to have their intelligence, consciousness, interiority and agency recognized. Immigrants from Eastern Europe with their “strange customs,” limited language skills and later Cold War-era vilification, were easy targets for discrimination. As Polish jokes suggest, given any agency, Poles only know how to mishandle it. We are a mass of fools with no interior life committing one gaffe after another in the simplest and most poorly paid jobs as we try to survive in the urban pinnacle of late capitalism. Living on the edge of habitable space, our ability to survive always seemed closer to the history of the dying ecosystems of the creeks, marshes, and wetlands that surrounded Greenpoint than to the robber barons across the river.

But it’s not just a story of devastation and failure. Very much like in the plant world, any immigrant enclave is a laboratory of communal intelligence. Wisdom, safety, and a sense of presence are a networked experience that extends both across time (ancestral knowledge) and space (those who surround us). Dr. Kelvin Fong, an environmental health scientist and epidemiologist, notes that many of the immigrant traditions (such as a cuisine full of fermented foods) make recent immigrants healthier than non-immigrants – also known as “the immigrant health paradox.” The trauma of migration, of settling in a damaged environment, of living with legacy pollution, slowly registers in the bodies of migrants, reshaping their epigenetics for at least two generations. Ours is a transmission from the wreckage.

I don’t know if all transmissions are a sign of sentience, but they are a marker of relation. Whether you believe or not that stones and wind have spirits or at least agency, our treatment of them, that is the relationship or kinship we feel with them, is a marker of respect and responsibility for the right to presence across forms of materiality, registers, and vibrance, as the authors of the essay “Making Kin with the Machines” (2018) suggest. Whatever signals or forms of liveness are produced, received, and interpreted on this land cannot be separated from the dying ecosystems, the Lenape people who lived here peacefully until they were killed or displaced to Oklahoma, and the immigrants who arrived in Greenpoint shortly thereafter. “They are all ‘collateral damage’ of the same toxic project,” as environmental anthropologist Dr. Tamar Blickstein put it in a conversation we had.

Politics of belonging

Perhaps this is one of the key factors in understanding why immigrants, who often occupy the most densely populated urban spaces, struggle with the idea of belonging to a new country: they do so not only as a matter of cultural and geographic assimilation, but also because they often find themselves belonging to the capitalist ruins, i.e. a reality based solely on accumulated capital, successful deregulation, and unlimited resource extraction that already exists.

This is the United States of America to which I’m inviting my husband. We were both born under a regime that portioned food, that produced environmental disasters on the scale of Chernobyl, and reshaped the landscape according to Stalin’s whims. Instead, we will welcome our child into a world of GMO’ed food, rising water levels and a landscape that is being restored while our community is priced out.

It was the immigrant communities that were the original enclaves of advocacy and activism here, but the clean up efforts mean that Polish immigrants can’t afford to live in Greenpoint. By some estimates, the Polish community here is half the size it was a decade ago. The Polish bookstores, pharmacies, and restaurants I remember from my teenage years are largely gone. Some prefer to focus on changes in migration patterns, but it’s also obvious that all across Brooklyn, gentrification contributes to “green restoration” and ethnic fragmentation.

We can investigate which communities are harmed by “green infrastructure” and why. But even those who are asking these questions understand that the most desirable future of carefully restored marshlands and wetlands, the phantom Mussel Island, pristine rivers with uncontaminated shellfish and the foot-long oysters that once could be found on food stands in the city, does not await so-called “fresh off the boat”-immigrants.

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