BUFFALO, N.Y. — Greenpoint, Brooklyn is considered one of
New York City’s fastest developing neighborhoods. The
community, a bastion of the industrial working class, has seen an
influx of artists and young professionals in recent years.
Condominium towers are going up alongside the single-family homes
that characterized the area for much of its history.
But look closer at what’s happening in Greenpoint, and a
different story also emerges, according to a new study by Winifred
Curran, associate professor of geography at DePaul University, and
Trina Hamilton, assistant professor of geography at the University
The research describes how one group of long-time residents
teamed up with gentrifiers and external environmental activists to
push for the cleanup of Greenpoint’s Newtown Creek while
preserving the area’s industrial roots.
In this effort, gentrifiers, having been schooled in the
area’s toxic legacy by long-time residents, forged a new
political identity as environmental justice activists whose
interests were aligned with those of long-term residents. The
coalition leveraged the newcomers’ skills in areas like
writing and multimedia to achieve community goals.
The study’s findings appeared in a pair of articles
published in late 2012 in the journals Urban Studies and Local
Environment: The International Journal of Justice and
“While sustainability and green urbanism have become
buzzwords in urban policy circles, too little analysis has focused
on who gets to decide what green looks like,” Curran and
Hamilton write in Local Environment. “Many visions of the
green city seem to have room only for park space, waterfront cafes,
and luxury LEED-certified buildings, prompting concern that there
is no place in the ‘sustainable’ city for industrial
uses and the working class.”
The activism in Greenpoint is an attempt to battle the false
choice of cleanup and reinvestment versus decay, and to recognize
the injustice that gentrification (and previous decades of malign
neglect from the city and state) represents, the authors said.
In the case of Newtown Creek, they state, “Neighbourhood
residents and business owners seem to be advocating a strategy we
call ‘just green enough’, in order to achieve
environmental remediation without environmental
The researchers interviewed 24 people — including
long-term residents, gentrifiers and environmental activists
— about their effort to clean up an underground oil plume
that permeates the water of Newtown Creek and a swathe of adjacent
Hamilton and Curran argue that this diverse coalition, including
recent arrivals, shares the goal of achieving environmental justice
for long-term residents. The aim is to improve life for people
already living there and to preserve the neighborhood’s
industrial character—and not to make the area greener with
the hope of luring future residential development.
“Our main argument is that when you look at a gentrifying
neighborhood, you don’t need to accept that gentrification
needs to continue to steamroll through the entire neighborhood or
that environmental priorities have to be put on hold to prevent
further displacement,” Hamilton said.
In other words, gentrifiers and long-time residents need not
always be at odds. In the case of Newtown Creek, Hamilton and
Curran say the arrival of the creative class, including highly
educated residents with professional experience in areas like
graphic design and communications, played a key role in advancing
the community’s environmental campaign.
The authors note that while the oil leaked into the environment
in the 1950s, it wasn’t until recently that Greenpoint was
able to make serious progress in the cleanup effort.
In 2008, activists partnered to form the Newtown Creek
Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA), which is eligible to receive
state funding and technical assistance to redevelop the site. The
coalition’s vision is to clean up the area while preserving
industrial jobs. As one participant put it to Hamilton and Curran,
the activists would like to see the waterfront become a “21st
century industrial corridor.”
More progress came in 2010, when the federal government declared
Newtown Creek a Superfund site in need of serious environmental
remediation. The same year, Exxon Mobil settled lawsuits related to
the oil plume, pledging to carry out a cleanup and creating a $19.5
million Environmental Benefits Projects (EBP) fund for community
Hamilton believes that the Greenpoint case provides an important
example of how long-term residents and activists can partner with
gentrifiers to push communities’ longstanding environmental
and social concerns.
She cautions, however, that it also highlights the need for
government intervention to break the all too common tie between
cleanup successes and the displacement of long-term residents. She
notes that the Newtown Creek waterfront benefits from protected
industrial zoning, which has provided a critical opportunity to
create an alternative vision for a sustainable, working waterfront
in the neighborhood.