Preserving history is about more than battling mold and disintegration. We took a trip to Greenpoint, Brooklyn to learn about how an environmental disaster propelled residents into action, and how the public library is archiving the neighborhood’s past and present.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Hi there. Welcome back! I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras.
Felice Belle And I’m Felice Belle.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras You're listening to Borrowed, stories that start at the library.
Kim Fraser Well, we moved here the year we got married… you came first by yourself.
Scott Fraser I moved here in September 1980 to prepare the apartment for you because we were getting married in October.
Felice Belle Kim and Scott started a family in Greenpoint, which is a historically Polish community in Brooklyn. To this day, it has one of the largest concentrations of Polish people outside of Poland. But it’s also one of the most industrial neighborhoods of New York City. And in the 1980s, it became impossible for Kim and Scott to ignore their environment… because of the smell.
Scott Fraser Rainy days would be sad days because what happened at the incinerator and the treatment plant. The overflow… would upset the entire treatment plant. So this horrible, sickening aroma would come wafting down the block. And also, beautiful sunny days when there was this wonderful wind that you always wanted, the nor’easter, where the wind comes out of the northeast, those would be sad days for me because we were down wind of the incinerator, and as we learned more about what was coming out of the incinerator… I realized that as Kim put laundry out on the laundry line, that cancer-causing dioxin was raining down on our laundry. And in the morning, on our car, we would sweep off the dioxin ash off of the car.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras It was the sewerage treatment plant and garbage incinerator, both located near Scott and Kim’s home—that brought these terrible smell and toxic ash. Because of their experience, Kim and Scott were part of one of the early environmental groups in Greenpoint—called GASP, Greenpoint Against Smell and Pollution. Today, thanks to their efforts and several lawsuits that we're going to get into—Greenpoint doesn’t smell anymore.
Felice Belle The neighborhood is seeing new construction, new parks, and young people moving in, contributing to the gentrification that’s happening all across our borough.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Greenpoint is changing. And even while things are moving forward, it’s important to remember where we’ve been.
Felice Belle That’s where the public library comes in. Because, like any library, public libraries have a mission to keep information alive, to save the past so that future generations can understand where they came from.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras So today we’re going to be exploring the idea of archiving. It’s a big and important question for libraries: how do you preserve the past? Particularly, in the case of Kim and Scott, when the past might be something as hard to capture as a smell.
Felice Belle We'll come back to the interesting story of Greenpoint. But let’s back up a bit and talk about archives. The best place to start is in a climate controlled room on the second floor of Brooklyn’s Central Library...
Diana Bowers-Smith Maybe I’ll just turn off...
[WHIRRING SOUND, THEN A BEEP]
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s the sound of a dehumidifier being switched off. Diana Bowers-Smith is an archivist at Brooklyn Public Library, and she’s standing in a small, windowless room at the back of a small, windowless office.
Felice Belle Diana works in the Brooklyn Collection—the place where most of Brooklyn Public Library’s archives are kept.
Diana Bowers-Smith We collect anything and everything to do with Brooklyn and Brooklyn history. So what we have here is not just books but also prints, maps, manuscripts, letters, photographs, everything you could think of basically.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras These materials are kept in a small room with a buzzing dehumidifier because they are really old. And the tricky thing is that all those items that Diana just mentioned—photographs, letters, newspapers, film—they all need slightly different conditions to survive.
Diana Bowers-Smith Temperature and humidity is a big deal when it comes to preserving sensitive media. And this is the only space we have that’s even close to climate controlled. So for example, we have our 16 mm film collection stored in these cabinets. We also have some photo collections stored in here. Notably, a large chunk of the Brooklyn Eagle photographs is stored here.
Felice Belle But the archive at Brooklyn Public Library is a lot larger than that one tiny room can hold. Because, in 1957, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle gave its entire archive—clippings, photographs, and newspapers—to the library.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is such an important archive for Brooklyn, because the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was the borough’s paper of record for 114 years—dating back to, in fact, when Brooklyn was its own city. And it published stories pretty much every day from 1841 until The Eagle closed its doors in 1955. The archive can tell us so much about what Brooklyn used to look like, and what it used to care about. And it’s all stored in the basement of Central Library.
Felice Belle We seem to be spending a lot of time in basements, Krissa.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Librarians love our basements! And this part of the basement sounds particularly creepy. It’s called the morgue, which is what newspapers used to call their file rooms, where reporters would keep old clippings of the paper. I’ll let Diana give you the tour…
Diana Bowers-Smith So the cabinets that are lining the center of the room here, these are the clippings from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Um, let me open up a drawer and show you. [DRAWER OPENING] This is basically what you're going to see when you open a drawer. The clippings are placed in these envelopes with the subject typed on the outside and then the clipping is kind of folded up in the envelope. Sometimes they are also glued to index cards. So, two things that archivists hate: folding and adhesive. Really bad for any kind of paper, but especially newsprint because it’s thin and it’s acidic. So, even in the best of conditions, newspaper is going to deteriorate. It’s going to turn brown, it's going to get brittle and crumble. So I’ll open a different drawer so you can get a better sense of… [DRAWER CLOSING AND OPENING]
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Diana pulls open a drawer full of greying folders of photographs. The tops of the folders are completely covered in dust.
Diana Bowers-Smith So, the folders are ripped, they’re dirty, the photos in them are kind of all over the place. They’re dirty, in rough shape.
Felice Belle It takes a lot of work to maintain an archive like this, and when the newspaper clippings came to Brooklyn Library, there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to how to best preserve this paper. That’s why you have the adhesive and folding.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras The staff at the Brooklyn Collection is working on updating the storage so that the paper can survive as long as possible. And, thankfully, a lot of this archive is now online—the entire Brooklyn Daily Eagle has been scanned, so you can do a keyword search and get decades of Brooklyn history on our website.
Felice Belle Diana and her colleagues at the Brooklyn Collection are constantly collecting and archiving current local stories. The new challenge is how to preserve information that hasn’t been printed on paper at all.
Diana Bowers-Smith So Brooklyn has had a thriving blogosphere for fifteen, twenty years. The height was probably around 2004. Unfortunately a lot of those really popular blogs from that era have already disappeared from the web. But we’re doing our best to save what’s left from earlier blogs and also blogs that are current now. There is a lot of talk about how this era in history will be, for future historians, a bit of a black hole because we’re producing so much more data than we ever have before and we’re also losing data at unprecedented rates.
Felice Belle In November of 2017, two local news websites in New York City—Gothamist and DNAinfo—disappeared from the web. The owner decided to shut down the websites, and just like that, thousands of stories were gone. No one could access the content online.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras It just goes to show you how ephemeral any kind of story can be. Thankfully, a lot of the stories published on those two news sites were archived, and today, Gothamist is actually back up and running, and New York is better for it. Meanwhile, Brooklyn Public Library continues to scour the web for important documents of our time. Once we find them, we make sure to save them.
Diana Bowers-Smith When you archive a website, you use a tool called a crawler to save a static version of the website. So the web is changing all the time, but this way you can kind of freeze the site the way it is on a certain day, save that static version and that’s just a file you can open in a browser, whether you have an internet connection or not, whether or not the site is still on the live web, that file is still going to be viewable.
Felice Belle Okay, so we’ve covered how to collect and preserve old newspapers, old film and photographs, and old websites… But Krissa, what if the story isn’t written down at all? What if you want to remember the way a place felt, or how it smelled?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And this is where we come back to Greenpoint. Because the library is working on another really interesting archiving project there. To get a better sense of the importance of the neighborhood, we talked to a local historian.
Geoff Cobb I think we could make a claim that Greenpoint might be the smelliest place in New York. We have a long history of bad odors.
Felice Belle That’s Geoff Cobb, a Greenpoint resident and historian who recently led a walking tour one windy day in Greenpoint.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras The bad odors weren’t Greenpoint’s fault. In the mid 1800s, Greenpoint became a center for industry. The Erie Canal had just been built, which connected New York City to the Midwest by water, and factories opened on the waterfront in Brooklyn. It was heavy industry that brought the overwhelming smell to Greenpointers.
Felice Belle Greenpoint’s natural environment was radically changed by factories. It wasn’t just the odors in the air, but the creatures in the water, too.
Geoff Cobb If you can imagine this in 1609 when Henry Hudson first discovers New York, there are 220,000 acres of oyster beds. There’s an estimate that there’s well over a billion oysters in the New York City bay. As Greenpoint industrializes, they destroy the water that the oysters live in, and by the 1870s, oysters are just a memory.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Soon, Greenpoint saw the five “black arts” move into the neighborhood. The black arts are industries that are known to be heavy polluters—printing, glass making, porcelain, metallurgy...
Geoff Cobb And then the most destructive industry, which comes in 1867—oil refining.
Felice Belle You can’t tell the modern story of Greenpoint without talking about oil refining. In 1919, thirty-five tanks of oil, naptha and other chemicals caught on fire. Residents and firefighters were injured as the fire burned for hours. People lined up on the street to watch the 70-foot plume of black smoke.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Then, in 1950, part of a street exploded—shooting dozens of sewer covers three stories into the air. Three people were injured and a ten-foot section of sidewalk was ripped apart. Residents of Greenpoint who were around in the 1950s remember the explosion. No one knew it at the time, but it was one of the first indications that something was wrong underneath their feet.
Felice Belle It wasn’t until 1978 that the coast guard discovered gasoline in Newtown creek—a plume of it, leaking into the waterway that separates Queens from Brooklyn.
CNN Announcer A massive underground oil spill in Brooklyn may be far worse than anyone knew. The spill happened in Greenpoint, possibly at the turn of the twentieth century. Tanks owned by ExxonMobli leaked millions of gallons of oil into the soil and water there...
Felice Belle At first it was estimated to be a 17 million gallon spill. But by 2007, the EPA cautioned that there could have been as many as 30 million gallons of oil that leaked into the land and water over the span of about 140 years.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And cleanup of a spill that massive was slow. By 1990, an agreement was reached to have ExxonMobil remediate the toxic site. But still, activists and residents became frustrated with the lack of action by the oil company.
Felice Belle And the process is still ongoing—the New York Department of Environmental Conservation guesses that it’ll take at least another ten years to clean up the site.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras But it is slowly getting better. Geoff Cobb says that Greenpoint is greener these days, thanks to community action and environmental remediation.
Geoff Cobb So, when we first moved here, which was in the 1990s, if you can imagine this, we were completely cut off from our waterfront. So one of the good things that’s happened is that we’ve gotten two parks. So we’re beginning to reclaim the waterfront. Environmental questions are really on the front burner now.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras In 2010, New York state and ExxonMobil reached a settlement, of which 19.5 million dollars will go to funding community projects to make up for the environmental disaster that the oil company caused.
Felice Belle And part of that funding is going to a new public library building. Greenpoint’s branch is being rebuilt right now and it’s set to open in the coming months.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras One thing that's going to be part of that new library is a new archive. It’s going to be pretty different from the archive that are here in the basement of Central. A large part of this archive is going to be oral histories.
Felice Belle Here are some clips from long-time Greenpoint residents. First, Bill Salzman, then Michael Liantonio, Mary Korba, Rose Giordano and Jeffrey Hiller.
Bill Salzman I think the word to describe Greenpoint maybe back in the 50s was grey. No one thought about the environment back in the day. No one thought about clean water, clean air, anything of that nature. The bridges which surround Greenpoint, the Williamsburg bridge… they would clean them and paint them all the time. And of course that’s all lead paint. So that would be all over Greenpoint. There was a lot of health issues that I was aware of growing up. Lots of women had breast cancer. People say Greenpoint was the cancer capital of the nation. I never knew that to be true because back in the day, you know, if you had cancer, you never told anybody.
Michael Liantonio The average person in this neighborhood at that time worked for either Domino Sugar, the pencil factory or Leviton’s. Well now the Newtown Creek is finally clean enough that birds go in it, but you should have smelt it years ago. The odor was horrendous.
Mary Korba I worked in what they called New York Progressive Wood Heel Company. They made heels for for women’s shoes. I had to just dip in the ink or whatever was and you know the lift on the heel? I just had to go and make it the color of the shoe.
Rose Giordano All my life I’ve lived here. The neighborhood has changed a lot. I went to see the house where I was born at, and saw that it is not there anymore. It is not a new, high-rise building.
Jeffrey Hiller We want to be the last old school business. While all these towers go up around us, we will continue to have used clothing here. How glamorous!
Acacia Thompson Greenpoint helped provide service for the city in a lot of different ways—through waste transfer, through creating kerosene. So many things have happened in this neighborhood. And a lot of the times these things are forgotten.
Felice Belle That last voice is Acacia Thompson, the outreach archivist in charge of collecting oral histories about Greenpoint’s environmental past.
Acacia Thompson There has been intense environmental inequity in the neighborhood. It is typically a neighborhood of immigrants for a long time, and the city and industrial pollution, they've treated the neighborhood in such a way that the neighborhood is paying for the sins of the past.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Acacia’s archive also captures something else: the emergence of the environmental movement, seen through a local lens.
Felice Belle Laura Hoffman is a Greenpoint resident and a member of the Newtown Creek Alliance, one of the environmental groups that emerged in the late 1990s. She talked about what it was like to see a movement emerge around her during the first meeting of the Alliance.
Laura Hoffman I know as a community member, I felt broken, sick. My family was sick, I felt desperate. And at that meeting, it was a ray of hope. We found ourselves getting a crash course in environmental problems. Because we learned that the playground was surrounded by a PVC manufacturer, a polluted creek.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Another activist from the neighborhood, Christine Holowacz, contributed her memories to the archive. She has been living in Greenpoint since 1972, when she emigrated there from Poland. And she remembers when Greenpoint was home to a lot of heavy industry.
Christine Holowacz The city decided that because it's an immigrant neighborhood we can dump everything. So you have the largest sewer treatment plant, you have all of these transfer stations here… So, it really bothered me. That these people are working very hard, they’ve made this their home. Not only their home but they also—I don't know if you can understand that—but everyone at that time who came from Poland had family in Poland, and Poland was really communistic, and they had nothing over there. So you would scrounge these dollars and you would also share with your family in Poland so you made them better as well. So people were working very hard and I felt that they were really abused. You know, we had the largest plume as you know, the oil, and basically how you... you know right now we're sitting together and the money that comes to this is basically from that.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras This oral history archive project is part of the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, which was created by the state and funded with money from the ExxonMobil settlement in 2010. That settlement came from the same lawsuit that the Newtown Creek Alliance worked on. History is coming full circle.
Felice Belle And all of these stories will become a part of Brooklyn Public Library’s huge oral history collection called Our Streets, Our Stories. Anyone will be able to access all these stories and more because they'll become part of the library’s archive—for the whole community to listen to and remember.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras If all goes according to plan, the land under Greenpoint won’t remember its past. The soil will be restored after all the oil is removed. The air will forget the smell of sewerage and toxic ash, and the water will forget the chemicals that once killed off all the oysters.
Felice Belle Right, but we have to remember Greenpoint’s past, and preserve the memory of it. It matters to the residents, it matters to their kids and grandkids, and it matters for the future of the neighborhood.
Acacia Thompson I honestly think Greenpoint is a case study for change and trying to turn back the clock of what happened with industrialized pollution, and righting all those wrongs now. You know, just making the connections and understanding people’s experience better I think makes you a better neighbor.
Felice Belle That’s it for this segment of Borrowed.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras But keep listening, because librarian Alexandra Wilder is going to be recommending books about archiving and environmental history in our Book Match segment.
Alexandra Wilder I am Aleandra Wilder and I am an adult librarian with the Brooklyn Public Library. So when I was selecting books for this list I was thinking both about the work of archivists as well as the product—so what can you do through making use of an archive?
First up is a novel called The Archivist by Martha Cooley. In the book, T. S. Eliot's letters are sealed by bequest until 2019. And then there's a young researcher who wants to access the letters. So that's something that a lot of archivists have to deal with, where they'll have a collection that isn't supposed to be accessed until a certain time or can only be accessed by certain people. And it can be a challenge because really archivists like librarians want collections to be open and accessible.
The second book that I included is called Pen to Paper: Artists' Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. I worked briefly at the University of Pennsylvania's Kislak Center which is, they're a special archives library. So, I worked with a lot of letters, which can be really interesting because you're dealing with the really intimate details of people's lives and trying to decipher their handwriting which can be very challenging. But most of the letters in this collection are very beautiful because artists are writing them and they include some archival photographs of the artists as well. So it's a really neat volume that I thought would be neat to include here.
And then, I included a book here that's a little bit of a wild card. It's called A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. And it is kind of a lesser-known science fiction classic, though it did win the 1961 Hugo Award for best novel, which is the biggest science fiction award that there is. But it was the only novel published by Miller in his lifetime. So in the book there's a monk who is doing replicas of these ancient documents that they're trying to preserve, and so there's this funny inside joke sort of thing that happens in the book where the monk is traveling and he's carrying one of these copies that he's made of this ancient document. And he gets stopped by a roadside bandit who ends up stealing it, who thinks it's the original and it's really the copy. But because the monk has done all this work in making this copy, he's actually done something to save and preserve the original.
And then the last book I included here is called Gowanas: Brooklyn's Curious Canal by Joseph Alexiou. The author actually made use of the Brooklyn Collection's archives and he thanks them in the acknoledgements which is really nice. And I think he made extensive use of the Brooklyn Eagle, and I just thought it was a great example of what is possible when you kind of dive into an archive, and research history, and all of the different resources that we have here in Brooklyn for that.
Click here to find all of Alexandra Wilder's book recommendations in our catalog!
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, bkylnlibrary [dot] org [backslash] podcasts as well as a link to the BookMatch list right there on the web page.
Felice Belle Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras We are recording this from Central Library’s Information Commons Recording studio. And guess what, if you have a BPL library card, you can reserve time here too and make your own podcast. Visit our website to find out how. That’s B-K-L-Y-N library [dot] org.
Felice Belle Until next time!
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Thanks for listening.
- BookMatch list for "Borrowed" Ep 2