To say that Mitch Waxman is merely a tour guide hardly does the man justice. Waxman is a walking, breathing, talking encyclopedia of history and anecdotes surrounding one of Greenpoint and Williamsburg’s most hallowed and revolting landmarks: Newtown Creek.
For the past couple of years, Waxman has been giving tours around the waterway, currently infamous for the grotesque pollution that rests on its bottom. He began exploring the industrial haven around the creek after a doctor recommended that he get more exercise. A former comic book writer, Waxman would carry his camera along with him to keep his walks interesting, feeding a burgeoning fascination with the area’s rich history.
“I’ve been trying to develop a few cogent area based tours, to try and tell the story of the creek from a historical perspective, to provide some context,” said Waxman who is partially employed by the Newtown Creek Alliance. “The mission of NCA is Reveal, Restore, Revitalize. I’m on the reveal side, I do the tours and do the history part. I started seeing things I just frankly didn’t understand and came back and started doing the research, and here we are.”
An artist by trade, Waxman has the natural verbosity to paint pictures with his words. Standing on the seemingly ordinary Metropolitan Avenue Bridge overlooking the English Kills tributary, Waxman illustrates a scene of white sand beaches, lush wildlife, and bountiful hunting. This “fisherman’s paradise,” as he refers to it, has been replaced with slabs of concrete, murky green water and the putrescent scent of an adjacent waste facility.
Each stop on Waxman’s tour comes with a brief history lesson, public service announcement, or a mix of both. He’s quick to discuss the lack of garbage equity in New York City or go into detail about the properties of the “black mayonnaise” spread thick along the creek bed, while also pointing out one of the largest live chicken markets in the city. Waxman’s primary goal, he said, is to provide a broad retrospective of the creek while still highlighting the issues the waterway faces.
“It’s funny because the environmental history is one thing, but historically Newtown Creek has been a jobs engine—you’re talking in 1900 it had 2 million jobs compared with today when there’s about 18,000 jobs within a half mile of the creek. The crying shame of it is we have some of the most incredible industrial bulkheads anywhere in the world, and so close to Manhattan, and they’re largely not being used.”
Trudging the creek circuit through sweltering humidity, Waxman delivered his historical narrative effortlessly, beginning with the local Native American tribes that were run out of town by the Dutch to the prosperity of 19th century Brooklyn mayor Martin Kalbfleisch to the migration of the Polish, Italian, and Jewish communities to the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint.
The tour lasted for a little over two hours, starting at Grand and Morgan Streets, crossing two bridges, and ending over lunch at the Clinton Diner in Maspeth, famous itself for its past as a Hollywood landmark, having made appearances in feature films such as Goodfellas. It’s safe to say that no one who accompanied Waxman on this tour de gross around the creek left disappointed.
“Who else is gonna bring me here to walk around this place?” said Kenneth Furie, who has followed Mitch on other tours in the past. “It was a great group with a great energy, and Mitch is an excellent guide.”