Ben Manley and I recorded the ambient sounds at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint on Thursday, May 22. Newtown Creek feeds into the East River, separating Brooklyn and Queens. The Nature Walk, a mix of concrete and indigenous grasses, shrubs and wildflowers, is on the Brooklyn side of the Creek east of McGuinness Boulevard / Pulaski Bridge. It wraps around the northern edge of the Greenpoint sewage treatment plant ending in one of the inlets off the Creek. North across the Creek are garbage and recycling sorting plants, the Long Island Expressway continuing is run from the 34th Street tunnel out to eastern Long Island. One can see the changing lights of billboard advertisements reflecting off old factory buildings. To the east of the Walk Newtown Creek continues. High above the Creek, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway quietly roars over the Kosciusko Bridge.

The Creek is a SuperFund site, where ExxonMobile (then Standard Oil) seeped 17-30 million gallons of oil into the bed of the Creek over decades, killing off most of the animal life in and around the waterway. Except for one cry from a wayward seagull before we started recording, there were no animal sounds.

I chose the location for a field recording because it was quiet. Other field recording locations—Downtown Brooklyn, Bensonhurst, Coney Island and Canarsie all have street and pedestrian traffic with a high overall sound level. At the Creek, the overall sound level was much lower, and I wanted to show that this too was Brooklyn.

We arrived at 8:00 pm, just as the gates were closing, and we were fortunate enough to get the Walk all to ourselves for the evening. To the west, the sun was setting behind the Manhattan skyline, and as twilight faded, the electric lights framing the triangular peak of the Chrysler Building shown brighter and brighter. To the east, dusk crept over the green canopy of Long Island and Queens.

Because it was important to me to have a direct connection to each of the field recordings, I situated myself next to the microphones, listening during the session as if listening to a concert. At Newtown Creek, I sat on a bench, next to the microphone rig. I sat silently, back straight, listening to everything around. Sometimes I closed my eyes, focusing on sound, sometimes I would listen to a sound and then look for the source. My thoughts moved from one sound to the next. Sometimes, they wandered to other parts of my day-to-day life: to bills, my commute, a detail that had come up at the office, or what I had in the fridge. I moved in and out of boredom, acknowledging the discomfort and then letting it pass. Over time, I relaxed, sometimes drifting in and out of a full awareness of where I was.

We aimed the directional microphones across the Creek at the garbage barges in Queens. I listened to the steady crackle of the trash falling off a conveyor belt onto a barge moored to the bank of the Creek. When I listened more closely, I could hear past the surface crackle to softly shifting tones. Halfway through the session, a crane started picking up and dropping tangled balls of steel onto another barge. A second crane toting a large industrial magnet picked up metal shavings that had spilled off a large mound, moved them back over the pile and released them, making a cascading shhhhhh sound. We heard the thump of distant thunder from unseen lightning or fireworks. After about half an hour, I could hear the low hum of a large motor as a tugboat came up the creek, sending waves rippling off the steel embankment. It turned around, pushing a third barge back down to the East River. 

By the time we finished, night had descended, drawing the attention inward. We packed up the gear and headed home.

AuthorCraig Shepard