The bustling factories of old New York began spewing toxic waste into Newtown Creek at least a century and a half ago. Just within the last 100 years, the city's industry has spilt over 17 million gallons of oil into the currentless estuary – "more than the Exxon Valdez," Stern points out – topping the surface of the water with a 15-foot thick layer of "black mayonnaise". And Mitch Waxman, an amateur historian from nearby Queens, can recount in harrowing detail the evolution of businesses and practices that made it so.
"Formerly a comic-book artist and writer, Mr. Waxman earns his living doing photo retouching out of his apartment in Astoria," Stern explains. But after suffering a heart attack at the age of 39, Waxman began exploring the city on foot as a way to maintain his health. By 2009, he developed a morbid fondness for the creek, which he documents on his blog, The Newtown Pentacle.
His curiosity led him on an investigative search for a clear picture of the creek's history, "through countless solitary walks and countless nights poring over obscure archives." In the process, Waxman has made allies with environmental advocates, who look to him as the creek's resident historian, and taken on a role as a tour guide for the Newtown Creek Alliance.
"Mr. Waxman calls the area a 'municipal sacrifice zone,'" Stern writes - "the urban equivalent of the bomb test sites of Nevada."