At the most toxic end of Newtown Creek is a 130-foot, 270-ton vessel moored off a crumbling wall, floating near an oil boom and an open sewage pipe. Built in 1978, it was a ferryboat for 25 years, carrying some 100,000 vacationers each summer between Martha’s Vineyard and New Bedford, Mass. After being replaced by newer vessels, it was sold in 2005 and eventually made its way down to this dead-end waterway.
In its second life it became an illicit party boat, the site of Burning Man-style raves, and a home to artists and other off-the-grid types. Now, as the creek is being slowly cleaned up ahead of the next wave of gentrification arriving in this part of Brooklyn and Queens, the boat — the Schamonchi — is a rusting symbol in the middle of a multimillion-dollar fight that’s pitting environmentalists, artists, and heavy industry in a fight for more control of the waters.
The Schamonchi is also very slowly sinking.
Boaters there remember it as an early squatting favorite. It predated the few dozen New Yorkers who would come and go over the last decade to take advantage of the quiet that came with living on Newtown Creek, a tidal arm between Brooklyn and Queens that is part of a larger estuary (and also a known former dumping ground for wastewater, oil, PCBs, and other toxic chemicals). “It was way more of a small-scale home, a little weirdo family-type of vibe,” said Tory Censits, a Rockaway-based metalworker who used to stay on the boat around 2009 and 2010. “It was communal. Everyone shared, everyone would bring food.”
Newtown Creek gained a certain outlaw mystique because of boats like the Schamonchi, which attracted little attention over the next decade except the occasional police visit for loud parties and illegal tenants. A certain tabloid notoriety followed it after the fire department evicted the residents in 2013.
“It was really refreshing to keep something that had a little bit of rawness and, I don’t know, illegality,” Samuel Sutcliffe, an artist and architectural designer who kept an office on the boat.
But the Schamonchi’s party days are long gone. The ramshackle cabin, decorated with broken disco balls and silver tinsel, is overwhelmed by the scent of cat urine. With debt and litigation issues mounting, the boat’s owners may soon have to relocate the Schamonchi from the waterway it helped define.
Before it became a haven for off-the-grid squatters, Newtown Creek was one of the country’s busiest waterways during World War II. It was also a dumping site for oil refineries, coal yards and other industrial outfits. Though a massive federal cleanup has been in the works since 2010, when Newtown was declared a Superfund site, the glacial pace of its remediation has finally started to accelerate. Since April, the Environmental Protection Agency has made two crucial decisions about the scope of the cleanup, including asking more companies to participate.
Sensing this renewed future, more than a dozen condominium high-rises are going up near the creek in Long Island City and Greenpoint, and Columbia University, which already owns more than 36 acres of land in the city, has expressed interest in opening a boathouse near the mouth of the waterway. Many residents are concerned about being priced out of their creek-side homes, and that the D.I.Y. culture of the area will disappear.
“It’s kind of an underground thing for people to do anything on the water,” Ms. Censits said. “It seemed like we had discovered a secret side of the city.”
A year after Hurricane Sandy, Phillip Borbon bought the Magnolia, a monohull sailboat with a bottom the color of a robin’s egg, for only $1,200. He’d recently moved up from Miami and had rented an apartment in the Bronx, but he couldn’t stand the noise, and decided to give the waterfront a try.
Following a stint on a marina in the Rockaways, Mr. Borbon docked the Magnolia on a quiet stretch of Newtown Creek. This time, there was no marina — the land belongs to the city — which meant there was no one to collect rent. In fact, he’s paid nothing to dock in Newtown Creek since Dec. 21, 2014.
Mr. Borbon lives alongside another group of boaters, some he’s close with, others less so. Some nights, a neighbor will bring over a DVD and a couple of beers. A few have planted milkweed to attract butterflies in the spring, and built stone paths that wouldn’t be out of place on a suburban front lawn. Mr. Borbon is a member of a nearby gym, where he can shower and use the bathroom for $10 a month. Aside from one guy who rents out about a dozen boats along the creek to tourists on Craigslist, Mr. Borbon said he feels close with his community. “I live quiet, you know?” he said. “I live in peace. My neighbors, I trust them.”
Obviously, there are challenges that come with living along a superfund site without actual permission to be there. One morning after it rained, he photographed a stream of sewage that had spewed from the creek, including a partially decomposed opossum that floated by. In the summers, Mr. Borbon puts up mosquito nets to keep out the swarms hovering near his boat. The winters can be brutal, and he sleeps in a special sleeping bag for freezing temperatures. Others nearby aren’t quite so hard-core, heating their crafts with diesel or propane heaters, or using composting toilets.
While some boaters’ lives are Spartan, those who lived aboard the Schamonchi had, at various points, two washers and dryers, a piano, working toilets and showers, a common area stocked with coffee, and an early mesh internet connection, according to former residents. In 2013, the city forced out the 10 or so people who had been living aboard, after which some of the space was converted to art studios. Still, the paint peeled, the roof leaked, and the hull was almost always in need of repair.
“It’s technically sinking,” Mr. Sutcliffe said. “If we weren’t pumping out the water that was coming in, the ship would sink.”
Mr. Borbon and the dozen or so other Newtown boaters live with the constant reality of getting run out of the waterway. They are threatened periodically by New York City’s Department of Small Business Services, which oversees marinas. But it’s complicated, and so they remain.
In the absence of a marina, the waterway’s jurisdiction falls, for some reason, to both the New York City Department of Transportation and the Small Business Services Department. In 2016, after part of the sea wall collapsed, Small Business posted orders for the boaters to vacate. The boaters, however, are still there, and the wall, which is under the Transportation Department’s purview, still hasn’t been fixed.
Scott Gastel, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, said the agency will work with another organization to make repairs to the bulkhead, but he didn’t specify when.
Still, most of the boaters figure it’s only a matter of time before the city will kick them out.
“Every year, we get all this pressure, trying to evict us and stuff like that,” Mr. Borbon said. “I’m used to it.”
Newtown Creek was designated a Superfund site the same year as the Gowanus Canal, another polluted New York City waterway about 10 miles south, near the heart of Brownstone Brooklyn. While dredging began in the Gowanus last year, Newtown’s remediation is still in its planning stages. Complicating matters is its length, as the creek is about three times longer than the canal. The sediment is so toxic in some areas that the Environmental Protection Agency is considering installing a cap to contain the chemicals.
For Willis Elkins, the executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, an advocacy group for the waterway, the whole process has dragged on for too long. “Here we are on Year 11,” he said earlier this year, “and we’re not even talking about real cleanup options yet.”
This summer, the Environmental Protection Agency made two key announcements on Newtown. First, it expanded the number of parties potentially on the hook for the cleanup from six to 20, including ConEd, Amtrak and Shell Oil. The agency also rejected a plan put forward by an Exxon Mobil-led group of companies to clean up only the least-polluted section of the creek. Environmental groups called the suggestion a waste of time and money.
“The remedial investigation report was literally written by the people responsible for the pollution and will have to pay for the cleanup,” Mr. Elkins said.
According to Basil Seggos, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Economic Conservation, it could be five more years before the dredging of Newtown starts.
In the meantime, cleanup crews have pulled out trash, including whole cars, from the waters. Since 2010, Exxon Mobil and other energy companies have removed about 13 million gallons of oil from the waterway area and surrounding locations.
“There’s no doubt it’s cleaner than it was 20 years ago,” Mr. Seggos said.
Whenever the actual dredging starts, the boats will be forced to find new ports of call. The Schamonchi may be a harbinger of what’s to come. According to court documents, the pandemic effectively halted its party business, and the boat’s landlords are demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent and penalties. The Schamonchi’s owners deny they owe the money and are trying to get the case dismissed.
In January, the U.S. Marshals briefly seized the boat. It still takes on water, and its engine doesn’t work.
The Schamonchi’s owners are looking to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the vessel seaworthy. But even if that happens, the boat will ultimately need to leave Newtown Creek.
Kingston, the waterfront city up the Hudson River, could provide a possible, if temporary, home for the Schamonchi, according to documents filed in federal court.
“There are times that I feel like I fought for it, but there are other times that I feel like I just ended up here,” said Lindsay Arden Cooper, one of the boat’s owners. “There’s going to be a time period where people shouldn’t be here. So that’s why it’s clear to me that we need to get out.”