CORONA PARK, QUEENS – In Flushing Meadows Corona Park, on any given day, dozens of people play soccer, run along the paths, or sit under trees, enjoying the leafy outdoors. But just below the grass lies a creek in a marshland that has been seeping to the surface. Since its burial in the 1930s, the creek has become heavily polluted with untreated wastewater, prompting activists from across the city to speak out to raise awareness.
One effort to get the attention of city officials is through a collaboration between the Queens Museum and the Guardians of Flushing Bay. The two groups are working together to host a series of artist-led workshops, which began in March and end in June, that help people learn about the creek through practices such as writing, drawing, and painting. They later plan to display the works in the park to enlighten visitors about the creek.
Inside a sectioned-off gallery of the Queens Museum last month, the session was led by poet and former Open City Fellow, Nadia Misir, who lives in South Ozone Park, Queens. Misir spoke to a group of about a dozen people about the power of poetry in communicating the history.
“I’m not a scientist, but some of the best ways to bring a space back to its original prosperous form is through cultural knowledge and storytelling,” Misir said.
At the park, Misir read Etel Adnan’s Journey to Mount Tamalpais and Toni Morrison’s The Site of Memory, to inspire participants along a guided walk through the park. The group stopped at different points to note where the creek, a one-mile-long open channel, still resides. 
“This park used to be all tidal salt marsh and then we turned it into a landfill and then we turned it back into a fake park,” Misir told the group. “Of course now it’s a great space for families, but it was something that never needed to be touched in the first place.”
Parts of Flushing Creek have been hidden below the park since the 1939 World Fair. The creek was originally part of marshland, but over time industry encroached on the natural ecosystem. The creek was then put into pipes for fountains and covered with landfill. Development turned what was once a luscious biodiversity into one of the most polluted bodies of water in the city.
“I had no idea what this space used to be,” said Joe Smith, a Bronx native, along the walk. His perspective of public waterways has changed throughout his life. Growing up, he swam in the East River, and later worked in water treatment plants as a technician. “I remember hearing about this fountain,” he said. “They had to shut it off because the water was untreated and was basically spitting sewage onto people.”
Concern over the polluted creek has been on the minds of Queens residents for many years. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection created a $56-million Long Term Control Program that was approved by the Department of Environmental Conservation in 2014 to support the disinfection of combined sewer overflows into Flushing Creek. But progress is slow going. Construction on the new sanitation facility is scheduled to be completed in 2025, which has left the creek unsanitized for at least more than a decade. 
A combined sewer system collects rainwater runoff, sewage, and industrial drainage into a pipe. It transports all of the wastewater to a treatment plant, before it is then discharged as treated outflow to a nearby waterbody. There are three systems for the creek, and it only takes 0.1 inches of rain to cause an overflow into its waters. Such overflows may contain bacteria or other pollutants, according to the city, that may cause illness or other environmental hazards.
The first stop on the walk was at the Fountain of The Planets. Rebecca Pryor, executive director of The Guardians of Flushing Bay, discussed the significance of the fountain, highlighting that it is the only dedicated area within the park where Flushing Creek is still visible.
In route to the second stop on the walk, Pryor shared data with the group from Open Sewer Atlas NYC about the amount of overflow that happens not only in the Flushing waterways but throughout the city.
“Flushing Creek and Flushing Bay receive over 3.5 billion gallons of CSO discharge a year,” said Pryor. “The rest of the city takes on 20-30 billion gallons of untreated sewage per year.”
The second stop was a murky puddle in the middle of a paved walkway that was the size of a small pond. Pryor informed the group that what appeared to be remnants of rain was actually Flushing Creek. 
“You can see in the algae present in the puddle that the water has been sitting here for a while,” said Pryor. “It also hasn’t rained in a few days, so this is the creek forcing its way out. If you look at the soccer fields, they’re muddy with surfacing creek water.”
The final stop was the only natural remnant of Flushing Creek where the pipes that contain the creek end, allowing it to intrinsically flow under the highway. Surrounding the opening there were tadpoles and many plants growing over the edge of the water.
Misir ended the workshop at the museum by making ink paintings, allowing the attendees to reflect on what they learned. She also shared some final remarks.
“There are so many hidden references to the waterways that used to exist here in New York, like many street names where it’s like ‘blank’ creek but now it’s just asphalt,” said Misir. “It’s the same here, flushing implies rushing water but there is just a still, man-made, polluted pond.”
“Right now we’re doing cultural daylighting by walking around and discussing this problem,” said Pryor. “Versus physical daylighting, which they’re doing in the Bronx at Tibbitts Brook by uncovering the creek which is what we hope to do here one day.”
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