April 12, 2021 By Christina Santucci
A number of Queens environmentalists who want to revitalize a filthy inlet in northern Astoria got to work over the weekend with a cleanup around the short waterway–called Luyster Creek.
Located alongside the Steinway & Sons Factory, Luyster Creek – also known as Steinway Creek – branches off from the East River into the top of Astoria. The inlet is estimated to be about 1,000 feet in length and ends at 19th Avenue and 37th Street.
Mitch Waxman – a board member at Newtown Creek Alliance – set up Saturday’s event together with Gil Lopez, from BIG Reuse and Smiling Hogshead Ranch; Katie Ellman, the president of Green Shores NYC; and Evie Hantzopoulos, co-founder of Astoria Urban Ecology Alliance
They were joined by the team from Proud Astorian and other volunteers to pick up discarded items – including engine parts, tires, shipping pallets, bags of household garbage and giant sheets of plastic – around the creek.
In total, the group of about 30 people collected between 10 to 15 cubic yards of trash – filling half of a dumpster.
The crew also removed random items such as fabric roses, potatoes and a taxi cab divider crawling with snails. Volunteers returned the snails to the water, and the divider went into the dumpster, which was provided by the Department of Environmental Protection.
Organizers described the event as part of a larger effort to improve the area around Luyster Creek and make it more accessible to the public – as well as to introduce local residents and encourage their stewardship of the waterway.
“A bunch of us have recognized this as a potentially wonderful space for our community,” Hantzopoulos said, who is also running for Astoria’s City Council seat, which was vacated by Costa Constantinides last week.
“We want to get the soil tested, we want to get the water tested. We want to see what can be done to transform that area.”
For some of the cleanup crew, their advocacy dates back more than a decade.
Green Shores NYC and the Trust for Public land released a Waterfront Vision Plan for Astoria & Long Island City Queens – developed with community input – about 10 years ago, calling for Luyster Creek to be revitalized.
“From 2011 until now, we have been advocating for access, remediation and the creation of green space at this location,” Ellman said.
Historically, the area has been home to factories and warehouses, but two new projects are now in the works alongside the inlet.
A city sanitation garage is slated to move from 34-28 21st St. near Ravenswood to 31-11 20th Ave. – on Luyster Creek’s western shore. On the eastern shore, Robert DeNiro’s Wildflower Studios, a 650,000-square-foot production studio, will replace Steinway & Sons piano storage facility, at 87 19th Ave.
“This is a huge opportunity for the community to come in and take some sort of agency over our common heritage – which is our water,” Waxman said.
Those who cleaned up the area Saturday want to ensure that the new projects allow Queens residents to access the waterfront and improve the area’s environment and resiliency.
“We want to make sure that things aren’t being done piecemeal,” Hantzopoulos said.
Cleanup organizers said the area is home to a large variety of wildlife – even though sewage mixed with stormwater often overflows into the inlet when it rains. Seabirds can be spotted at high tide, and Hantzopoulos said she saw a jellyfish, fish and possibly some type of mussels in the water Saturday.
“For much of the 20th century, Luyster Creek has been ignored. It’s horribly polluted,” Waxman said. “All nature needs is for us to take the shackles off.”
Organizers explained that they have so far formed a loose collective, but are working to create a more formal community group to advocate for improvements at the creek.
Waxman and Hantzopoulos said that Saturday’s group of volunteers hope to hold another cleanup next month, and Ellman said Green Shores NYC is collecting input from residents and those that work in the area through the Luyster Creek Community Survey.
Anyone interested in getting involved in future efforts should sign up for email alerts from the Astoria Urban Agriculture Alliance, Hantzopoulous said.
She and Waxman both said they hope any plans for the area would include a memorial to four college students, who died when their car plunged into the creek in 2014. A crucifix now marks the location.