A street art mural helps restore one of the dirtiest waterways in U.S. history

Two artists paint the biodiversity returning Newtown Creek after a century of toxic waters

Along New York City's Newtown Creek, a new mural depicts the endemic wildlife returning to the restored ecosystem. Gabrielle Lipton, GLF
26 September 2019

This street art mural was produced by Greenpoint Innovations and Greenpoint Earth in partnership with the Global Landscapes Forum, the Newtown Creek Alliance, Broadway Stages and Kingsland Wildflowers.

A new display of glowing moon jellies, lustrous oysters and snowy egrets gives passersby reason to pause by the  waters of Newtown Creek, a flowing border between New York City’s boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. A piece of trash might float by, or a silvery striped bass, indicating that the Creek’s health is in something of a neutral state as compared to the extremes of its history.

Native Americans used the Creek to irrigate agriculture, expanded by Dutch and English colonists in the 17th century. But the Industrial Revolution saw Newtown’s shores converted into home base for the oil industry, with more than 50 refineries including John D. Rockefeller’s for Standard Oil and Robert Chesebrough’s for Vaseline petroleum jelly. In 1978, the Greenpoint Oil Spill was discovered – a spillage of between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil that had been lying unnoticed below the waters for a length of time that remains unknown.

But what goes around comes around, and in 1997, members of the local community of Greenpoint formed the Newtown Creek Alliance to clean up and restore the Creek more quickly and effectively than the government’s efforts up to that point. They filed a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil for the oil spill, which led to the federal Environmental Protection Agency naming the creek a Superfund site in 2010. The city government is now improving the sustainability of newer infrastructure, namely a massive futuristic wastewater treatment plant.

In line with Climate Week NYC 2019, two local artists, Danielle Mastrion and Lexi Bella, took up their spray-paint cans to contribute to the cause, using their art to raise awareness about species endemic to the creek when it’s in good health and bring optimism – which has been proven in climate-related art to incite more action – for the creek’s future. Here, the artists discuss what the project has meant for them.

Danielle Mastrion: I was born and raised in Brooklyn and have been working as an artist pretty much my entire life. I went to a specialized art high school in Brooklyn and to the Parsons School of Design. I taught myself aerosol about 7-and-a-half years ago, and now my work is all over New York.

Lexi Bella: I’m based in Brooklyn and have been an artist since I was about 5 years old. My grandma is an art teacher and taught me how to paint. I continued to go to college for fine art and to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to get my masters. I moved to New York in 2006 and did a lot of live painting. Through that, aerosol really became my main medium. I met Danielle through art battles and live painting, and then about seven years ago we began doing a lot of work together.

DM: A lot of people say we have a very similar style. We actually have very different ways that we paint, but we do both usually tackle the same subject matter: a lot of images of women, famous strong public figures, social justice murals. We use a lot of the same colors. And because we’re best friends, we always like painting next to each other. But we’ve actually only ever done a handful of big collaboration murals.

LB: We’ve learned from each other. We know each other’s processes are different, but we’re so used to working together, learning from each other and trusting each other’s process. Maybe that’s why the pieces we do together look seamless to people.

Brooklyn-based artists Danielle Mastrion (left) and Lexi Bella painted the street art mural in tandem. Mokhamad Edliadi, GLF
Brooklyn-based artists Danielle Mastrion (left) and Lexi Bella. Mokhamad Edliadi, GLF

DM: Together, people can’t tell if I painted something or she painted something, but when we do individual walls, people can tell – that’s a Lexi wall or a Danielle wall.

LB: About five years ago, we started really thinking about doing artwork with a purpose, and that’s when our first collaboration for a cause was the Bring Back Our Girls mural on Welling Court in Queens. We really enjoyed the whole process, so we continued to do subject matter we felt strongly about and we felt needed a voice. We did a piece about the Gulabi Gang, a women’s group out of India; we did a piece about the Yazidi women. Also, Danielle has done work for the New York Aquarium and caring for our waters. I’ve done some work with the New York Botanical Gardens. I’m an avid gardener and love plants, nature, and bringing that back in an urban setting because it’s missing.

DM: The conservation murals I’ve done have such a social justice aspect because they affect the whole neighborhood. Coney Island is a beach neighborhood, so if the beach is destroyed, the essence of the entire neighborhood is destroyed. I feel like people in New York forget the city is a bunch of islands, barrier islands, and we’re completely surrounded by water. So the waterways in New York get completely overlooked. I feel like the waterways go hand-in-hand with the neighborhoods that have been forgotten about.

LB: I think also because I’m raising a child here, it really brought my focus into looking at the environment she’s growing up in and realizing how abusive the city is toward nature. This is what she’s inheriting; this is the world she’s going into. What can I do about it? For me, this piece was really important to me because of that – how do you start in Brooklyn? How do you play a role in reviving and caring for the environment here? This really hit home for me.

The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, its water-processing 'egg digesters' seen from the rooftop garden of the street art mural's building, is the city's largest sewage treatment facility. The city is making efforts to decrease its carbon emissions and waste. Gabrielle Lipton, GLF
The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, its water-processing ‘egg digesters’ seen from the rooftop garden of the mural’s building, is the city’s largest sewage treatment facility. The city is making efforts to decrease its carbon emissions and waste. Gabrielle Lipton, GLF

DM: A project like this was really important for me too because where I grew up in Brooklyn was directly across from Gerritsen Beach. We weren’t allowed to go down there because there were junkies, people that would burn their trash, people would rob cars and bring them there to leave them in the water. When I was a teenager was when the city decided to do a massive cleanup. Everyone said it was insane, that you would never be able to do it. But now it’s a federal wildlife refuge, a fully restored nature center. It’s gorgeous. You don’t feel like you’re in New York there. The birds and the animals I see across the street from my house are amazing.

LB: That’s what’s at the heart of this project. All it takes is a couple of people to light that match of inspiration and conservation, and so I feel like being able to do this mural here can psychologically shift people’s perception of what’s possible. I feel like people get overwhelmed by the amount of pollution in the city, so they don’t even want to try. It been amazing to come together with everyone involved in this project and as artists push this forward.

Newtown Creek, pictured on the right, is a six-kilometer-long tributary of the East River, which runs alongside Manhattan, seen in the background. Gabrielle Lipton, GLF

DM: Given what happened in my neighborhood in 20 years, I know firsthand that it is possible to bring the birds back, the lands back, the flowers back. Nature really does come back. I’ve seen it.

LB: People just need to put the effort into it. I think what we’ve seen over the years with public art to make people care about their environment – this is taking it to the next level. We don’t want people to care just about their living environment but also to care about their actual environment.

I think we’re testing the possibility of murals like this to inspire action to clean up and conserve everything we’ve inherited nature-wise in the city and start to turn back all the disgusting things we’ve done to the environment here. We can revive this. That’s our hope for this mural, that people see it and feel inspired to want to come together on the local scale and the global scale to change the direction things are going.

Wildflowers bloom in the rooftop garden of the street art mural's building, which serves as a landing spot for migratory birds. Gabrielle Lipton, GLF
Wildflowers bloom in the rooftop garden of the mural’s building, which serves as a landing spot for migratory birds. Gabrielle Lipton, GLF

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