Last week, a new bar and restaurant in Ridgewood, Queens called Nowadays opened to fawning press. New York’s Grub Street said it “aims to be your backyard hangout for the whole summer.” Gothamist, meanwhile, said it “looks like a summertime paradise,” which is true if you imagined paradise is located directly next to a radioactive waste site.
Nowadays, which is owned by the creators of the Brooklyn dance party and label Mister Saturday Night (as well as its Sunday afternoon counterpart Mister Sunday), is located at 56-06 Cooper Ave. where Bushwick and Ridgewood meet. It is situated south of Cooper Avenue and east of Irving Avenue. Here it is on a map. (UPDATE: A statement from Justin Carter, co-owner of Nowadays, has been added to the end of this post.)
Directly to its left, as you can see on the map, are several businesses, including a car repair shop and an ATM distributor. But many, many years ago, that plot of land was home to Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, which operated there from 1924 through 1950. In May of 2014, that corner of Queens received one of America’s most prestigious awards when it was crowned a Superfund site by the EPA.
But that was not the only title given to 1127 Irving Ave. that week; a day prior, the New Yorker published an interactive article about the site titled “The Most Radioactive Place in New York City.” Here is an infographic showing the same area as the above map:
Though the site’s “radioactive hot spots” are a few dozen of feet away from what is currently Nowadays bar, the New Yorker’s estimate of contaminated soil bleeds well into where some of the city’s brightest young things can munch on pulled pork and beer-braised bratwurst. (In the graphic, it appears as if the train tracks that run perpendicular to Irving Avenue are improperly angled.)
So, what does it mean that a bar (as well as a a middle school and day care center) is adjacent to the most toxic parcel of land in New York? It does not mean that you will sprout a third arm or bulging tumors if you spend a day (or all summer, or several summers) drinking beer and playing ping-pong in Nowadays’ backyard. Here, via the AP, is Judith Enck, a regional administrator at the EPA, discussing the area after it was announced as a Superfund site:
“There is no immediate threat to nearby residents, employees or customers,” Ms. Enck said. But she noted that heavy exposure to thorium can cause lung, pancreatic or bone cancer, as well as liver damage.
Still, as the Superfund tag would indicate, there is some level of general concern for the area. Enck again:
“What has me particularly concerned is this is a site in a densely populated neighborhood, very close to where people live, where they work, where they go to school, where they send their kids to day care,” she said during a telephone conference from Manhattan.
On the EPA’s official website, you can read a bit more about what exactly is happening on the corner of Irving and Cooper. Here is the agency’s summary of what went down at Wolff-Alport Chemical, which dumped thorium (the radioactive substance Enck warns against) into sewers for decades:
The property is contaminated with radioactive thorium-232 at concentrations up to 1,133 picocuries per gram (pCi/g), compared to background levels of 0.5-1.0 pCi/g. The radioactive decay of thorium-232, which has a half-life of 14 billion years, is a lengthy and complex process involving many radioactive decay products. One of the key components of the thorium-232 decay series is radon-220 (i.e., thoron), a radioactive gas that emanates from surfaces where thorium-232 is present. Thoron has been found at elevated levels in the deli basement, in air above the source material and outside the source boundary.
That last sentence—“Thoron has been found [...] in the air above the source material and outside the source boundary”—seems particularly, uh, interesting. Here is what the EPA says about the contamination in the area in a section titled “Potential Impacts on Surrounding Community/Environment”:
The contaminated source area extends throughout the property and to some street and sidewalk areas. Thorium-232 concentrations at the site exceed the soil ingestion cancer risk level of 3.4 pCi/g, potentially affecting on-site and nearby workers, residents and students. Thoron poses a hazard from its radioactive decay products, which remain suspended in air where they can be inhaled and deposited in the lungs. There are more than 6,800 residents, students and workers within ¼ mile of the site and more than 1.8 million residents within 4 miles. There are several public schools and daycare facilities within 1 mile, the nearest of which is an elementary school 900 feet to the southwest. Residual contamination still exists in downstream sewer lines, which discharge to Newtown Creek during heavy rainstorms.
The Superfund designation means that the EPA has begun cleaning the site, which had “lead shielding” installed over its radioactive hot spots in 2013. But that process can take up to a decade or so, at which point everyone currently living in Bushwick and Ridgewood will have been pushed out into the Atlantic Ocean by even richer gentrifiers.
It’s worth noting that Nowadays honchos Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin seem to have some sort of...thing for New York’s most contaminated areas. The Mister Saturday Night and Mister Sunday parties are currently thrown in the slice of southwest Brooklyn called Industry City, but the party made its name when it was hosted at Gowanus Grove, an event space on the banks of Brooklyn’s most infamous Superfund site. (Carter and Harkin likely gravitate towards contaminated land for the same reason as most people: it’s cheap.)
When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, the Gowanus Canal flooded all over the surrounding neighborhood, drenching it with raw sewage, though residents were suspicious about what else they might have been standing in. Carter and Harkin continued to host their party on the Gowanus until 2014.
In any event, New York is toxic both literally and figuratively, we’re all going to die, and the backyard at Nowadays sure does look nice.
UPDATE: Here is an email from Justin Carter, co-owner of Nowadays:
You do not have all the facts, and while your headline might generate more clicks because of what it says, it is false. Please read the info below, and if you have any more questions, please email me back.
Before we leased the space, we had radioactivity tests done (along with tests for other toxins – a good idea for anyone renting manufacturing zoned property in in NYC), and we can assure you that they all came up negative. We wouldn’t have signed a lease and opened our business to expose our customers, our staff, our families or ourselves without doing this and knowing that everything was safe and sound. We’re a small business, started by three guys with no investors, and we’re all here all the time, and so far, so are our families.
Attached are the results from the Wolff-Alport tests that the EPA, NYC DOH and NYS DOS did. We reached out to the folks at the EPA, and they sent us the results along with this note:
There have been several surveys completed at the site including the 2013 Multi-Agency Former Wolff-Alport Chemical Company Neighborhood Radiological Assessment... While we do not have any sampling data from the 56-06 Cooper Ave. property itself, we do have data collected from the railroad spur adjacent to the building as well as from Cooper Ave. which show that gamma radiation levels are at or near normal background levels outside of the Superfund site itself. The 2013 assessment concluded that there is no off-site exposure from on-site radiological contaminants to the surrounding community.
Nowadays is separated from Wolff-Alport by a 30,000 square foot building and railroad spur, the latter of which you can see in the tests and the note above, show “gamma radiation levels are at or near normal background levels.”
Again, to remove all doubt, because the EPA has not actually tested on the 56-06 Cooper property, we and some of the other tenants in our building have done radioactivity tests on the indoors and outdoors at 56-06 Cooper Avenue, and they came back negative. They confirm the EPA’s assessment that there is no exposure on our property.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.