Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

We don’t talk about Kearny, no, no, no

A journey into the landscapes that too many of us still pretend not to be able to see

Photo by Richard Asinof

The rowhouse development built in the 1970s plunges down the hill off Schuyler Avenue in Kearny, N.J., ending in a cul de sac at the edge of the Meadowlands, with the New York City skyline in the distance.

Photo by Richard Asinof

All that remains in 2022 of the building on Schuyler Avenue that once housed Starex, my father's company. It was bought in 1970, sold in 1995.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/13/22
The landscape where Teflon was first produced on the edge of the New Jersey meadowlands, in Kearny, N.J., connects with my own personal family history with the plastic industry.
How will voters respond to efforts by legislative leaders to build a plastic burning facility in Rhode Island? Which candidates running for office would be willing to lead a toxic tour of South Providence, pinpointing the problems? How will the R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha respond to attempts by the R.I. Senate to evade the jurisdiction of the Act On Climate law regarding the authorization of a plastic-burning facility in South Providence? When will the connections between the epidemic of childhood obesity in Rhode Island and exposure to PFAs become the focus of a new column by Boston Globe’s Dan McGowan?
The public hearings being conducted by the January 6 committee have begun to tell the true story of what happened: it was a carefully coordinated attempt to overthrow the government of the U.S., aided and abetted by Republican members of Congress. The calculated decision by the Fox News not to cover the hearings revealed their role as a propaganda machine.
On Friday night, June 10, at the R.I. General Assembly, three gun safety laws were finally approved in votes by the R.I. House, as legislators rejected the bullying tactics of the NRA supporters.
The shift in consciousness mirrors a change in who controls the microphone. There are still those who will try to prevent people from speaking, from being heard, from allowing their stories to be told – in an attempt to control the narrative.
The same shift is occurring with plastics, despite the best efforts to control the conversation.

Editor’s Note: In a vote marked by apparent cowardice, with five Senators inexplicably absent and not voting, the R.I. Senate approved legislation on Tuesday, June 7, that would permit the construction of plastic-burning pyrolysis plants in Rhode Island, 19-14, a bill that was marketed as a misleading effort to promote the recycling of plastics.

And then, as if it were part of a well-coordinated plan, a new piece of legislation was introduced, S-3100, two weeks before the end of the legislative session, to “pave the way for a plastics melting facility to be built near the Narragansett Bay Commission in South Providence,” according to Jed Thorp, state director of Clean Water Action RI.

Translated, the advice given in the film, “The Graduate,” still rings true. “I have one word for you son, plastic.” The dominant narrative of our lives is still plastics, driven by the fossil fuel industry, even in a time of climate urgency.

The history of plastics is one where the narrative has been skewed by industry for decades, even as our oceans, our rivers – and our own bodies – are awash with the detritus of microplastics. [“Microplastics found in fresh Antarctic snow, as pollutions spread,” read the June 9 headline in The Washington Post.]

The origins of this story began in a query I sent in January of 2022 to Orion magazine, in response to an open invitation to write an article about our relationships with landscapes. It was rejected in May.

I had wanted to connect the landscapes I had witnessed during five decades of reporting on stories of environmental justice. My chosen landscapes included: Haleakala, the dormant volcanic crater on the island of Maui; the Boundary Waters, the thousands of lakes and streams in northern Minnesota; Miquelon, a small village in northern Québec, where the rushing waters of the Waswanapi River slice the village in two; and Kearny, N.J., once a center of plastics manufacturing, where Teflon had first been produced.

Kearny, much like South Providence, is a community burdened by its toxic legacy. It is not a place anyone would recommend to be put high on the list of tourist destinations in the Garden State. Kearny is a landscape that marries our industrial past to our toxic future, intimately linked to the legacy of plastics and the availability of a cheap labor force.

ConvergenceRI recommends reading two stories, two interviews with Rebecca Altman, a Providence-based science writer, as a prelude to this story. [See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “A conversation with the next Rachel Carson,” and “What’s entangled and enmeshed in the plastic is us.”]

This story is written for all the candidates running for elected office in Rhode Island, and for all the news reporters busily covering their campaigns – to illuminate a landscape of myopia and miasma.

“We have grown accustomed to the insanity and we have been taught to see with eyes that don’t recognize it,” Jose Barreiro wrote in Awkesasne Notes in 1977, describing an aluminum production facility in upstate New York on the St. Lawrence River. “Maybe it is because it is so pervasive, so overwhelming. The monster gives you no choice. It pokes you in the eye and at the same time fills your wallet. It destroys your garden and at the same time offers you a job.”

PROVIDENCE – Most people experience Kearny, N.J., as an exit, 15W, on the New Jersey Turnpike, as they are busy in transit, rushing to get to an important destination. The exit is but a few miles before the Meadowlands complex, the sprawling Vince Lombardi service plaza, and the entrance to the George Washington Bridge. The skyline of Manhattan hangs on the horizon, resembling a dreamscape, as if painted as a backdrop to the movie set that is our lives.

Few people would have any reason to choose to take that exit, or to travel the length of Schuyler Avenue, the thoroughfare that traverses the length of Kearny, connecting Newark to Arlington. [If they did, the street scenes they would have encountered might have appeared to be somehow vaguely familiar: Kearny served as the visual backdrop for many scenes in “The Sopranos,” providing a realistic netherworld where grit, crime and violence collided on a daily basis.]

Schuyler Avenue was once the proud home to the American manufacturing engine that welcomed the pioneers of the plastic industry. The avenue served as the headwaters of American plastics industry – where factories extruded a river of polystyrene, cellulose, acetate, and polyvinyl chloride, with the excesses flowing into the wetlands swamp known as the “Meadowlands.”

Schuyler Avenue was once the home to the former E.I. DuPont factory, where the corporate behemoth first manufactured the fluorinated chemicals, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs, better known by their trade name, Teflon, the “forever” plastic product that now permanently resides in everyone’s bloodstream – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has detected PFAs in more than 98 percent of American blood samples.

It is also the former home of the Joseph Davis Plastics Company, the manufacturer of cellulose and polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride, now hidden behind a shroud of trees that have grown up around the decrepit remains of the now abandoned plant.

Joseph Davis, a pioneer in the plastics industry, was my grandfather, my mother’s father. My grandfather had purchased the land for his factory from DuPont, next door to the Teflon factory.

“The development of Teflon at the facility just up the road from your grandfather’s place is where Teflon first went into production,” said Rebecca Altman, Ph.D., during an interview with ConvergenceRI in September of 2020. Altman, a Providence-based science writer, is writing a book, The Song of Styrene: An intimate history of plastics, connecting the personal story of her father and his work with Union Carbide, producing Bakelite, and the writings of Primo Levy.

“You are like the first person I can talk to about Schuyler Avenue,” Altman told me. The same was true for me. Because, in my family, as the song lyric goes, “We don’t talk about Kearny, no no no.

I have one word for you, son
In the summers after my junior and senior years in high school, I worked for my father, who had rented space from my grandfather in his factory, in which my father’s small firm, Starex, manufactured motion projection leader, the acetate strip that was used to thread films through the projector.

My father’s innovative approach was to create color-coded acetate plastic leader, green for the start, red for the end. He also designed and built the machine that imprinted the name of the company on the leader, for easy identification. For a brief period during the 1960s and early 1970s, before the onslaught of video, Starex was a thriving business, with clients that included NFL Films and numerous college film libraries.

Kearny was also an important part of my education, for sure. The first day of my summer “vacation” in 1969 working for my father, I went up to Walt’s Deli to buy a sandwich for lunch, two blocks from the factory on Schuyler Avenue.

The owner, Walt, working behind the counter, saw my t-shirt, with a Columbia University logo, and asked out loud, “Who the hell do you think you are, Mark Rudd?”

Everyone in the deli stopped what they doing, and stared at me. [Rudd had led the SDS strike against Columbia University a year before, in 1968, occupying the college president’s office.]

Thinking on my feet, I improvised, responding: “No, brother, my name’s H. Rap Brown.” [Brown was an outspoken leader of the Black Panther Party, famous for his provocative quotes, such as when he declared: “Violence is part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie.”]

Walt was at first taken aback by my retort, but then he laughed, and asked what I wanted. I had passed my Kearny initiation test; I ordered a roast beef sandwich. What I got was two thin slices of processed roast beef on white bread with mayo. And, I never wore the Columbia University t-shirt to work again.

Falling off the back of the truck
My second big lesson occurred a week later, when I was taking packages down to the shipping department that was part of Joseph Davis Plastics, a busy depot servicing a steady stream of trucks. The shipping department was the place where lots of merchandise that had fallen of the back of trucks was displayed for sale – from leather jackets to stereo systems.

One of the workers in the shipping department sidled up to me and asked what I was doing that night and if I wanted to pick up some extra cash. Sure, I replied.

“You’re a big guy,” the worker explained. He told me that a guy owed him some money, and he needed my help to collect what was owed. “We might have to rough him up a little bit,” he explained.

“Oh, wait a moment,” I said, quickly inventing an excuse to decline. “I just remembered a have a date tonight.”

A third big lesson was in engulf-and-devour capitalism, the forerunner of private equity. In the summer of 1970, my father’s company, Starex, was forced to move to a new location, further down Schuyler Avenue. Joseph Davis Plastics had been purchased by Richardson, which then proceeded to strip my grandfather’s company of its cash-rich assets before driving it into bankruptcy.

The haunting landscape
My connection to Kearny became an indelible link to my own writing career. In college, as my senior project, I began writing a novel about life in a factory town, based on Kearny, from the perspective of a middle-aged woman, through the eyes of an invented character named Rosey McGinnis, whose life was falling apart. Her husband, Babe, was leaving her; she was getting terminated from her job; and her daughter had just given birth to a baby daughter, making her a grandmother. The crux of the novel was whether or not Rosey would be able to put her life back together again.

In the last scene from my unfinished novel, Rosey had arrived down at the Jersey shore, for a week’s vacation at a rented house in Asbury Park – although there was no job to return to. Her husband was also down at the shore, but staying with the woman he was having an affair with. Unable to sleep, Rosey found herself sitting on a bench, gazing out at the Atlantic Ocean, watching the sunrise. She couldn’t decide if the fishing boat on the horizon, which appeared to be ablaze in the glare of the sunrise, had actually caught fire.

I graduated from college, and left the next day for the West Coast to Seattle, driving cross-country to find work on a salmon boat bound for Alaska, in hopes of earning a large-enough stake to finish the novel.

Then, I hurt my ankle on the docks, and ended up rolling enchiladas on the lunch shift at the Guadalajara Café, the “lone Gringo.” I was then hired to write TV scripts for the “Rockford Files,” based largely on what I had written in that first third of a novel.

A plastics legacy
Last week, returning from my son’s wedding in Culpepper, Virginia, a rural landscape far removed from the industrial mean streets of Kearny, I purposely drove up and down Schuyler Avenue, to refresh the screen of my memories.

Everything about Joseph Davis Plastics appeared to have been erased from the visual timeline. All that remained of Starex was the shell of the cinderblock building, with no roof, in the midst of being torn down or being rebuilt, it was hard to tell. [See second image.] Across the street, a man and a woman were busy washing down tractor-trailer rigs.

Twenty-seven years earlier, in 1995, I was the dutiful son tasked with negotiating the sale of the Starex building, after we had moved my father and his second wife to an assisted living facility in Massachusetts, because he could no longer take care of himself.

All that remained of the family history, it seemed, was a studied avoidance of telling the story of what happened – whether at Joseph Davis Plastics and at Starex. We don’t talk about Kearny, no, no, no.

I was the only member of my immediate family who ever worked at Starex, who knew the employees, who understood the intricacies of slitting and perforating the acetate and the precision required in the punch-and-die tools.

My summer job responsibilities had included running the massive slitting machine, transforming the rolls of the raw material, 1,000-foot rolls of extruded acetate, into 16-millimeter rolls, awaiting further refinement – to be perforated and then imprinted upon, packaged and then shipped out to customers.

One day in the spring of 1972, someone broke into the Starex building on Schuyler Avenue and stole all the punch and dies, effectively shutting down the business. No one was ever convicted of the crime, but Starex underwent a slow decline and demise. So it goes.

The legacy
The toxic legacy of PFAs persists everywhere, laden in the sediment of our lives. In turn, my personal family history, connected to the toxic landscape of plastics in Kearny – with Joseph Davis Plastics and with Starex, has been erased and forgotten. The story resides within me, like PFAs.

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