The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

A tale of two cities… Long Island City part 2

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Manhattan from Gantry Plaza Park- 3 exposure HDR photo by Mitch Waxman

In the period directly following the American Civil War, Manhattan became known not as a shining citadel- the Acropolis of business and finance- but as a crime riddled warren of dark and smokey alleyways infested with diseased immigrants which terminated in gangster controlled docks and warehouses at the edges of garbage strewn rivers.

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Illustration from wikipedia

The Municipal Police were more accurately described as an officially sanctioned ethnic street gang (that wore blue coats with big brass buttons- colors!) who worked for the bourgeoisie uptown. The Fire Department(s) would fight each other over turf whilst whole blocks burned down. The political class profited from this chaos, and eventually a man named Tweed came to Tammany. This all started to change in the 20th century, of course, when progressives and reformers began to organize what would become the great metropolitan city. Whatever problems New York has in its latest incarnation, institutionally speaking, the time of the 19th century was very much “the bad old days”. 

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Illustration from wikipedia

Across the river from Manhattan, of course, was Brooklyn. A city of holy rollers, abolitionists and suffragettes in Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights, free thinkers and poets in Williamsburg and Carroll Gardens. The city was segregated into large ethnic enclaves, but within these enclaves- equanimity reigned. A rich Negro (archaic term Negro is used because that is the term used at the time, sorry to political modern newspeakers) or Irish man could, theoretically, build just as big a house in their parts of town as a rich white man could in his (depending on your relative definitions of rich, of course).

Negros and Catholics (irish, german, polish) were the oppressed minorities, and the remaining Dutch were seen as backward and quaint. Affluent, Brooklyn built churches and schools, and became a community of commuters moving back and forth from jobs in Manhattan by ferry. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle seemed to be aimed at a demographic I’d describe as “an anxious middle class saddled with an inferiority complex”.

Overly concerned with social standing, the Brooklynites of the late 19th century are the people who demanded that Prospect Park and the Champs d’Elysses of Brooklyn- Grand Army Plaza be built, and whose graves fill Green-wood Cemetery. Travel from the Brooklyn Bridge, moving up Flatbush avenue all the way to the Marine Park Bridge and witness the lowering gradation of building density as you travel away from Manhattan (a great bike ride!). This is Brooklyn.

View Flatbush Avenue to the Marine Park Bridge in a google map, use “streetview” for local knowledge

In accordance with its self defined status as “a city of homes“, the city of Brooklyn outlawed steam propuslion of rail traffic at grade level through its streets in 1851. The company affected by this was of course, the 800 pound gorilla itself. By 1859 the aldermen and ward bosses of Brooklyn ordered that the great ape cease using steam entirely, close the Cobble Hill tunnel, and provide horse carriage transport for both passengers and freight between Jamaica, Queens (where the gorilla had set up terminal operations) and points westward- including Manhattan. This would turn operating a freight route through Brooklyn, a logical terminus for shipping goods (mainly agricultural) from eastern Long Island, all the way to the factories and tenements of Manhattan’s lower east side, into a very expensive proposition. The 800 pound gorilla refused to comply. The bosses were desperate to find a place where they could lay all the track they wanted to, and where a compliant government would help, rather than hinder progress.

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Rail overpass, Long island City- 3 exposure HDR Photo by Mitch Waxman

In 1859, the New York and Jamaica railroad was chartered, and then bought by the 800 pound gorilla in 1860. Service was driven through to Hunters Point, near the ferries that crossed the East River to Manhattan, or New York as it come to be known. The company abandoned its properties in Brooklyn, leasing right of way for itself on the few profitable destinations like the Atlantic Avenue stop and the Bay Ridge freight line. The 800 pound gorilla had arrived in what would soon be called Long Island City, but it couldn’t sleep anywhere it wanted to, not quite yet.

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This is the actual trackbed! Hunter’s Point- 3 exposure HDR Photo by Mitch Waxman

The Ancient Seat of Graft, Part 2

(part 1 here)

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Long Island City Courthouse, Long Island City- 3 exposure HDR Photo by Mitch Waxman

In the late 1860’s, Newtown Township was being run, politically, by a group of country hicks from eastern Long Island who wouldn’t know a good deal if it bit them on the bottom. All the sweat and blood being shed in Hunter’s Point, and along Newtown Creek- servicing the exploding populations of  the two cities (Brooklyn and especially Manhattan)- it was the East River’s taxes that were building elaborate courthouses and paving roadways (in Jamaica, Queens and other unimaginably eastward points)- but what were these “New Men of industry” getting back from Newtown Township?

Was it those baronial Dutch farmers from Elmhurst who built the ironclad Monitors that redefined naval warfare? Was it they who had set up the casino riverboats, and a Turtle Bay to Hunters point ferry service to bring in the rubes, when Manhattan outlawed card rooms and horse betting parlors? Did those cloud watchers and pig farmers build the greatest and most productive shipyards in the entire world on Newtown Creek, or was it men like Cord Meyer and Daniel Pratt? The entrepreneurial explosion of the industrial revolution, the future, was happening right now on the East River and especially on the Newtown Creek, not Long Island Sound or Jamaica Bay.

These farmers from Flushing were standing in the way of progress, and holding on to an agrarian way of life that the railroad was obviously going to destroy. Besides, all the farm goods on Long Island would still have to go through the docks in Hunters Point and Astoria on their way to Manhattan anyway. The shores of Newtown Creek were bulkheaded and straightened by Newtown Township in 1868 in an effort to boost navigability.

In 1870- the leading men of the communities of Astoria, Ravenswood, Blissville, Sunnyside, Dutch Kills, Bowery Bay, and Middleton combined their considerable political patronage and their vast fortunes together and formed Long Island City. The population of the new city didn’t quite number 10,000, but the great unwashed- like we modern multitudes- were just along for the ride.

All this was far more than the men who owned and operated the 800 pound gorilla, also known as the Long Island Rail Road, could have asked for.

Industrialists and gangsters all over the new city vied for position on the train tracks, waiting for the iron road to lead the world directly to their door.

Get ready for 28 years of blood drinking, lip licking, mustache twirling, union breaking, environment destroying, slavering “capitalism running amok”-in our next installment.

Which will be sometime toward the end of this week, if not next week. Might be a couple of little posts as well. Lots going on.

Newtown Creek cruise (retouch)

Newtown Creek fuel depot, Blissville- photo by Mitch Waxman 

Incidentally- 1870 is also the year that John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil. For those of you who are young-ins and unfamiliar with the original archetype for “American Villainy”, John D. was a real life combination of Mr. Potter from “its a wonderful life”, Mr. Burns from “the simpsons”, and Daniel Day Lewis’s character in “there will be blood“- and he made Dick Cheney look like a cuddly old man. Fifteen years after he started Standard, John D. Rockefeller was the dominant player- in North America- in the fields of railroads, natural gas production, oil drilling, oil refining, and copper refining. He created, and controlled what would become “Big Oil“.

His buying power and predatory instincts were such that he controlled the price of industrial commodities nation wide. His fortune was so large when he died that he is considered to have been the richest person in recorded history. In 1902 an audit showed his personal fortune was worth nearly 5% of the Gross Domestic Product of the United States. Standard Oil would eventually become known as Exxon, and the bank account grew into Chase Manhattan Bank. This is why Exxon is being compelled by the federal EPA to clean up the Greenpoint oil spill

Standard Oil’s plant was one of the largest properties on the Newtown Creek. An explosion and fire at a Greenpoint Standard Oil refinery in 1919 consumed 20 acres and burned over 110 million gallons of oil.

Misty Day at Newtown Creek

Misty Day at Newtown Creek Petrochemical plant, Brooklyn Side- 3 exposure HDR photo by Mitch Waxman 

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Newtown Creek Rail Tracks, Long Island City- 3 exposure HDR photo by Mitch Waxman

As always, if something you read here is contradicted by something you know, please leave a comment or contact us. Corrections and additions are always welcome.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

June 10, 2009 at 3:39 am

5 Responses

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  1. [...] one’s a little light, still working on part 3 of the Long Island City history (part 1 here, part 2 here). Did you know there was a “newsboy legion” which hung around Vernon and Jackson [...]

  2. [...] and the elevated phase of the Queens Midtown Expressway which carries vehicular traffic over Long Island City and the Dutch Kill. That’s Borden Avenue down there, under the elevated highway. Don’t [...]

  3. [...] from an earlier post on John D. Rockefeller- just for [...]

  4. [...] Big Allis is quite visible from the bridge, with its busy hive of conduits and valves feeding fuel to its cyclonic turbines. One of the little facts about Queens not being discussed in the current rush to overdevelop the quaint streets of the ancient hamlets of Newtown, which I fear will have dire consequence in the future, is the presence of critical facilities like this amongst large numbers of bourgeois newcomers. Examine the controversies in Long Island City at Hunters Point- the LIRR diesel idling noise (from liqcity.com) complaints, and realizations are beginning to surface in Tower Town that Long Island City is indeed “the Ancient Seat of Graft“. [...]

  5. [...] from newtownpentacle posting of June 10, 2009 [...]


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