The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

A Great Machine

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Queensboro Bridge and associated structures- “The Great Machine” – photo by Mitch Waxman

Queensboro, whose steel has cantilevered the flow of traffic to the shining city from the fabled vastness of the Long Island since 1909, is merely the focal point of a polyglot mechanism whose works spread into the east. The backbone of New York City runs through the marshy hillocks of western Queens.

As I’ve said in the past:

Airports, railroad yards, maritime facilities, petrochemical storage and processing, illegal and legal dumping, sewer plants, waste and recycling facilities, cemeteries. The borders of the Newtown Pentacle’s left ventricle are festooned with heavy industry and the toll taken on the health of both land and population is manifest. A vast national agglutination of technologies and a sprawl of transportation arteries stretching across the continent are all centered on Manhattan- which is powered, fed, and flushed by that which may be found around a shimmering ribbon of abnormality called the Newtown Creek.

Light rail (subway) and vehicle traffic focus toward Queens Plaza, and within a three mile radius of this place can be found- the East River subway tunnels, the Midtown Tunnel, multiple ferry docks, and the titan Sunnyside Rail Yard which connects to the Hells Gate Rail Bridge. This “Great Machine” is the motive engine that allows millions to enter and leave Manhattan on a daily and reliable schedule from North Brooklyn, Queens, Suffolk and Nassau Counties. The great endeavor called “The East Side Access Project” and its associated tunneling is also occurring nearby, which will terminate at a planned LIRR station sited for the corner of Queens Blvd. and Skillman Avenue.

from wikipedia:

The Queensboro Bridge, also known as the 59th Street Bridge, is a cantilever bridge over the East River in New York City that was completed in 1909. It connects the neighborhood of Long Island City in the borough of Queens with Manhattan, passing over Roosevelt Island. It carries New York State Route 25 and once carried NY 24 and NY 25A as well.

The Queensboro Bridge is the westernmost of the four East River spans that carry a route number: NY 25 terminates at the west (Manhattan) side of the bridge. It is commonly called the “59th Street Bridge” because its Manhattan end is located between 59th Street and 60th Streets.

The Queensboro Bridge is flanked directly on its northern side by the freestanding Roosevelt Island Tramway.

Queens Blvd. at Skillman Avenue - photo by Mitch Waxman

Queens Plaza multi level elevated train station – photo by Mitch Waxman

When Queensboro was built, it became the fastest way into town and horse drawn wagons still carried manufactured goods from the mill workshops of Long Island City and agricultural products from points East (hauled into LIC by the LIRR) into Manhattan. The subways tracks were attached to the superstructure of the bridge. Trucks replaced the horse wagons, and eventually made the cargo hauling operation unprofitable for the LIRR’s gantry docks at Hunters Point. The automobile route and light rail options also collapsed the old passenger and cargo ferry industry which sailed from LIC and Astoria (especially Hallets Point). As the population of Queens left its cradle in LIC and along the East River shoreline, moving ever eastward toward the open country of Long Island, the narrow streets of ancient Newtown were given over more and more to industry. The Great Machine reached further toward the dawn, straining to carry the ever increasing load.

note and minutiae: sartorial mention by learned experts has informed me that the myriad colors that the steel in Queens Plaza is painted reflects the particular line or system that it was erected to serve.

Queens plaza complex – photo by Mitch Waxman

Queens Blvd. at 32 pl. - photo by Mitch Waxman

Following the machine past Skillman Avenue, as it carefully skirts the titan Sunnyside Railroad Yards and the cyclopean Degnon Terminal, one finds the auspicious origin of Queens Boulevard. A primary local artery with an elevated subway track directly connected to the Queens Plaza complex, Queens Blvd. is a central viaduct of population movement away from Manhattan toward points east. Sunnyside, Flushing, Roosevelt, Corona exist in their modern incarnation because of this structure- which like many parts of New York City- must be considered from those hidden structures beneath the street in addition to the visible sections.

There are thousands of mechanisms down there, cables and pipes and electrical transformers, steel underpinnings of the road itself. Realize the complexity of designing a street that can carry fully loaded modern trucking without collapse or subsidence, absorb the vibration and crushing weight of active subway tracks, and also carry a subterranean network of sewer and wastewater systems that can handle the storm runoff from so many acres of concrete. Of course, this complexity was designed over generations of dedicated improvements, but it boggles the mind to… think about what it is… that may be… buried down there.

for a thorough history of the neighborhoods which lie along this section of Queens Blvd., complete with historic photography- check out the work of the masters at Forgotten-NY

End of Naked Steel, Queens Blvd. - photo by Mitch Waxman

After diverging from the Queens Plaza complex, the steel is soon observed as clad in artistic cement, and its pleasing appearance mirrors a Roman viaduct. Such architectural analogy, referencing the time before Caesar did away with pretense, was an artifice used extensively in the era of Progress. Look at the majesty of Washington DC, the Tweed courthouse in Manhattan, or Speer’s plans for the New Berlin during the reign of the last antichrist.

from wikipedia:

Queens Boulevard was built in the early 20th century to connect the new Queensboro Bridge to central Queens, thereby offering an easy outlet from Manhattan. It was created by linking and expanding already-existing streets, such as Thomson Avenue and Hoffman Boulevard, stubs of which still exist. It was widened along with the digging of the IND Queens Boulevard Line subway tunnels in the 1920s and 1930s, and in 1941, the city proposed converting it into a freeway, as was done with the Van Wyck Expressway, but with the onset of World War II, the plan was never completed.

Queens Blvd. looking west – photo by Mitch Waxman

This line of rail continues eastward, sending offshoots into extant neighborhoods. Enormous numbers transverse this street, so much so that it generates statistical norms that stand in contrast to surrounding streets only a block or two away. There is a high rate of just about every affliction or situational outcome possible along Queens Blvd., probability is altered by sheer force of numbers. Spikes in auto accidents or criminal activity far out of scale with surrounding neighborhoods has garnered the infamous “Boulevard of Death” nomen and results in scaled up traffic and transit police patrols all along the route. It’s a bit of a misnomer, as the “just passing through” population of any 1 block stretch on Queens Blvd. is easily the size of a small town. Subways, manhattan bound traffic, pedestrians, residents, shoppers, workers- fuhgeddabowdit.

from wikipedia:

This street hosts one of the highest numbers of New York City Subway services in the city. At any one time, six services—the E, F, G, R, V, and the 7—all use significant stretches of the right of way; only Broadway (nine services), Sixth Avenue (seven), and Seventh Avenue (seven) in Manhattan and Fulton Street (eight) and Flatbush Avenue (six) in Brooklyn carry more at any one time. In addition, the Q60 bus travels its entire length.

End of the line out in Corona – photo by Mitch Waxman

39th (Beebe) avenue elevated station – photo by Mitch Waxman

Another branch of the Great Machine slinks out of Queens Plaza along Northern Blvd. and turns at 31st street, carrying the N and soon to be defunct W lines. This structure continues into and provides the only rail link for the extant sections of Astoria found beyond the noble stature of Ditmars Blvd. This stop is the first on the line, serving Dutch Kills, and its nascent hospitality industry. Before long, this stop will be a primary port of embarkation for hordes of tourists returning from Manhattan. What will greet them, currently, is a coffee shop/greasy spoon and a series of auto garages. Most of the private homes along this block have shuttered windows and zero tenancy, undoubtedly being stockpiled for future large scale development.

from wikipedia:

The Astoria Line was originally part of the IRT, as a spur off the IRT Queensboro Line, now part of the IRT Flushing Line (which didn’t open to the north until April 21, 1917). The whole Astoria Line north of Queensboro Plaza opened on February 1, 1917, and was used by trains between 42nd Street–Grand Central and Astoria.

N Train on elevated BMT tracks – photo by Mitch Waxman

- photo by Mitch Waxman

This is one of those hotels, a Holiday Inn which was recently completed on 39th Avenue and 29th street. Eccentric in design, it is one of the larger buildings visible in western Queens, but is already being dwarfed by newer construction nearby. Greatest of all, the thing in the Megalith watches from on high, as Queens rises.

The European travel industry is a highly evolved entity, which sells “package holidays” combining lodging and travel into one flat rate. Profit is found by booking airline seats and hotel rooms in bulk, garnering discounts from suppliers, and reselling at a higher price to consumers. Its all very civilized, and results in a very competitive pricing strategy which offers real value. Imagine, a trip to New York, all-inclusive for a flat rate- and staying at a brand new hotel two stops from the Apple Store and Central Park!

Really, I’m not being sarcastic. If you’re going to Europe, buy a ticket for London and then put your trip together there. You’ll end up flying to Italy or Bruges on some crap airline, where the in flight entertainment is a non stop commercial selling duty free booze and you’re surrounded by the recently drunk, but who cares… you’ll save a bundle as compared to the ala carte system. The hotel will be downright crappy too, but you’re only sleeping there- you’re in Europe- go to a museum or something. That’s pretty much how most international tourists think about Hotels, that’s the market- hopefully the Hotel investments at Dutch kills can grab a piece of it. Really, I’m not being sarcastic, Queens needs those jobs, and this conversion is fairly inevitable.

I wish that nothing would ever change, and I’ll miss the quirky edges and small stature of this enigmatic little neighborhood, but nothing is going to stop this transformation. I just hope that artifacts of what once was, like the LIC millstones, can be preserved and experienced by the public.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

In Sunnyside, another rhiozome of the Great Machine juts eastward, carrying the 800 pound gorilla to eastern Long Island. This shot is just down the hill from the Queens Boulevard photo above labeled “Queens Blvd. looking west”, a mere 3 city blocks away. These tracks continue for miles, connecting with the brobdingnagian Jamaica Yard, and provide connections to the furthest reaches of Long Island. The tracks are elevated above the streets, and incorporate a series of bridges to span the local streets transversed. A tremendous amount of construction work is underway- as observed by your humble narrator during these endless explorations on foot- to shore up and cosmetically improve the narrow strips of land which surround the trackways. The properties had become overgrown, shoddy, and a favorite location for illicit activity and homeless camps.

from wikipedia:

The Main Line is a rail line owned and operated by the Long Island Rail Road in the U.S. state of New York. It begins in Long Island City and runs directly across the middle of Long Island, terminating in Greenport approximately 95 miles (153 km) from its starting point. Along the way, the Main Line spawns five branches. These branches, in order from west to east, are:

  • Port Washington Branch (at Wood Interlocking in Woodside, Queens)
  • Hempstead Branch (at Queens Interlocking along the Queens/Nassau County border)
  • Oyster Bay Branch (at Nassau Interlocking in Mineola)
  • Port Jefferson Branch (at Divide Interlocking in Hicksville)
  • Central Branch (at Beth Interlocking at Bethpage)

entrance to the Sunnyside Yards - photo by Mitch Waxman

An entrance to the Sunnyside Yards offers a cutaway view of this Queens Plaza Great Machine complex, with the greenish steel structure bisecting the photo called to your attention. That’s Steinway Street where it becomes the 39th street (or Harold Avenue) bridge, and crosses over the Sunnyside Yard toward Queens Blvd. which is 2 blocks away ultimately terminating at 51st avenue by the BQE, just across the highway from old Calvary Cemetery which abuts the Newtown Creek. The great mills of Queens were once served by direct rail links to the Sunnyside Yard, Standard Motor’s stark industrial building with its no nonsense “daylight factory” windows is the luminous structure in the lower right corner, the Amtrak Acela barn is center, and the construction projects visible are at Queens Plaza. In the distance, Manhattan.

for a fascinating discussion of the legal status and deep history of the bridges over the Sunnyside yards, check out this article at dlapiper.com

- photo by Mitch Waxman

A garland of former industrial supremacy, the aforementioned Standard Building is just one of the enormous mills that once provided untold numbers of jobs to western Queens. Shadows, one of these giants now houses a Welfare office, and many have been converted to self storage facilities. On Northern Blvd., which is sited upon the ancient Jackson Avenue Turnpike, the Great Machine is underground. Subway tracks and other subterranean features reveal the entire surface here to be an artifice. Look at the entrance to the Sunnyside Yard shot above for the true grade of the land. This is the roof a structure, part of the Great Machine.

This Great Machine- an interconnecting system of bridges, roadways, and rail (along with power plants, sewers, and workers)- is the sum total of billions of hours of labor. When the remains of our civilization are scratched out of the sand in some future desert, one would hope that the collective work represented in this series of structures will merit some mention- a footnote next to the story of Manhattan.

from wikipedia:

NY Route 25A begins at its western terminus at Exit 13 (which is the first exit) off Interstate 495 (the Long Island Expressway) at Long Island City in the New York City borough of Queens. Route 25A is known in this area as 21st Street. As you follow 25A, it becomes Jackson Avenue and is a 4-lane road (and remains a 4-lane road well into Nassau County). Just past the intersection with Queens Boulevard (State Route 25), at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge, 25A becomes Northern Boulevard.

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  1. [...] turned up in researching this walk is that Roosevelt Avenue (the 5 miles which extend from the Great Machine at Queens Plaza all the way out to Willets Point) was designated a National Millennium Trail in the [...]

  2. [...] I’ve been noticing a lot of traffic accidents lately, minor impacts and benders of fenders. This one in Dutch Kills is fairly typical, a gypsy cab hits a non union contractors van, no one is hurt and damage is cosmetic. Nothing will get reported, a couple of bucks will change hands, and its done. One lane and local in nature, one wonders how this scene will play out in 10 years when Dutch Kills has been reborn as a little Manhattan. Clicking through to the link below will open a FEIS pdf from nyc.gov discussing the anticipated environmental effects of adding 35,000 apartments, 9 hotels (6-12 stories), and adding another major transportation hub (at Queens Blvd. and Skillman Avenue) to the Great Machine. [...]

  3. [...] bridge are laborers moving back and forth from mass transit centers along Jackson Avenue and the Great Machine at Queens Plaza. Underserved as the area is by mass transit, the city nevertheless anticipates an [...]

  4. [...] The Great Machine, visible from the high deck of the Queensboro Bridge, beckons your humble narrator to scuttle home before it begins to get dark. [...]

  5. [...] which first described the extensive branching of the transportation network referred to as “The Great Machine“, we proceeded to the currently undefended border of Maspeth and storied Greenpoint and [...]

  6. [...] East River. The view above is far from that storied waterway, as Roosevelt Avenue follows the Great Machine toward Flushing, and was shot in [...]

  7. [...] A Great Machine [...]

  8. [...] center of the web has a center itself, which is Manhattan- specifically where it connects to “the Great Machine” of the Queensboro bridge and it’s [...]

  9. [...] is the workshop of New York City, – you cannot have the Shining City of Manhattan without a Great Machine, a Newtown Creek, or a Big [...]

  10. [...] “Great Machine” slithers past Thomson, and hurtles eastward along the more modern [...]

  11. Thanks for all the pics & loony viewpoints. I’ve been walking E. over the Queensbridge from my neighborhood in Lenox Hill Manhattan. A series of grocery stores off Northern Blvd. allow me to stock up on food that generally cost so much more in Manhattan & loading up my cart with 2 layers of boxes secured with strong stretchy bands allow me to hike 6 miles round-trip, get some exercise, & appreciate the visual wonder of it all. It’s a fascinating journey which few experience & I gotta hand it to the efforts being made to add benches & park like space to the area right off the bridge in Ravenswood/LIC. I think my best part of the walk is to stand amid all the crisscrossing & yet still be relatively anonymous as opposed to similar vehicle heavy transportation hubs where sidewalks & human figures seem out of place & vulnerable to being spotted by drivers as crazy. Interesting, as well that Outward Bound has office space at the first bank of buildings that block the train yards when turning left while heading E. towards Northern Blvd. Outward Bound is a non-profit educational organization & expedition school that uses unfamiliar settings as a way for participants to experience adventure and challenge.

    Gary

    March 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm


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