The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

strange and brooding apprehensions

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CREEK WEEK continues… for the first installment, from the mouth at the East River to the Pulaski Bridge, click here. For more on just the Pulaski Bridge, click here.

- photo by Mitch Waxman (from the Queens Museum of Art’s “Panorama of the City of New York”)

Moving a quarter mile eastward along the Queens bulkheads of the Newtown Creek from the Pulaski Bridge, the first tributary encountered by the intrepid urban explorer and photographer is a canalized horror called the Dutch Kills.

This branch of the Newtown Creek watershed is about an hour’s walk from Newtown Pentacle HQ, and its locale is visited or transited rather regularly by your humble narrator, as I perform the penitential exertions ordered by my physicians as the curative for certain extant health issues. All ‘effed up, my version of such wholesome activity requires the presence of the macabre, and some element of existential danger. Luckily- the Newtown Creek offers, to those who seek it, succor and salvation for a variety of desires.

Detailed postings, in and around the immediate neighborhood of the Dutch Kills waterway, include:

from wikipedia

Dutch Kills is a sub-division of the larger neighborhood of Long Island City in the New York City borough of Queens. It was a hamlet, named for its navigable tributary of Newtown Creek, that occupied what today is centrally Queensboro Plaza. Dutch Kills was an important road hub during the American Revolutionary War, and the site of a British Army garrison from 1776 to 1783. The area supported farms during the 19th Century, and finally consolidated in 1870 with the villages of Astoria, Ravenswood, Hunters Point, Middletown, Sunnyside and Bowery Bay to form Long Island City.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Leaving the main course of the Newtown Creek, just .8 of a mile beyond its mouth, the first thing one encounters is a somewhat worse for wear railroad swing bridge- called the Long Island Railroad Bridge. Reports from “railfans” and “foamers” (and confirmed by the Coast Guard) state that the bridge hasn’t opened since 2002, which has orphaned the Dutch Kills from its parent waterway and cut the canal off from its intended usage. If my readings of old maps are correct (they often aren’t), these two tracks carry (or at least carried) rail traffic from either the Montauk Cutoff and Montauk Branch tracks, connecting the LIRR to the Sunnyside Yard and Wheelspur Yard with the tracks leading west to Hellsgate and east to Long Island. Notable former sights along this bank of the Newtown Creek would have been the City of New York’s Poultry Yard and the still extant Texas Oil Co.

For an extensive series of historical photos, discussion of the function and design of these tracks, and the industrial centers they once served- trainsarefun.com is the place to go. Special attention is called to this 1860 map of the area- which details the natural flow of the wetlands and shows the Dutch Kills as being a far larger body of water than it is today.

from Queens Borough, New York City, 1910-1920

During 1914 bulkhead lines were established by the United States Government for Dutch Kills Creek, a tributary of Newtown Creek, thus putting this stream under the jurisdiction of the War Department. The bulkhead lines as approved on October 29, 1914, give a width varying from 200 feet at its junction with Newtown Creek to 150 feet at the head of the stream, and include a large basin in the Degnon Terminal where car floats can be docked. The widths of the channel to be dredged under the appropriation of $510,000 mentioned previously, range from 160 feet at Newtown Creek to 75 feet at the turning basin. The Long Island Railroad plans to establish at this point a large wholesale public market, estimated to cost nearly $5,000,000.

Among the larger industrial plants in the Degnon Terminal served by this stream are : Loose Wiles Biscuit Company, American Ever Ready Works, White Motor Company, Sawyer Biscuit Company, Defender Manufacturing Company, Pittsburg Plate Glass Company, Marcus Ward, Brett Lithograph Company, Waldes, Inc., Norma Company of America, Manhattan-Rome Company, American Chicle Co. and The Palmolive Co.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

From Borden avenue, the second rail bridge is observed, which I believe to be the Montauk Cutoff track and a bascule type drawbridge. The canalized Dutch Kills, with its high bulkheads and rail connections, served as a water connection to NY Harbor for several heavy manufacturers in the area including F.A. Hunt, Holdtronics, New York Envelope, and American Chicle. The rail/dock complex, collectively, was known as the Degnon terminal. A short but sweet history of the Degnon Terminal can be accessed at members.trainweb.com. Michael Degnon was a master builder, one of the great men of the early 20th century in Queens, and is buried in Calvary Cemetery. Check out this nytimes.com article which discusses an expansion of his operations at the Dutch Kills in 1922 that brought floor space at his Degnon Terminal up to an astounding three million square feet.

from forgotten-ny.com

Michael Degnon was the contractor for the Steinway Tunnel, the first rail link to connect Manhattan and Queens, and also the contractor for the Sunnyside Yards. He decided to build his own railway, called Degnon Terminal, adjacent to the Sunnyside Yards and constructed large factories and warehouses complete with sidings facing the railroad tracks. This was attractive to his clients, since shipping goods via rail was now more accessible and less expensive for them. Some of the Terminal’s early clients were Sunshine Biscuit Company, Packard Automobile Company, American Ever Ready Company, and American Chicle Company. Of course, the rising cost of doing business in New York forced all of these companies to find other cities in which to manufacture. The sidings haven’t seen rail traffic since 1989, and the tracks are now either paved over or overgrown with weeds (some of which can be seen on FNY’s Disappearing Railroad Blues page). In its heyday, Degnon Terminal employed 16,000 workers.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The currently “under construction” Borden Avenue Bridge allows vehicle and pedestrian traffic to cross the Dutch Kills. This is the point at which the water quality declines seriously, as the only fresh water entering its stagnant depths are combined sewer outputs (CSO’s) and runoff from the concretized industrial landscape surrounding it (which carry a stream of road salt, engine and exhaust residue, and whatever else might be on the road or sidewalk into the water every time it rains). The bridge recently celebrated its centennial, incidentally.

from the army corps of engineers, discussing precautions for the collecting, handling, and testing of Dutch Kills underwater sediments:

All individuals involved in handling contaminated sediment are required to use protective equipment and to submit to blood and urine tests. The protective equipment consists of:

  • A full-face chemical cartridge respirator (with an organic chemical cartridge and dust filter).
  • A pressure-demand airline respirator, when handling sediment with PCB concentrations ~2,500 ppm.
  • A polyethylene- or saran-coated tyvek disposable coverall.
  • Inner PVC laboratory gloves with outer neoprene gloves.
  • Neoprene rubber boots.
  • Surgical scrubs.
  • from nyc.gov

    As part of the construction of Borden Avenue in 1868, a wooden bridge was built over Dutch Kills. This bridge was later replaced by an iron swing bridge, which was removed in 1906. The current bridge was opened on March 25, 1908 at a cost of $157,606. The deck’s original design consisted of creosote-treated wood blocks, with two trolley tracks in the roadway. Character-defining features of this bridge include the stucco-clad operator’s house, four pairs of rails, and a rock-faced stone retaining wall. The gable-on-hip roof of the operator’s house retains the original clay tile at the upper part. Although alterations have been made, the bridge is a rare survivor of its type and retains sufficient period integrity to convey its historic design significance.

    The Department of Transportation has identified a pocket of contaminated soil which has been classified as “contaminated non-hazardous”. As such, it poses no significant health risk to workers or the surrounding community. However, precautionary measures will be taken and every effort is being made to remove and dispose of the contamination quickly, yet safely, within all New York City and State guidelines. A Corrective Action Plan (CAP) for the removal and disposal of the contamination has been submitted to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) for review and approval.

    - photo by Mitch Waxman

    Sewer construction projects along Hunters Point Avenue revealed that the swampy nature of western Queens is unchanged. These ground waters, as you might observe by the chalk markings on the pilings, would be some 13 feet beneath the streets. The vertical clearance of the nearby Hunters Point Avenue Bridge (and street grade) is approximately 15 feet over the water, so this would make sense.

    Never forget, lords and ladies, that this Long Island City of ours is a swamp which was “reclaimed” by industrial means just within the last 150 years. The “ground” in most of the area is actually a sort of pier or dock, with timber pilings supporting cement clad fill. Just two stories down are the waters of the Newtown Creek and it’s tributaries, and this sort of subterrene terraforming is typical for most of the spongy land directly surrounding the Newtown Creek.

    Who can guess, what poisons there are, laying in the mud waiting to hatch out?

    from hydroqaul.com

    Like a number of other local tributaries to New York Harbor, Newtown Creek is now simply a peripheral canal system fed by tides, CSO and stormwater discharges.  None of its original freshwater creeks and extensive wetlands exist anymore, the whole area having been transformed into a series of canals by channelization, land reclamation (filling) and bulkheading.  Biological abundance and diversity is impaired by reductions in the amount and variety of physical habitat, and by a vulnerability of the remaining habitat to retention and accumulation of pollutants.  Although no scientific studies have been identified prior to 2001, it can be expected that biota of Newtown Creek reflect similar conditions in other highly impacted waterbodies around the harbor.  Thus, a fouling community composed of epibenthic invertebrates such as barnacles and sea squirts should be present on pilings and bulkheads; a fairly homogenous community of benthic invertebrates dominated by tolerant forms of polychaete worms should be found in the sediments, and a typical assemblage of regionally indigenous fish such as striped bass, winter flounder, bay anchovy, Atlantic menhaden, snapper bluefish, sea robin and tautog may come and go as water levels and quality permit.

    - photo by Mitch Waxman

    The Hunter’s Point Avenue Bridge offers spectacular views of the Long Island Expressway with Brooklyn beyond, and from its walkway; the bulkheads marking the end of the Dutch Kills are visible. This is a dead zone, check out riverkeeper.org’s analysis of the waters here over a multiple year period. The foulness of these waters are part of the historical record, which an  a  New York Times article from March of 1871 proves, and the evidences of one’s own senses suggest.

    from nyc.gov

    The Hunters Point Bridge over Dutch Kills is situated between 27th Street and 30th Street in the Long Island City section of Queens, and is four blocks upstream of the Borden Avenue Bridge. It is a bascule bridge with a span of 21.8m. The general appearance of the bridge has been significantly changed since it was first opened in 1910. The bridge provides a channel with a horizontal clearance of 18.3m and a vertical clearance, in the closed position, of 2.4m at MHW and 4.0m at MLW. The bridge structure carries a two-lane, two-way vehicular roadway with sidewalks on either side. The roadway width is 11.0m, while the sidewalks are 1.8m wide. The width of the approach roadways vary from the width of the bridge roadway. The west approach and east approach roadways are 13.4m and 9.1m, respectively.

    The first bridge at this site, a wooden structure, was replaced by an iron bridge in 1874. That bridge was permanently closed in 1907 due to movement of the west abutment, which prevented the draw from closing. It was replaced in 1910 by a double-leaf bascule bridge, designed by the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company. The bridge was rebuilt in the early 1980’s as a single-leaf bascule, incorporating the foundations of the previous bridge.

    Dutch Kills Surreal beauty by you.

    - photo by Mitch Waxman

    At the end of the Dutch Kills, one finds a concrete company, and the former Degnon Terminal home of Sunshine Biscuits, which today serves as the “C’ building of the LaGuardia Community College campus (found between 29th and 30th streets and between 47th avenue and the intersection of Skillman and Thompson avenues). Additionally, the greater astoria historical society has posted a photo at smugmug that shows the rest of the scene in the shot above dating from 1966.

    speaking of gahs, they have a short history of Sunshine Biscuit’s “thousand window factory” which can be accessed by clicking here

    - photo by Mitch Waxman

    A quick glance down at the banks of Dutch Kills reveal the true nature of things here, it is not uncommon to half glance at dead things floating by, suspended by their internal gases. At high tide on the East River, aquatic life often finds its way into the Newtown Creek and become entrapped in the oxygen deprived water. This provides ample food for thriving colonies of carnivorous worms and shore line scavengers- mainly river rats, the cats that prey on them, and various birds.

    Few if any dogs have I observed down here, even where you’d expect them to be. Guard dogs are unemployed around these parts, and I’ve never seen a feral dog roaming around in all the time I spend scuttling around the area- but that’s probably because of all the trucks. I do know a fat old dog who’s chained to a fish butcher on 51st avenue, but she’s mainly interested in her sunny sidewalk and sleeping.

    from nytimes.com

    Hunters Point South, for its part, will have 5,000 homes built on 30 acres on the edge of the East River, near Newtown Creek. Three thousand of the homes will be set aside for families whose annual income totals $126,000 or less, with 800 of them destined specifically to families who earn less than $61,400 a year. There will also be 300 units built for low-income senior citizens and at least 225 units devoted to a middle-class homeownership program.

    “We’re creating a model,” said Councilman Eric N. Gioia, whose district includes the area where the project will be built. “We’re creating housing where all New Yorkers can live together, in the same neighborhood.”

    - photo by Mitch Waxman

    At the end of Dutch Kills, near 47th avenue, illegal dumping seems to be a community passion. There is even a rusted out and derelict barge which seems to finally be sinking. As always, admonishment and advice for the urban explorer to ignore the temptation to climb out and take a look applies. The wet filth that lines the shore here stinks of sulphur compounds, and the smell of a sick aquarium permeates the breeze. This is also a HAZMAT zone, and nautical charts reveal that the water depth here is 13-15 feet, roughly a third deeper than it is in the channel. Don’t screw around back here, lords and ladies, you can get seriously hurt.

    from nyc.gov, on the waterfront revitalization section of the Hunters Point South development plan

    Policy 6.2: Direct public funding for flood prevention or erosion control measures to those locations where the investment will yield significant public benefit.

    The proposed actions do not include public structural flood and erosion control projects.  The central and eastern portion of Site A and much of Site B are within the 100-year floodplain.

    The New York City Building Code (Title 27, Subchapter 4, Article 10) requires that residential buildings have a finished floor elevation (FFE) at or above the 100-year floodplain, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires the FFE to be one foot above the 100-year floodplain. In accordance with these regulations and as stated above, clean fill would be used to raise the development area, including the areas for new streets and buildings, as well as portions of the project sites designated for the waterfront park or other open space areas that would not be covered by impervious surface or structures. Raising the elevation of the project sites above the 100-year flood elevation would ensure protection of public health and safety, the new buildings and open space areas, public investment of city infrastructure, and enhancement of natural habitats. The proposed actions are consistent with this policy.

    - photo by Mitch Waxman

    On the Brooklyn side of the Newtown Creek is another tributary called Whale Creek (don’t worry, we’ll be going there soon enough), alongside which the magnificent Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant hums and belches methane in storied Greenpoint. This spot on 29th street, at the end of the Dutch Kills, is just under a half mile from the main channel.

    A Newtown Pentacle posting from October of 2009 explored this Temple of Cloacina, which is a 24 hours a day municipal workhorse. The plant processes a significant percentage of the 1.1 billion gallons of sewage New York produces every day, delivering it in a milled and concentrated form to a pumping tank and dock in Greenpoint directly across the Creek from the forthcoming Hunters Point South development which is just starting on the Queens shoreline. In still another posting, we followed some sludge boats- the M/V Newtown Creek, North River, and the Red Hook, as they traveled past Hallet’s Cove and Astoria up the East River.

    from nyc.gov

    Sludge dewatering

    Dewatering reduces the liquid volume of sludge by about 90%. New York City operates dewatering facilities at eight of its 14 treatment plants. At these facilities, digested sludge is sent through large centrifuges that operate like the spin cycle of a washing machine. The force from the very fast spinning of the centrifuges separates most of the water from the solids in the sludge, creating a substance knows as biosolids. The water drawn from the spinning process is then returned to the head of the plant for reprocessing. Adding a substance called organic polymer improves the consistency of the “cake”, resulting in a firmer, more manageable product. The biosolids cake is approximately 25 to 27 percent solid material.

    Hunters Point to Dutch Kills with Whale Creek on the left – photo by Mitch Waxman (from the Queens Museum of Art’s “Panorama of the City of New York”)

    Creek Week continues… at this, your Newtown Pentacle. Prepare to penetrate into the darkness of the tomb legions, lords and ladies… as we move eastward.

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    4 Responses

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    1. [...] bridges, and the cemented reality of an area defined by the junction of the main waterway of the Newtown Creek with its bubbly tributary- the canalized Dutch Kills. Just a block away is the Empty [...]

    2. [...] industrial waterways which act as tributaries to its main course. In the past we have visited Dutch Kills, Whale Creek, Maspeth Creek… today, it’s time for a visit to the vicious end of it [...]

    3. [...] that the true and terrible wonder of the Newtown Creek is often overlooked. This post and several others of its ilk attempt to present a fuller version of things, and act as reminders that what was may [...]

    4. [...] Dutch Kills needed to be fixed. [...]


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