The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

the hillside thickets

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CREEK WEEK continues…

  • For the first installment, from the mouth of the Newtown Creek at the East River to the Pulaski Bridge, click here. For more on just the Pulaski Bridge, click here.
  • For the second installment, which turns off the main course of the Newtown Creek and follows the Dutch Kills tributary to Long Island City’s Degnon Terminal, click here.

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

As the Newtown Creek follows its atavist path across the (currently) undefended border of Brooklyn and Queens, the second drawbridge encountered along its length is the J.J. Byrne Memorial Bridge, aka the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge, which provides a connection between Queen’s Blissville and Brooklyn’s Greenpoint.

A detailed posting on this bridge and its immediate environs was presented in August of 2009, which can accessed by clicking here.

from the DOT website:

The Greenpoint Avenue Bridge is a double-leaf trunnion bascule, with 21.3m wide leaves. This bridge is a steel girder structure with a filled grid deck. The bridge provides a channel with a horizontal clearance of 45.4m and in the closed position a vertical clearance of 7.9m at MHW and 9.4m at MLW. The bridge structure carries a four-lane two-way vehicular roadway with a 1.2m striped median and sidewalks on either side. The roadway width is 8.6m and the sidewalks are 4.0m and 3.7m for the north and south sidewalk respectively. The approach roadways are narrower than the bridge roadway. The west approach and east approach roadways are 17.1m (including 1.4m center median) and 11.9m respectively.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

A significant petrochemical industrial footprint is observed at the 1.3 mile mark of the Newtown Creek, and the bridge marks that point at which even the current generation of shambolic urban planners throw up their hands and surrender. This is where the heavy manufacturing stage of the industrial revolution was enacted and invented, and the story preserved in the anaerobic soils of this area will be the joy of future archaeologists. Nearby the Queens onramp, Silvercup studios maintains a large film and television production campus, but this is mainly a region defined by recycling yards, warehouses, truck depots, and a sewer plant interspersed with century old petrochemical franchises. There are a few homes nearby, in both Brooklyn and Queens, but this is not a residential area. This is where the “sweaty, smelly, and dirty work” is done.

the nytimes has an article available from 1919, describing a spectacular and auspicious conflagration at Standard Oil.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The Brooklyn shore of the Creek hosts an enormous yard of fuel tanks, while the Queens side is lined with rail and light industrial buildings. Review and Railroad Avenue’s follow the Newtown Creek in Queens, which intersect with Laurel hill Blvd. less than a mile away. Appropriately high security along the volatile shoreline of Brooklyn renders exploration of it a somewhat futile endeavor, with high walls and armed guards securing and enclosing privatized corporate streets. A stroll down from Kingsland ave., through Grandparents ave., to Norman ave., Bridgewater St., and Stewart avenues will reveal visual egress to the Newtown Creek in only two places, both of which are well staffed and monitored by private security. A trucking center, the streets and sidewalks here are also quite degraded, and in this part of Brooklyn- Guard Dogs are deployed in great numbers. Go to Queens, instead.

from newtowncreekalliance.org

There is more than 400 years of rich, if often troubled, history on Newtown Creek. Dutch explorers first surveyed the creek in 1613-14 and acquired it from the local Mespat tribe. The Dutch and English used the creek for agriculture and fledgling industrial commerce, making it the oldest continuous industrial area in the nation. The country’s first kerosene refinery (1854) and first modern oil refinery (1867) brought jobs and infrastructure. By the end of the 19th century, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, which began as Astral Oil Co. in 1880, had over 100 distilleries on both sides of Newtown Creek, and each refinery’s average effluent of discharge per week was 30,000 gallons, most spewing into the creek. By the 1920s and 30s, the Creek was a major shipping hub and was widened, deepened, and bulkheaded to accommodate bigger barges, destroying all its fresh water sources. Newtown Creek became home to such businesses as sugar refineries, hide tanning plants, canneries, and copper wiring plants.

Up until the latter part of the 20th Century, industries along the creek had free reign over the disposal of unwanted byproducts. With little-to-no government regulation or knowledge of impacts on human health and the environment, it made business sense to pollute the creek. The legacy of this history today is a 17 million gallon underground oil spill caused by Standard Oil’s progeny companies—7 million gallons more than the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, copper contamination of the Phelps Dodge superfund site, bubbling from the creek bed in the English Kill reach due to increases of hydrogen sulfide and a lack of dissolved oxygen, and creekbeds coated with of old tires, car frames, seats and loose paper. Nearly the entire creek had the sheen and smell of petroleum, with the bed and banks slicked black.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The Queens shoreline boasts a geologic feature called Laurel Hill. High ground, as it were. A lot of time is spent on the Queens side, scuttling around in a filthy black raincoat, by your humble narrator. Of late, I’ve been curtailing my presence in the area, for fear of environmental exposure’s cumulative effects. Breathing this air, while walking the blistered concrete of its lengths, cannot be beneficent for the mammalian constitution.

Beginning at Borden Avenue near the Dutch Kills, which is roughly a mile from where the ferry docks of 19th century Hunter Point could be found, Review Avenue only goes to one place. Literally, it was the avenue that funeral reviews- elaborate parades of mourners replete with musicians and baroque carriages- would use to travel to Calvary Cemetery. A posting from July of 2009, Walking Widdershins to Calvary, explored Review Avenue and the surrounding area in some small depth. Industrial footprints are observed on the Creek side, and very active rail tracks still carry freight along the shoreline.

here’s a link to city-data.com, which details the sort of businesses and structures, and their worth, which are found along Review Avenue

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Relict factories and abandoned lots for many years, the structures along the Queens side are either being torn down or renovated to modern usage. Dirty industries like recycling and septic tank maintenance firms are seen hard at work, and a thriving light industrial facility exists, however, these businesses are predicated on the use of Trucks and ignore the reason for their original construction- which is access to the water. Not that long ago, industrial shipping along Newtown Creek outstripped traffic on the Mississippi River.

from bklyn-genealogy-info.com’s History of Queens County

The boundary line of Long Island City, “beginning at a point formed by the intersection of the easterly boundary line of the city and county of New York with the centerline of Newtown Creek,” runs “thence easterly along the center line of said Newtown Creek to the westerly side of the Penny Bridge (so – called); thence northerly along the westerly side of the Bushwick and Newtown turnpike to the road on the southerly side of Calvary Cemetery, known as the road to Dutch Kills; thence along the center of said last named road to the southerly and westerly side of Calvary Cemetery as far as the boundaries of said cemetery extend; thence northerly along the said cemetery to the center of the road leading to Green Point along the northerly side of said cemetery; thence easterly along said last mentioned road to the intersection of the same with the road leading from Calvary Cemetery to Astoria; thence northerly and north- easterly along the center of said road, Dutch Kills road, Woodside avenue, Bowery Bay road, to the easterly boundary line of land formerly of Isaac Rapelye, on the northerly side of said Bowery Bay road; thence along the line of said Rapelye land to the Bowery Bay; thence along Bowery Bay and the sound to the northerly boundary line of the town of Newtown; thence northwesterly and southwesterly along said boundary line to the easterly boundary line of the city and county of New York; thence southwesterly along said last mentioned boundary line to the place of beginning.”

The new city was divided into five wards, described as follows:

  • First Ward (Hunter’s Point)-  “All that portion of the city lying between the center of Newtown Creek on the south, the westerly boundary line of Long Island City on the west, the center of Nott avenue and Boundary street on the north and the center of Dutch Kills Creek on the east.”
  • Second Ward (Blissville).- “Beginning at the junction of Newtown and Dutch Kills Creek, running thence easterly along the center of said Dutch Kills Creek to Boundary street; thence along the center of Boundary street to Jackson avenue; thence easterly along the center of said Jackson avenue to the easterly line of Long Island City; thence southerly along said boundary line to the southerly boundary line of said city and at the center of Newtown Creek; thence westerly along the southerly boundary line of said city to the place of beginning.”
  • Third Ward (Ravenswood).-  “Beginning at a point on the westerly boundary of Long Island City, at its intersection with the center line of Nott avenue when extended on its present course to the said westerly boundary line of Long Island City; running thence northerly along said boundary line to its intersection with the center line of Sunswick Creek; running thence easterly and southerly along the center of said creek to the center of Pearce avenue; thence easterly along the center of said Pearce avenue to the center of First avenue; thence southerly along the center of said First avenue to the center of Webster avenue; thence easterly along the center of Webster avenue to the center of Jackson avenue; thence southwesterly along the center of Jackson avenue and Nott avenue to the point or place of beginning.”
  • Fourth Ward (Astoria).-  “Beginning at a point in the westerly boundary line of Long Island City, at its intersection with the center line of Sunswick Creek, running thence northerly along said westerly boundary line to its intersection with the center line of Franklin street, when extended on its present course to the said westerly boundary line; thence easterly along the center of Franklin Street to the intersection of Flushing avenue; thence easterly along the center of said Flushing avenue to the easterly boundary line of said city at the center line of the Bowery Bay road; thence southerly along the said easterly boundary line to the center of Jackson avenue; thence southwesterly along the center of said Jackson avenue to the center of Webster avenue; thence westerly along said Webster avenue to the center of First avenue; thence northerly along the center of First avenue to the center of Pearce avenue thence westerly along the center of Pearce avenue to the center of said Sunswick Creek; thence northerly and westerly along the center of said creek to the point of beginning.”
  • Fifth Ward (Bowery Bay).-  “All that portion of the city lying between the northerly boundary line of Long Island City on the north, the easterly boundary line of said city on the east, the westerly boundary line of the same on the west, and the Fourth ward on the south, together with all the islands opposite thereto and comprehended in the town of Newtown.”
  • The islands belonging to Long Island City are known as North Brother, South Brother and Berrien’s.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The bulkheaded docks found here, this one in particular, once allowed funeral ferries from Manhattan to dock near the Penny Bridge (a structure which allowed egress from Brooklyn). A LIRR passenger station, also called Penny Bridge, was nearby. Mourners would gather on these docks and weave through the crowds entering the main gate of Calvary Cemetery, after having completed the journey from Manhattan. Nearby, in Maspeth, Hunters Point, and along Review and Greenpoint Avenue- hospitality industries sprang up in the form of inns, hotels, and saloons. Hunters Point also offered illegal gambling (and during prohibition in the 1920’s, booze), but that was for the trip home. When the Five Points gangsters held a funeral out here, extra police from Hunters Point would be on duty to prevent a drunken riot from breaking out, here- in Blissville.

from wikipedia

Blissville is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. It is part of Long Island City. It is bordered by Calvary Cemetery to the east; the Long Island Expressway to the North; Newtown Creek to the South and Dutch Kills (a tributary of Newtown Creek) to the West. Blissville was named after Neziah Bliss, who owned most of the land in the 1830s and 1840s. Bliss built the first version of what was known for many years as the Blissville Bridge, a drawbridge over Newtown Creek, connecting Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Blissville. It was replaced in the 20th century by the J. J. Byrne Memorial Bridge, also called the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge), located slightly upstream.

Blissville existed as a small village until 1870 when it was incorporated with the villages of Astoria, Ravenswood, Hunters Point, Dutch Kills, Middletown, Sunnyside and Bowery Bay into Long Island City.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Calvary Cemetery, of course, is not the only entity which has defined this area- just the largest and longest lasting. Nearby, the Phelps Dodge corporation maintained a copper refinery, and an early chemical factory was located here. Colorants and dyes were also a specialty of the locale. Review Avenue is remarkable for a cyclopean splendor at Calvary, the towering masonry structures which girdle and contain the borders of the necropolis.

from queenslibrary.org

A history of the Laurel Hill Chemical works from the beginning in 1852, from the Phelps Dodge Corporation Laurel Hill Plant Records, 1893-1983.

The following is a chronology of Phelps Dodge Corporation’s Laurel Hill Plant starting with William Henry Nichols, the man who co-founded the original chemical plant, G.H. Nichols and Company at the site in 1872; continuing to when it was purchased by Phelps Dodge Corporation in 1930; and ending in 2000 when all the structures were finally demolished.
Chronology
1852
William Henry Nichols was born to George Henry and Sara Elizabeth (Harris) Nichols in Brooklyn, New York, January 9, 1852.
1870
William Henry Nichols and his friend Charles W. Walter started making acids.
1872
To expand their acid production to sulfphurc acid and support their entrepreneurial needs William H. Nichols and Charles W. Walter, with the financial backing of William’s father George Henry Nichols, formed the G. H. Nichols and Company. The new company so named, because not only did George Henry provide the majority of the capital, but also the two men were too young to incorporate a company in New York State. During the year the company began purchasing land and building buildings in the Laurel Hill (now Maspeth) neighborhood of Queens, New York on Newtown Creek. Not only did the site offer good fishing, it afforded convenient water and rail transportation to move their raw and finished material.
1870s-1880s
Their sulphuric acid, produced from brimstone, was stronger than the industry standard upsetting their competition but greatly increasing their market share.
1880s
The company and adjoining landowner Samuel Schifflin purchased and filled in a portion of Newtown Creek.
1880s early
The company developed and installed a special burner at the plant to produce sulfuric acid from pyrites, a cheaper raw material with a stable price. They purchased a Canadian pyrite mine to ensure a steady supply of the raw material. The by-product from this process is copper matte which they sold.
1880
During this year the company built and renovated a number of buildings on the grounds including: two shops on the south side of the South Side Rail Road tracks (now owned by the Long Island Rail Road); a building built by Samuel Berg Strasser and his employees; and large additions to buildings on both sides of the railroad tracks.
1881
The company continued to enlarge and improve their plant and docks and lighters were used to ship their acids on Newtown Creek.
1884
The company purchased four acres from the Rapleye Estate on Washington Avenue (now 43rd Street) and surveyed the land for a machinery and acid manufacturing building. Construction began on the new building that extends the entire block on Washington Avenue to the railroad.
1880’s mid
A confluence of two issues, their copper matte stopped selling and the copper refinery industry’s need for a proper method for analyzing the metallurgy of copper, propelled the company to discover a new process to refine copper called the electrolytic method. This process was a commercial success producing almost 100% pure copper which they named, the famous brand, N.L.S. (Nichols Lake Substitute) Copper.
1890
This year the company built two new acid manufacturing buildings, the first of this kind in the world.
1891
William Henry Nichols renamed the company from G.H. Nichols and Company to Nichols Chemical Company. The new company was incorporated the week of January 8, to manufacture sulphuric, muriatic, nitric, and acetic acid, other chemicals, and by-products. A new four story 200 foot by 120 foot building was built on Newtown Creek.
1895
The first contract was signed by Phelps Dodge Corporation and the Nichols Copper Company to have Phelps Dodge deliver a minimum of 1,000,000 pounds of blister copper over three years. This began an economically symbiotic relationship that lasted until 1922, in which Phelps Dodge provided 90% of the blister copper Nichols Copper Company used to produce almost 100% pure copper.
1899
The first important merger of chemical companies in the United States occurred when twelve companies with nineteen plants merged to create the General Chemical Company with William Henry Nichols as chairman. The Nichols Chemical Company sold its Laurel Hill Plant and land to General Chemical for $250,000. This same year plans were filed for the erection of their, 315 feet high and 36 feet in diameter, steel chimney.
1901
On the plant grounds, General Chemical erected the tallest chimney in the United States to blow the smoke and gases from its furnace away from the neighborhood. For the past number of years neighbor surrounding the plant complained vociferously about the pollution from the factory. Only after a study found that nitric, muriatic, and sulphuric acids from the plant were destroying local cemeteries’ tombstones did the company try and alleviate the problem by building the chimney. This same year the company filed plans with the New York City’s Department of Buildings in Queens to build another 150 foot chimney, an ore breaker, a storage tank, a boiler house, and a stable.
1903
A fire, started in a building used to manufacture sulphite of copper, destroys this building and two others causing $250,000 worth of damage, to this date it was the most costly fire in Newtown.
1904
For $42,500 the company purchased from Alice H. Stebbins a major tract of land whose border was 200 feet on Locust Avenue (now 44th Street), 725 feet on River Avenue (47th Street if it extended to Newtown Creek), 825 feet on Clinton Avenue (now 56th Road), and 195 feet on Newtown Creek. That same year for $25,000 they purchased another tract from Alice H. Stebbins, Mary S. Dodge, Mary J. and William J. Schiefflin, and Eleanor J. Taft whose border was 828 feet on Clifton Avenue (46th Street if it extended to Newtown Creek), 200 feet on South Avenue (a street that was on the south side of the South Side Rail Road tracks), 755 feet on River Avenue (47th Street if it extended to Newtown Creek) and 195 feet on Newtown Creek.
1912
Another major fire occurred at the plant causing $100,000 worth of damage to a building 200 feet along Washington Avenue (now 43rd Street) and 200 feet along the Long Island Rail Road tracks.
1913
During this year the landscape of the neighborhood changed considerably with the removal of the streets, Washington, Clay, Hamilton, Fulton, Clifton, and River Avenues, on plant property between the railroad tracks and Newtown Creek. Also the railroad tracks were elevated and the remaining part of Washington Avenue was made a private road. This same year the company stated that they will be increasing their workforce from 1200 to 5000 people.
1914
The plant received 150,000 tons of copper ore.
1916
The company received approval from the New York City Board of Estimates to build a boardwalk on the stretch of land on the north side of the railroad tracks, nicknamed “Death Avenue” for the many pedestrian fatalities involving trains.
1919
The company employees 1,750 people. Along with other companies along the creek they petition the city to close the streets that were not officially opened between the railroad tracks and Newtown Creek. The petition was denied by the city and the borough because it would eliminate miles of streets and cut off public access to the waterfront.
1920
Property is expanded when the company filled in some of Newtown Creek. That same year the company was expected to be tried for illegally building a freight shed on a portion of Creek Street (57th Avenue if it extended into the plant).
1920s
In exchange for stock in the company Phelps Dodge invested $3.5 million in Nichols Copper Company’s plant modernization projects. This increased the production of copper dramatically at the plant.
1930
Dr. William Henry Nichols died. This same year, Phelps Dodge bought the Laurel Hill Plant.
1940
The following products were produced at the plant: copper, silver, gold, copper and nickel sulphates, and small amounts of selenium, tellurium, platinum, and palladium. This same year more of Newtown Creek was filled in giving the plant its final size of 35.60 acres.
1940’s
During this decade the plant began importing blister copper from Africa, South America, and scrap copper from other cities, after Phelps Dodge built a refinery in El Paso, Texas.
1956
The company constructed additions to the plant’s electrolytic tank house to increase there capacity to 35,000 tons of refined copper per month. They also increased the production of wire bars. In 1956, the plant was comprised “of a custom smelter, copper refining, and copper sulphate plant. The smelter produces blister copper from the treatment of ores, concentrates, and various kinds of scrap and copper bearing materials. The refinery treats the blister copper produced by the Laurel Hill Smelter, blister and anode copper received from others on custom basis, and high grade scrap copper. Several types of copper sulphate are produced and some refined nickel sulphate.” The plant experiences an unauthorized employee strike from January 10 – February 12.
1963
The customer smelter at the plant is permanently closed in August 1963, because the limited availability of scrap copper and other raw materials and “declining treatment toll margins among custom smelters” made the smelter unprofitable. People were laid off, the smelter was dismantled, and the parts were sold. The El Paso Refinery was able to maintain the company’s production levels.
1965
Capacity of the multiple refining system was increased by 24,000 tons per year and a gas fired vertical melting furnace was installed.
1966
The furnace for removing insulation from copper wire was “placed in limited operation,” and a new building to house equipment for the receipt and sampling of incoming materials was completed.
1967
Installation began in December of a new anode casting furnace with a waste heat boiler and a new anode casting wheel.
1971
On November 1, 1971, the company permanently shut down part of the plant’s electrolytic tank house and ceased the treatment of #2 scrap, because the facilities were built prior to 1900 and were becoming too expensive to maintain and operate. The El Paso Refinery was able to fulfill the company’s production needs.
1984
The company closed the plant permanently in February 1984, due to high costs and changing markets. The plant’s final products, which they had been producing throughout the twentieth century, were copper, silver, gold, copper and nickel sulphates, and small amounts of selenium, tellurium, platinum, and palladium. The El Paso Refinery was expected to fulfill the company’s production needs.
1986
The company sold the land to the United States Postal Service on September 1986.
1996
The postal service sued the company because they did not sufficiently clean up the site and the court ordered Phelps Dodge Corporation to buy back the property.
2001
All the buildings were torn down.

The following is a chronology of Phelps Dodge Corporation’s Laurel Hill Plant starting with William Henry Nichols, the man who co-founded the original chemical plant, G.H. Nichols and Company at the site in 1872; continuing to when it was purchased by Phelps Dodge Corporation in 1930; and ending in 2000 when all the structures were finally demolished.

Chronology

  • 1852 William Henry Nichols was born to George Henry and Sara Elizabeth (Harris) Nichols in Brooklyn, New York, January 9, 1852.
  • 1870 William Henry Nichols and his friend Charles W. Walter started making acids.
  • 1872 To expand their acid production to sulfphurc acid and support their entrepreneurial needs William H. Nichols and Charles W. Walter, with the financial backing of William’s father George Henry Nichols, formed the G. H. Nichols and Company. The new company so named, because not only did George Henry provide the majority of the capital, but also the two men were too young to incorporate a company in New York State. During the year the company began purchasing land and building buildings in the Laurel Hill (now Maspeth) neighborhood of Queens, New York on Newtown Creek. Not only did the site offer good fishing, it afforded convenient water and rail transportation to move their raw and finished material.
  • 1870s-1880s Their sulphuric acid, produced from brimstone, was stronger than the industry standard upsetting their competition but greatly increasing their market share.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Calvary Cemetery, as longtime readers of this Newtown Pentacle are all too aware, is a special place which I’ve spent a lot of time exploring. Past postings on Calvary include:

- photo by Mitch Waxman

This shot is from one of those two vantage points in Brooklyn, mentioned above, showing the bend taken by the Newtown Creek and the Shining City of Manhattan beyond. The construction work observable on the right side of the image is the self same bulkhead where the ferries from Manhattan docked that was pictured above. Everything in Brooklyn and Queens looks toward Manhattan, but as always, I have to scuttle off in a different direction and to the beat of my own drummer. Turn widdershins on your heels, Lords and Ladies, and gaze eastward toward the besotted and behemoth corpse lands of the Kosciuszko Bridge.

from wikipedia

The Kosciuszko Bridge is a truss bridge that spans Newtown Creek between the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, connecting Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Penny Bridge, Queens. It is a part of Interstate 278, which is also locally known as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The bridge opened in 1939, replacing the Penny Bridge from Meeker Avenue in Brooklyn to Review Avenue and Laurel Hill Boulevard, and is the only bridge over Newtown Creek that is not a drawbridge. It was named in honor of Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish volunteer who was a General in the American Revolutionary War. Two of the bridge towers are surmounted with eagles, one is the Polish eagle, and the other the American eagle.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The heart of darkness, where the slime and filth that agglutinate along the bed of the Newtown Creek defeat navigable intentions of oarsman and sailor alike, begins beyond the Kosciuszko Bridge. Untrammeled and seldom travelled pathways, a moonscape of cement dissolution awaits…

…but that’s going to be in another installment of Creek Week, here at your Newtown Pentacle.

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

On a side note, a ripple of revulsion and shock greeted the antiquarian and environmentalist communities that operate along the Newtown Creek recently, when a Dolphin was spotted near the Pulaski Bridge by members of the Harbor School- as reported by Gothamist.com

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4 Responses

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  1. Hello, i found your site at yahoo and you are providing interesting stuff. I like it,

    Ugly Americans

    May 16, 2010 at 12:53 am

  2. [...] 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 once again [...]

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

  4. [...] of the aphorisms which has emerged in my studies of Newtown Creek and the surrounding communities is this: “all roads lead to [...]


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