The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

ratstravaganza or “I am not that demon swineherd”

with one comment

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The voice was familiar, polished by Marlboro and inflected by origin and experience in Astoria, when it asked “Do you want to take pictures of rats… I mean a whole lot of rats?”. One of my buddies, employed by a mid size garbage haulage company based in Maspeth, described the scene to me in lurid detail- when his trucks returned to the garage from a weekly garbage run (they normally specialize in certain recyclable materials, but also handle organics) rats would pour out of them and claim free reign over the enormous structure for a few hours. A home grown colony of rats, as well, were known to come spilling out of the walls when the lights went down.

from wikipedia, and note- this isn’t the company “waste management”, just the subject

Waste management is the collection, transport, processing, recycling or disposal, and monitoring of waste materials. The term usually relates to materials produced by human activity, and is generally undertaken to reduce their effect on health, the environment or aesthetics. Waste management is also carried out to recover resources from it. Waste management can involve solid, liquid, gaseous or radioactive substances, with different methods and fields of expertise for each.

Waste management practices differ for developed and developing nations, for urban and rural areas, and for residential and industrial producers. Management for non-hazardous residential and institutional waste in metropolitan areas is usually the responsibility of local government authorities, while management for non-hazardous commercial and industrial waste is usually the responsibility of the generator.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Dark and effluent, the garage is a multiple acre building with 40-50 foot ceilings and cinder block walls. Industrial equipment is installed directly into concrete flooring, and in places there are pits and deep channels that allow the automated equipment room to operate. An amiable Brooklynite agreed to accompany me around the place, and steer me from hazardous drops familiar to him after a life time of occupation at the facility. I had to rely on flash photography and high ISO settings, as the quick moving rodents shied away from any attempt at lighting.

from wikipedia

Rats are known to burrow extensively, both in the wild and in captivity, if given access to a suitable substrate. Rats generally begin a new burrow adjacent to an object or structure, as this provides a sturdy “roof” for the section of the burrow nearest to the ground’s surface. Burrows usually develop to eventually include multiple levels of tunnels, as well as a secondary entrance. Older male rats will generally not burrow, while young males and females will burrow vigorously.

Burrows provide rats with shelter and food storage as well as safe, thermoregulated nest sites. Rats use their burrows to escape from perceived threats in the surrounding environment—for example, rats will retreat to their burrows following a sudden, loud noise or while fleeing an intruder. Burrowing can therefore be described as a “pre-encounter defensive behavior”, as opposed to a “post-encounter defensive behavior”, such as flight, freezing, or avoidance of a threatening stimulus.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Scurriers abound in this cairn of municipal waste management, which is built in the industrial heartland of the Newtown Creek. Concentric layers of factory and mill are pancaked beneath the structures that have survived into modernity. Beneath the ground, collapsed crawl spaces and forgotten pipelines rifle through the poison soil. Memory of these voids beneath Maspeth is long dead, and the architectural plans that detail their course have long since turned to dust… or have been recycled.

from wikipedia

Industrial archaeology, like other branches of archaeology, is the study of material culture from the past, but with a focus on industry. Strictly speaking, industrial archaeology includes sites from the earliest times (such as prehistoric copper mining in the British Peak District) to the most recent (such as coal mining sites in the UK closed in the 1980s). However, since large-scale industrialisation began only in the eighteenth century it is often understood to relate to that and later periods. Industrial archaeologists aim to record and understand the remains of industrialisation, including the technology, transport and buildings associated with manufacture or raw material production. Their work encompasses traditional archaeology, engineering, architecture, economics and the social history of manufacturing/extractive industry as well as the transport and utilities sector.

The term ‘industrial archaeology’ was coined in the 1950s in Birmingham, England by Michael Rix (academic) although its meaning and interpretation has changed. Its development as a separate subject was further stimulated by the campaign to save the Euston Arch. Palmer and Neaverson (Industrial Archaeology Principles and Practice, 1998) defined it as: “the systematic study of structures and artefacts as a means of enlarging our understanding of the industrial past.”

Initially practiced largely by amateurs, it was at first looked down upon by professional archaeologists. However, it has now been welcomed into mainstream archaeology. Since the timeframe of study is usually relatively recent, industrial archaeology is often (but not always) able to achieve a more reliable and absolute recording of past behaviour than is possible for the more remote past.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Urban explorers have brought reports of this underworld to the surface, but they will only discuss the subject after a series of stiff drinks. Following the natural course of water, voids in the subsurface are found and accessed through sewer and electrical utility vaults. Compass readings and radio telephony are impossible beneath the streets, and hushed allusions to a pair from East Williamsburg who are rumored to have never returned from the sepulchral depths verge on urban legend. As one proceeds closer to the Newtown Creek, vast middens of rats are mentioned, living amidst and in some cases feeding on an oozing black jelly whose vile smell vaguely suggests vaseline mixed with ham.

from wikipedia

Petroleum jelly, petrolatum or soft paraffin[1], CAS number 8009-03-8, is a semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons (with carbon numbers mainly higher than 25), originally promoted as a topical ointment for its healing properties. Its folkloric medicinal value as a “cure-all” has since been limited by better scientific understanding of appropriate and inappropriate uses (see Uses below). However, it is recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an approved over-the-counter (OTC) skin protectant and remains widely used in cosmetic skin care.

The raw material for petroleum jelly was discovered in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, United States, on some of the country’s first oil rigs. Workers disliked the paraffin-like material forming on rigs because it caused them to malfunction, but they used it on cuts and burns because it hastened healing.

Robert Chesebrough, a young chemist whose previous work of distilling fuel from the oil of sperm whales had been rendered obsolete by petroleum, went to Titusville to see what new materials had commercial potential. Chesebrough took the unrefined black “rod wax”, as the drillers called it, back to his laboratory to refine it and explore potential uses. Chesebrough discovered that by distilling the lighter, thinner oil products from the rod wax, he could create a light-colored gel. Chesebrough patented the process of making petroleum jelly by U.S. Patent No. 127,568 in 1872. The process involved vacuum distillation of the crude material followed by filtration of the still residue through bone char.

Chesebrough traveled around New York demonstrating the product to encourage sales by burning his skin with acid or an open flame, then spreading the ointment on his injuries and showing his past injuries healed, he claimed, by his miracle product.

He opened his first factory in 1870 in Brooklyn, United States. The brand name “Vaseline” has been anecdotally claimed to be from the German word for water, wasser (pronounced vahser), and the Greek word for oil, elaion, but this is unconfirmed.

The part of Brooklyn Chesebrough located his factory in, incidentally, was Red Hook and it was at Columbia and Delevan Streets.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

My guide in the garage informed me that these rats were nearly impossible to control via the use of baited traps and poisons. It was his supposition that the whole place was poisoned, afflicted with some sort of chemical overdose, and pointed out the stunted trees that dot the area. I mentioned “the colour” and he said that was as good a name for it as any. He went on to say that the only thing which has alleviated the rat population in the garage at all is a raccoon which has taken up residence in the place.

That’s a raccoon, -which just showed up- in Maspeth, a few blocks from Newtown Creek.

from wikipedia

The area known today as Maspeth was chartered by Dutch and English settlers in the mid-17th century. The Dutch had purchased land in the area known today as Queens in 1635, and within a few years began chartering towns. In 1642 they settled Maspat, under a charter granted to Rev. Francis Doughty. Maspat became the first European settlement in Queens.  The settlement was leveled the following year in an attack by Native Indians, and the surviving settlers returned to Manhattan. It wasn’t until nine years later, in 1652, that settlers ventured back to the area, settling an area slightly inland from the previous Maspat location. This new area was called Middleburg, and eventually developed into what is now the town of Elmhurst, bordering Maspeth. Following the immigration waves of the 19th century, Maspeth was home to a shanty town of Boyash (Ludar) Gypsies between 1925 and 1939, though this was eventually bulldozed.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

As we headed back for the office section of the facility, where my buddy awaited, my guide pointed out the cinder block wall and the apertures chewed through it by the rats. The rats are in the walls… there are rats in the walls, the rats… in… the… walls…

Just then, my buddy walked out and asked if I enjoyed my “ratstravaganza”.

from HP Lovecraft’s “Rats in the walls” at wikisource

When Dr Trask, the anthropologist, stopped to classify the skulls, he found a degraded mixture which utterly baffled him. They were mostly lower than the Piltdown man in the scale of evolution, but in every case definitely human. Many were of higher grade, and a very few were the skulls of supremely and sensitively developed types. All the bones were gnawed, mostly by rats, but somewhat by others of the half-human drove. Mixed with them were many tiny bones of rats — fallen members of the lethal army which closed the ancient epic.

I wonder that any man among us lived and kept his sanity through that hideous day of discovery. Not Hoffman nor Huysmans could conceive a scene more wildly incredible, more frenetically repellent, or more Gothically grotesque than the twilit grotto through which we seven staggered; each stumbling on revelation after revelation, and trying to keep for the nonce from thinking of the events which must have taken place there three hundred, or a thousand, or two thousand or ten thousand years ago. It was the antechamber of hell, and poor Thornton fainted again when Trask told him that some of the skeleton things must have descended as quadrupeds through the last twenty or more generations.

Horror piled on horror as we began to interpret the architectural remains. The quadruped things — with their occasional recruits from the biped class — had been kept in stone pens, out of which they must have broken in their last delirium of hunger or rat-fear. There had been great herds of them, evidently fattened on the coarse vegetables whose remains could be found as a sort of poisonous ensilage at the bottom of the huge stone bins older than Rome. I knew now why my ancestors had had such excessive gardens — would to heaven I could forget! The purpose of the herds I did not have to ask.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

June 19, 2010 at 4:41 am

One Response

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  1. “Architects and antiquarians loved to examine this strange relic of forgotten centuries, but the country folk hated it. They had hated it hundreds of years before, when my ancestors lived there, and they hated it now, with the moss and mould of abandonment on it. I had not been a day in Anchester before I knew I came of an accursed house.”

    Kevin Walsh

    June 21, 2010 at 4:26 pm


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