The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

putrescent juice

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- photo by Mitch Waxman

My long, indeed “Grand Walk”- a semi conscious amble whose path is revealed only by images found on my camera card sometime later- had carried me from Manhattan to the Grand Street Bridge. A revelation and totem of the political border of Queens and infinite Brooklyn, it would not be inappropriate to describe it as a former gateway to hell itself.

Not quite 100 years ago, the sky would have been black with the product of smokestacks, and every surface exposed to their fumes would be painted with a greasy residue of the worst kind of filth imaginable.

from Harper’s weekly, Volume 38, 1894- courtesy Google books

AN INSALUBRIOUS VALLEY.

The city of Brooklyn, having purged itself of the malodorous political institutions that were so long a blot upon its southern border, might well turn its attention to some nuisances of a more literally malodorous kind that flourish along its northern border, a detailed description of which will be found in another column of the Weekly’. It appears that in an early day the valley of Newtown Creek, which is the boundary between Kings and Queens counties, was selected by various manufacturers as an eligible site for the location of factories. The location was then far on the outskirts of the city, and no doubt quite unobjectionable. A great variety of institutions were set iu operation here, including those useful and necessary but unpleasant factories whose purpose it is to transform the animal refuse of a city into merchantable produce. The gases generated by these factories had an odor almost unendurable, as any one can testify who was accustomed to travel on the Long Island Railroad from the Thirty-fourth Street ferry in years gone by. But so long as railroad passengers were the only sufferers, nothing could be done to abate the nuisance, and there were for a long time no residents near to make complaint, as the growing city very naturally held back at a respectful distance from so undesirable a neighborhood.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

If one did not frequent the district, the smell would be overwhelming but the sense most offended would likely be the visual faculties. There are things which ordinary people should not see or know too much about. The customs and mores of the graveyard come to mind, and so does the imagery produced on the battlefield or on the inside of a slaughterhouse.

Amidst the farms of oil tanks and forests of chimneys, without gazing too deeply, one would notice the mounds of dead horses and dogs first- then, the tons of human shit would come into focus.

from The Sanitary Era, Volume 1, 1887, courtesy google books

Newtown Creek — No city in the Union has so foul a pest hole at its boundaries as Brooklyn. The sludge acid discharged from the works of the Standard Oil Company seems to possess an ominous potency for stirring up the sewage in the creek, and its black and thickened current seethes with bubbles of sulphuretted hydrogen. The shores, banked with this acid and with nameless filth, empoison the atmosphere at low water, while every rising tide seems to free a new supply of sludge. When to the oil industry is added the manufacture of fertilizers and a plenitude of pigs along Queens County shore, the sources of supply for a great nuisance or a grievous plague are discernible to all but official eyes and nostrils. Newtown Creek should be filled up, though not with sludge acid, and the nuisance makers removed to a distance. Our, Health Commissioner is authority for the statement that “You might as well try to fight the devil as the Standard Oil Company.”

- photo by Mitch Waxman

At this spot on the Newtown Creek, where the bone boilers and fat renderers rubbed shoulders with glue factories and manure manufacturers and acid factories, infernal mountains of organic waste materials were gathered. Necessary for the industrial pursuits of these corporate entities- the rail brought Manhattan and Brooklyn’s putrescent garbage, human waste, dead animals and anything else which once lived to them.

There was one company whose particular specialty was recovering useful chemicals from rotting cow and pig blood, produced in fantastic amounts by the armies of butchers staffing the slaughterhouses of New York and the abattoirs of Brooklyn.

from Report of the Commissioner of Bridges to the Hon. GEORGE B. McCLELLAN, Mayor of The City of New York, 1904, courtesy google books

No. 4—Grand Street Bridge—

The contract for the construction of this bridge was awarded to Bernard Rolf, on August 7, 1900, at an estimated cost of $173.379.90. The bridge should have been completed on October 21, 1901, but it was fourteen months later, December 26, 1902, before it could be used, and then for only part of the day; and it was not until February 5, 1903, that it was accepted and declared open for traffic.

The contractor presented claims for extra allowances, and a committee, consisting of the late Mr. C. C. Martin, Consulting Engineer; the then Deputy Commissioner, and the Engineer in Charge, reported a finding, which was accepted by the contractor and the City. The total cost of the bridge was $172,748.06.

Several important changes were found necessary in the operating machinery; New end wedges have been put in place and steel bearings have replaced certain cast-iron ones. One hand-turning gear has been installed. Stationary signal lamps, showing white and red, have been placed at the ends of the draw span. Hanging platforms have been erected at the ends of the draw span, and a platform built around the centre pier. These platforms have more than paid for themselves in the cost of repairs and erection. The railing has been painted, and the draw is working satisfactorily.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Maspeth, troubled motherland of Queens, lays claim to this corner of the Creeklands in modernity and when exiting the Grand Street Bridge onto Grand Avenue (it changes to Avenue as it enters Queens, transmogrifies into Broadway at the heart of historic Newtown at Queens Blvd., and loops into Astoria finally terminating nearby Hallets Cove at the East River) one can say one has been there, although the lovely hills and quaint homes by which one might normally distinguish Maspeth are not present here.

Heaps of fecal matter and rotting pestilence, along with storm clouds of buzzing insects, are mentioned in first hand accounts gathered over a multiple decade period regarding this area.

from Illustrated history of the borough of Queens, New York City, 1908 courtesy google books

The untold thousands who travel every year to and from the places of amusement on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, or to and from the large race-tracks, ride along the anything but beautiful banks of Newtown Creek, and gain from them their impression of what the borough is. This is the first impression, and therefore the strongest, and it is difficult to dispel it, for the majority of people stick to a conviction once formed, and are loath to change it, even in the face of powerful arguments. Nobody likes to admit that he was wrong or mistaken in his judgment; it is rather human to defend a position once taken.even after one has begun to doubt its correctness. And it is no exaggeration to state that perhaps ninety per cent of all the people passing through Queens Borough know nothing of it except that it contains dismal swamps, railroad yards and factories distributing evil smells and ugly to the last degree.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Odd, the shot above and others not published indicate that my so called “Grand Walk” took an unexpected turn at this point, leaving Grand and turning North at Page Place. This is the first deviation from common street car and trolley routes which my dreaming gait carried me through.

I must have seen one of the odd cats which frequent or inhabit the area, a polydactyl line which has been mentioned in prior postings of this, your Newtown Pentacle.

from The City record, Volume 6, Part 4, 1878, courtesy google books

Newtown creek ior many years has been a source of nuisance. It receives the contents of several of the large sewers ot Brooklyn. From above Penny Bridge to the East river are factories of various descriptions, oil refiners, fat inciters, gut cleaners, distilleries, car stables, super-phosphate factories, ammonia works, varnish works, and last, but not least, immense piles of stable manure, stored for future shipment, the refuse from all of which runs into the creek, and polluting the waters to such an extent as to have killed all the fish. At low tide acres of land, covered to the depth of several inches with fat, the refuse of the oil-stills, are exposed. At high tide the oily portion of this refuse floats on the surface of the water, still giving forth its characteristic tarry odor. To add to this, many oil works, when the storage tanks are full, run their waste alkali and even their sludge-acid into the creek ; in the latter case giving rise to the well known sludge smell. During the visit of Drs. Chandler and Janeway, on the 14th inst., the material flowing from the drains at the Franklin Oil Works and at Pratt s Refinery was tested and found to be decided acid, affording proof that the sludgeacid was being discharged as above stated. 

Frequently during the agitation of the oil with the oil of vitriol the covers of the agitating tanks are left open and the tfl-smefling fumes are allowed to escape into the air.

Near by are also melters boiling fat in open kettles, a method long since abandoned in New York. The stench from all these various operations is very offensive. There is a preference on the part of the manufacturers of fertilizers to manipulate the sludge-acid in the vicinity of the oil works, especially during hot weather, since it is asserted that if sludge-acid is diluted soon after its flow from the agitator, about twenty-five per cent, of it readily separates as tar, but if allowed to stand for forty eight hours in warm weather it becomes thick and ropy, the tar rises slowly and is removed with difficulty and only in small quantities. Moreover, transportation of the extra bulk of tar increases its cost to the consumer. On the other hand, as the acid is sold by yearly contract, as soon as the storage tanks are full, the refinery has no object In its further preservation and naturally allows the surplus to run into the creek.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Imagine the scene, a century past, in this place where the industrial revolution happened. Further, let us speculate whether the bone boilers and fat renderers would sell their services as “recycling” in our modern context with it’s sophisticate euphemism. See the smoking stacks atop the mills, smell the rich perfume offered by the offal docks, hear the machines and pumps grinding away, touch the cadaverous piles of rot, taste the world which was.

Who can guess, all there is, that might be buried down there?

from Annual report of the State Board of Health of New York, 1883, courtesy google books

Simon Steinfel’s rendering establishment, which is on Furman’s island in Newtown creek (and within the limits of Newtown), gives off very offensive emanations for a long distance in the course of the railway route. Great quantities of decomposing animal matters were found upon the premises in barrels and otherwise packed in readiness for rendering.

  • Kirkman & Sons’ rendering establishment, near Steinfel’s, boil and render fat and scrap in open kettles.
  • At John C. Muller & Co.’s bone-black factory, at the same place as above mentioned, imported and domestic bones are burned, after being boiled in open kettles to remove all fat. The bone-tar, one of the results of bone varnish, is mixed with soft coal and burned as fuel. It is very offensive.
  • C. Meyer’s bone-black factory, at the same place and of essentially the same business, is very offensive. The odor is described by the inspectors, who are expert chemists, as being extremely pungent and sickening. They say: It is doubtful if this industry can be carried on without being offensive constantly. The drainage of all these works on Furman’s island, on Newtown creek, as here described, passes out through an open ditch into the creek.
  • Henry Berau’s rendering establishment on Newtown creek has the contract for removing dead animals from Brooklyn. This place is tributary to that of Preston’s, already described. His business is exceedingly offensive, and too near the populous cities and their suburbs.
  • These several places are sources of constant offensiveness to railway travelers, and few have any idea of the sources whence the stenches come.
  • Brooklyn Excavating Co.’s dumping of night soil is carried on near the border of Brooklyn city-lines, between Grand street and North Second street, only 300 feet from the railroad track. The stench from the nuisance is exceedingly offensive.
  • Benjamin Eosenzweig’s fat rendering near Newtown creek, near the railroads, is excessively offensive, the work being carried on from seven in the evening till five in the morning.
  • G. W. Baker’s fertilizer factory, close by the railroad track, between Grand street and Metropolitan avenue, is excessively offensive. It manufactures rotten bone manure, tank sediment manure and neatsfoot oil.
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  1. [...] the last posting describing this “Grand Walk” from Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral [...]

  2. [...] River from St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan into Williamsburg and up Grand Street to Maspeth and the baroque intrigues of the Newtown Creek- wound down into it’s final steps on Laurel [...]

  3. [...] East River from St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan into Williamsburg and up Grand Street to Maspeth and the baroque intrigues of the Newtown Creek- wound down into it’s final steps on Laurel Hill [...]

  4. [...] for expansion of the great human hive in both directions, which allowed workers to get to and from the dark satanic mills of the industrial [...]


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