The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

ethereal character

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- photo by Mitch Waxman

The launch we were in had been referred to as the “tin boat” by the Riverkeeper folks, but it was more a smallish rowboat with an outboard engine than anything else. This is the second post of this adventure, click here for the first one.

We had just passed beneath the two rail bridges which vouchsafe and isolate Dutch Kills from the main body of the Newtown Creek, and were heading in the general direction of Queens Plaza when we approached the Borden Avenue Bridge.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Of course, this century old structure has recently undergone a radical schedule of repairs when it was discovered that one of its abutments had begun to shift, and no small amount of complaint arose at the inconvenience from the legions of truckers and ordinary drivers who mourned its unavailability.

Down on the water however, things were pretty intense, from a purely existential point of view.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Those bubbles of gas mentioned in yesterday’s post, which were erupting even when the water was unmolested by our passing, delivered a slightly petrochemical smell when they burst. Another member of the Newtown Creek Alliance who was sitting next to me in the boat began muttering “Oh my god” over and over at this point in time.

It wasn’t fear in his eyes, it was disbelief.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

My companion was no virgin or first time visitor to the Creek, of course, in fact his experience of the place is broad and far reaching. When all of your senses get involved with the atmosphere of ruination here, however, one tends to become a bit overwhelmed as your brain attempts to interpret and process the impossible data it is presented with.

The canalized bulkheads of Dutch Kills also tower over you from the water level, creating a sense of forced perspective and inevitability.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The first thing you see when passing the Borden Avenue Bridge is an archaic sewer outfall, and were the brush not at it’s mid summer height, one would observe the shanty home of the Blue Crow above.

For those of you not familiar with this term, Crow is a name assigned in my little section of Astoria to the myriad metal and refuse collectors known to haunt the neighborhood on “Bulk Pickup Day”. Leave something shiny on the sidewalk, a crow will sweep in and grab it.

Metals are collected and sold by the pound in the scrap and recycling markets of Greenpoint and Long Island City, and these guys make their living from hunting and gathering. I assign them color names based on vehicle, or clothing choices.

There’s also a red crow out there.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Here is a winter shot from road grade level which shows the sewer and the ever expanding hut of this particular crow. There is a photo of him to be in this Newtown Pentacle posting from February of 2010. Don’t be mistaken, I am not insulting either his industriousness or tenacity, if I were in a similar situation things would go far worse for your humble narrator. This man has been surviving in what has to one of the world’s most extreme environments for years now, and rent free.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking back toward the Borden Avenue Bridge, the ominous humming which echoed along the bulkheads and emanated from above signaled that we had passed under another of the bridges of Dutch Kills. This bridge was built high, and called an expressway by Robert Moses himself.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Some 106 feet over road grade, the high flying Queens Midtown Expressway leg of the larger Long Island Expressway feeds into the yawning mouth of the Queens Midtown Tunnel less than a mile from here. I call this part of Dutch Kills DULIE, or Down Under the Long Island Expressway.

One of the common complaints heard by eastern bound commuters in the early days of the 20th century was about the horrible smells they encountered when crossing through Long Island City. Moses built his auto bridge as high as engineering and budgetary considerations allowed in response to the plume of industrial outgassing which distinguished a trip through the area in his time.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Dutch Kills is a particularly important tributary of the Newtown Creek, from an industrial history point of view. What is today a relict of brown fields, industrial spills, and toxic leave behinds was once the economic and manufacturing heartland of New York City. The heavy infrastructure here is no accident, and the waterway was a critical feature that drew one of the great (and largely forgotten) men of Queens to the Waste Meadows at the start of the early 20th century.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

At the end of the 19th century, none of this was here. Sure, there was a muddy road made of creosoted wood blocks and riprap bulkheads called Hunters Point Avenue which ran between isolated industrial sites, and a slightly more modern causeway called Borden Avenue which hosted a few large operations, but this was a swampy and pestilential bog. Brackish creeks wound along knolls of marsh grass and the stubby trees held together mud islands.

The place was lousy with all the junk floating down from Blissville and the sewers in Brooklyn and only Mosquitos and ticks found the place hospitable.

Dutch Kills needed to be fixed.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Another sewer outfall is found directly after passing the LIE’s massive footing, which is the sort of improvement that benefited somewhere else rather than Dutch Kills. It was decided by the city fathers in the first years of the 20th century that something had to be done with these swampy wetlands, so close to Manhattan and the gold coast of the Newtown Creek.

Something was needed- a plan with vision, executed by someone who understood the byzantine politics of Tammany Hall and the recently consolidated City of Greater New York. Additionally, it would have to someone with proven “know how” who could “get it done”.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

From the mid 1930’s on, that person would have been Robert Moses. The ultimate political fixer, Moses employed the greatest engineering┬áminds of a generation to shape and design our modern City. While Moses was still in diapers, however, no shortage of great men existed in the City. A plan was presented, and approved, and in both Albany and Washington- strings were pulled by the Tammany men and budgets were approved.

The Army Corps of Engineers were assigned here to canalize, deepen, straighten and erect industrial bulkheads at Dutch Kills in 1914. Land was reclaimed by dumping the fill and spoils produced by the digging of the Belmont Subway Tunnels (leading to to Manhattan) amongst wooden pilings driven deeply into the mud.

The modern shoreline of Queens began to assume it’s current shape.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

It is apparent what happened here, when you see the Hunters Point Avenue Bridge appear before you.

Progress had arrived in Queens, and his name was Michael Degnon.

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  1. [...] mentioned in prior postings (parts one and two), the Newtown Creek Alliance had tasked a small group of it’s members (myself included) with [...]

  2. [...] or parts one, two, and three of this trip down Dutch Kills. This is the last of the four postings describing what I [...]

  3. [...] of 1908, a retractile vehicle bridge crossed Dutch Kills, which we call the Borden Avenue Bridge (and which replaced the earlier wooden plank road [...]

  4. [...] boat journey around Dutch Kills was detailed in: “ponderous and forbidding“, “ethereal character“, “pillars and niches“, and “another [...]

  5. [...] of 1908, a retractile vehicle bridge crossed Dutch Kills, which we call the Borden Avenue Bridge (and which replaced the earlier wooden plank road [...]


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