The Newtown Pentacle

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- photo by Mitch Waxman

I’ve recently had the honor of making the acquaintance of the Queens Borough Historian, Dr. Jack Eichenbaum, and when I heard that he was going to conduct a walking tour around a section of Newtown Creek for the Municipal Art Society- I asked if I could come along. Luckily he consented, and even introduced me to his group. They were a little taken aback, as you’d imagine, as your humble narrator is extremely horrible in appearance and manner.

from geognyc.com

I hold a Ph.D. in urban geography (University of Michigan, 1972) where my dissertation was titled Magic, Mobility and Minorities in the Urban Drama. I’m a lifelong observer of NYC and other large cities around the world. My expertise lies particularly in quantitative methods, historical urban geography, migration, ethnicity, and technological change. I maintain a storehouse of urban concepts, researched facts, and biased memories of bygone eras.

Much of what I know about digital NYC comes from a career in the Property Division of the NYC Department of Finance collecting data and modeling valuation of tax parcels. Most of whom I know in NYC comes from founding and coordinating GISMO, NYC’s GIS user group, participating in non-profit institutions like the Municipal Art Society, and teaching at Hunter College (CUNY). I continually update my familiarity with NYC by walking, walking, and walking in all five boroughs.

In June, 2010, I was appointed Queens Borough Historian. My agenda includes advising the Borough President, convening people and organizations concerned with Queens history, education at all levels, promoting Queens’ history-related attractions and changing cultures, and introducing the concept of “digital history.”

- photo by Mitch Waxman

One thing you should know, lords and ladies, is that the historical community here in Queens spends most of its time fighting with each other. Often, I’m angry at someone, who hates me back. Alternately, this historical society is at war with that one, usually over some small point of contention. Everyone is actually pretty ok, and most of the arguments- which seem like the end of the world when they’re ongoing- settle out after a period of time. Such heated discourse, however, is something which I avoid at all costs and is why I spend my time- alone- down by the Creek. I would hate having Jack’s job as Borough Historian, and don’t know how he deals with the politics and backbiting without striking out or fleeing into the night. He’s a cooler cat than I.

from wnyc.org

They give lectures and tours and help New Yorkers learn about their neighborhoods. Their positions are mandated by state law…but they don’t make a penny for the job. They’re the five city historians, one for each borough. This summer, we’ll be meeting them and finding out some of the secret knowledge about their respective ‘hoods.

Queens Borough Historian Jack Eichenbaum is the new kid on the block. He got his job in June, promising not to hide behind books.

In the Flushing apartment he’s lived in for decades, Eichenbaum looks tan and fit in a t-shirt, royal blue track shorts and running shoes. He’s lived nearly all of his 67 years in Queens — a place he believes is still undervalued by the rest of the city.

The people who act like Manhattan is the center of the known universe? Don’t even get him started.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Along the way, Dr. Eichenbaum had arranged to meet up with George Trakas at the Newtown Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant Nature Walk. Mr. Trakas, who designed the Nature Walk, is a terrific guy and a fantastic ambassador for his inimitable public space. The Newtown Creek Armada art installation was also in place at the Nature Walk that day, which titillated the crowd.

from urbanomnibus.net

Newtown Creek’s notoriety as one of the most polluted waterways in the country belies its peculiar beauty and uncommon potential to provide vistas of New York’s industrial history and the scale of the city’s waste management machine. It’s also a wicked cool place to impress a date with a surprise picnic.

Artist George Trakas saw the potential of this canalized estuary as he navigated the waterways of New York over the past forty-five years. When the City’s Department of Environmental Protection launched a $3 billion upgrade of the wastewater treatment facility in the late 1980s, Trakas was able to seize the opportunity – through the City’s Percent for Art program – to go beyond the brief and to provide public access to the water for treatment facility employees and local residents. And by access, he means access: visitors won’t merely see the water from above, behind a fence. Rather, you can descend staged granite steps to the water’s edge and sit (or dock your boat) on a series of getdowns perforating the bulkhead along the Whale Creek tributary. It’s part amphitheatre and part shore, with horticultural and sculptural references to local history, geology, and geography. But it’s also a model of a successful community engagement process. Trakas participated in meetings with the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee every month for the past ten years, incorporating community feedback and priorities into his design. Instead of using art to conceal environmental hazards with decorative band-aids, Trakas has created a Nature Walk that provides an interpretive frame on its surroundings and invites visitors to share his delight in water, industry and the urban beauty of the overlooked.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

There was a cool dog who came along as part of the group, said canine seemed transfixed by what he was seeing and hearing along the way. Can you imagine what Newtown Creek must smell like to a dog?

There is so much interest in Newtown Creek amongst the general public, something I learned personally this last summer, and it was quite spectacular to hear Jack’s take on the place. The Municipal Art Society sent along blogger Kate Lenahan to record the event, and her post can be accessed here. Additionally, I got mentioned in a third party’s blog post, linked to below.

from downwithtyranny.blogspot.com

First, when I first did the walk, some 15 months ago, the primary attraction was laying eyes on Newtown Creek, which to my knowledge I had never done before. You have to remember that like most industrial waterfronts it was pretty well closed off to civilian eyes and feet. But in that intervening year and a quarter I had done more walks around various parts of the creek than I can remember and also cruised the creek, mostly under the auspices of the Newtown Creek Alliance (it’s definitely worth signing up for their e-mail list), and mostly with NCA historian Mitch Waxman (whose blog, “The Newtown Pentacle,” is always worth checking out).

Second, there’s the Jack Eichenbaum factor. In all the many walks I’ve done with Jack, I can hardly remember one where I didn’t learn something of near-life-changing importance — certainly a change in my way of perceiving the city, and likely the world around me. Walking with Jack, you learn to see how basic factors of physical and human geography have shaped the way regions and neighborhoods have developed and redeveloped.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Dr. Eichenbaum led the group over the Pulaski Bridge and into Long Island City, but I had to split off and stay in DUPBO. Another event was scheduled to begin later in the day, a presentation on water quality at the North Brooklyn Boat Club. The very good news was that they had beer, and a campfire going down there.

Also- Upcoming Newtown Creek tours and events:

for an expanded description of the October 20th Newtown Creek tour, please click here

for more information on the October 27th Newtown Creek Boat Tour, click here

for more information on the November 9th Newtown Creek Magic Lantern Show, click here

for an expanded description of the November 11th Newtown Creek tour, please click here

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