The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

sacred grove

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- photo by Mitch Waxman

Maspeth Creek, at low tide, does not smell like lilacs. A lot of that is due to the natural actions and out gassing of exposed mud flats, but the miasma which plagues the area around it is due to the combined sewer outfall (CSO NC-077, which discharges better than 288 million gallons a year of untreated sewerage into the water). The waterway, severely truncated and canalized, was locked into its current shape and size back in 1914 by the Army Corps of Engineers at the behest of the United States War Department. Nearby was the LIRR Haberman siding, and this was a strategic locale during the early 20th century full of chemical plants and manufacturing companies.

Once, Maspeth Creek ran nearly all the way to Elmhurst, rather than ending in an open sewer.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Descriptions of this area, in particular, tickle the fancy of those who come to Newtown Creek with preconceived notions about the place. Here they find stink and sediment mounds, and witness abandoned cars dissolving slowly into its waters. As early as 1908, reports of the area describe it as a “dismal swamp, distributing evil smells and ugly to the last degree.” Witnesses in the early 20th century detailed the presence of railroad yards, factories, acid running from open pipes into the water, fat boiling in open vessels, oil works and chemical yards.

Nearby were the bone blackers, fat renderers, and every sort of malodorous occupation imaginable.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

It is mysterious, to me, that I have been unable to find mention of the place in literature from the so called “muck raker” era whose setting involves this area- the closest you get is in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Accounts of Packing Town in Chicago abound, notably in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” Nellie Bly drew a cogent picture of being institutionalized on Blackwells Island in “10 days in a madhouse” and everyone from Walt Whitman to Horace Greely have left behind accounts of the miseries of Manhattan’s working class communities and the horrible conditions encountered around the factories which lined its riverfront shorelines.

How odd it is that this spot, so close to the geographic center of New York City and with a rich colonial era history, has escaped comment by any other than just a few long dead journalists and a half dead yet humble narrator.

Upcoming tours:

Parks and Petroleum- Sunday, May 12, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Newtown Creek Alliance, tickets now on sale.

The Insalubrious Valley- Saturday, May 25, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets now on sale.

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2 Responses

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  1. Great point about the ignoring of the Creek by those muckrackers. Needless to say there was (and is) a lot of “muck” there to rake. Maybe because of the low population in the area at the time that it slipped under their Shining City radar?

    georgetheatheist... always helpful

    May 10, 2013 at 8:32 am

    • But the population was huge, on the Brooklyn side. Don’t forget, back then you worked in Queens but lived in Bushwick or Williamsburg and used the Grand Street streetcar line to get back and forth.

      Mitch Waxman

      May 10, 2013 at 8:58 am


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