The Newtown Pentacle

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wondered whether

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My Bubbe would have described the first shot as “Yoyzel on de cross.”

- photo by Mitch Waxman

For those of you who didn’t grow up in a Jewish family, “Bubbe” is Grandma, and let me tell you this – Sarah would not have liked me even taking pictures of a crucifix, let alone hearing about me wandering through First Calvary cemetery on a regular basis. She was not a big fan of Halloween either, preferring to see the masks and costumes come out for Purim instead. Hailing from the Pale, and having lived through late 19th and early 20th century Pogroms (and other indignities) inflicted upon her rural community by the Cossacks, my Grandmother was particularly suspicious of the Goyem. She instructed that one should dwell with their own kind, because at least then “you’d see it coming when somebody had it in for you.” You have to cut the old lady some slack though, she saw her younger brother’s head chopped off by the Cossacks, who played a drunken match of polo with it afterwards. For Bubbe Sarah, the word “Russian” was a synonym for “rapist.”

- photo by Mitch Waxman

While reminiscing about transmitted generational prejudices and familial lore, one happened to notice this odd scene at the monument to Sarah Bell and the Kelly family. A doll lay upon the loam, in a position which would be familiar to crime scene investigators. No investigation of the Bells or Kelly’s has been undertaken, but one suspects that their sentiments about the English were probably quite similar to my Bubbe’s feelings about the Russians. It amazes me to this day how much effort, finance, and political capital these two empires expended in the name of oppressing and exploiting rural peoples – the Irish and the Jews of the Pale – over the centuries. The same goes for the United States, incidentally. How much has our government spent over the centuries suppressing – not just the aspirations of negroes and native Americans – but a vast rainbow of minority opinions?

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Personally, I’m in the “if it doesn’t affect me, why should I care what you do” camp, and that’s the end of my progressive neo prudentialist liberal politics for the day. Bubbe would have been beside herself at the idea that some child had lost her dolly, however. She would have used the astoundingly forceful personality for which she was famed, during her “shtetl” and Lower East Side garment worker days, to compel me to stand out in the middle of Greenpoint Avenue and ask every passing motorist if their child had lost their toy until it got dark. The old lady was tougher than leather, but had a big heart, which bled for everybody that told her a sad story. She also made one hell of a pot of chicken soup, which is dearly missed by one such as myself in the autumn.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Walking Tours-

Saturday, November 8th, Poison Cauldron
Walking Tour with Atlas Obscura, click here for tickets and more info.

Note: This is the last Newtown Creek walking tour of 2014, and probably the last time this tour will be presented in its current form due to the Kosciuszko Bridge construction project. 

Written by Mitch Waxman

October 28, 2014 at 11:20 am

flushed and excited

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Come on now, this is just someone messing with my head.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The other day, Friday to be exact, a buddy of mine who is new to the neighborhood was subjected to a short examination of the tripartite borders of Sunnyside, Woodside, and Astoria. We found ourselves on Skillman Avenue headed for Roosevelt Avenue when this scene presented itself. Like some sort of monstrous hybridization of “Project Firebox” and the “Mystery of the Single Shoes,” this mysterious tableau shed its birth caul and revealed itself to us.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned in the past, a pet theory that there’s a serial killer stalking the concrete devastations of Western Queens and North Brooklyn who leaves single shoes in deserted places has taken root in my mind. Having published several posts about the phenomena at this – your Newtown Pentacle – the sociopath has likely found out that I’ve noticed him and has begun leaving trophies for me to find. The firebox thing makes it obvious. Who else notices fireboxes?

- photo by Mitch Waxman

I’m going to refer to the hidden menace, who must be an ever watchful and lurking fear, as “The Queens Cobbler” from now one, and and I’m going to double knot the laces of my shoes whenever I leave the house. I will never wear loafers again, and have long avoided the perils of sandal or flip flops. The Queens Cobbler will not drag me partially bare footed into that good night.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

March 10, 2014 at 9:30 am

atavistical menace

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Welcome to the darker side of the year.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Call it what you will. There’s Samhain, and Calan Gaeaf, and we’ve also got All Hallows’ Eve – but it’s just Halloween here at Newtown Pentacle HQ. 2013 has been a slow one for the occult and magick beat, I’m afraid. Haven’t been able to bring you much more than a few headless chickens found on the rail tracks in Maspeth, actually. It’s not that I haven’t been looking, mind you, but I just keep on finding singular shoes divorced from their mated pair. Try and convince me that there isn’t some serial killer at work behind this phenomena, I dare you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

A lurking fear of mine is the sure knowledge that there are rats in the walls. Just beyond the reach of station lights, they squirm and breed and hunger. Remember last year- directly following the storm- when concerns about this rodent army leaving the flooded tunnel system to try their luck above ground, in the darkened streets of lower Manhattan, were openly debated? Who can guess all there is, that might be down there?

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Manhattan terrifies. Its teeming masses yearn to breathe free, but are forced to congregate in the great human hive in the name of industry. The atmosphere hosts a thriving variety of bacterial and viral specie, which float along on gusts of contaminant laden air from host to host. Pandemic is inevitable, and it would not be the first time either. First Cholera, then Typhus, Tuberculosis, and Influenza have historically cut great swaths of the population down on this crowded island. Always there are those who cannot afford to be sick, and are forced to go about their business with the affect and manner of the walking dead.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Halloween though, isn’t about some mad serial killer operating in Queens, or an army of starving rats emerging from the Subways to feast, nor some plague that renders its victims with a virulent visage reminiscent of the living dead. Instead, it’s about spectral menaces rising from graveyards to wander the land in search of living souls to take back to hell with them, silly. The Danse Macabre is underway, so watch out Newtownicans, for evil of the most vile sort is afoot.

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distant hills

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So, what were you up to a year ago?

- photo by Mitch Waxman

As has been and will be repeated to you all day by everyone, today is the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy blowing in and kicking New York City’s ass, and the start of an era in which discussion of the environment became a politically expedient and quite mainstream issue. A twelve to fourteen foot high wall of water suddenly surging through the neighborhood can do that. A lot of swell planning, plotting, and intentions “to armor up” has been going on in the intervening year. Stout terms like “resiliency” and “soft edges” have been wielded by pundit and potential contractor alike, and offered to a shaken public. Whether this plan is palliative or prophylactic, only time will tell.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Dozens of people have volunteered the stories of their trials that night to me over the last year, and others proudly talk about their time with Occupy Sandy and other relief efforts. The storm kicked New York City’s ass- that’s for sure- but New Yorkers are quite used to a swift kick in the butt, periodically. Personally speaking, your humble narrator counts his lucky stars that HQ was largely untouched by the storm’s deleterious effects (although, to be fair, HQ was hit by lightning the previous spring which destroyed a small fortune in electronics). We suffered no ill effect other than the difficulties encountered by Our Lady of the Pentacle in her quest to return from the west coast. Astoria, at least my part of it, was unscathed and largely open for business by the next morning.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

My thoughts, however, remain centered on the sorrow of it all. Images abound- loss, and death, and fire, and storm tossed terror. Scared kids and barking dogs, firemen in boats, all that stuff. That’s the public side of it. Anecdotes and off the record statements offered to me by those who serve the public in a variety of official roles describe a city laid low and nearly sunk. For those who died during or because of this storm, and the multitudes whose lives were inextricably altered by it, condolences are offered. It is hoped that the images of Sandy, and those of Katrina, will similarly not be forgotten.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

forced economies

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Today, we pass through a crossroad.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

One of the things I find endlessly fascinating about Western Queens is the juxtapose between at least three different urban planning schemes and where they overlie each other. Of course, the term Urban Planning is seldom found prior to the 20th century, so modern bias interferes with understanding the why’s of where. Also, everything has been so extensively built and rebuilt over the years…

The oldest one wasn’t really planned, rather its where the colonials and farmers of Newtown laid down roads like Greenpoint Avenue or Thomson Avenue, which were literally means to an end- a way to move from point a to point b which took into account and diverted around natural features like hills and streams.

Overlaid on these atavist lanes is an industrial era grid, Skillman and Borden Avenues comes to mind. Hold overs from the locomotive city of the late 19th century- which favored long arcs and subtly graded streets wide enough to carry a street car or in some cases a full on steam locomotive.

Dross 20th century engineering was applied to the most modern layer, such as where Queens Blvd. originates at Thomson Avenue or where Greenpoint Avenue transmogrifies into Roosevelt Avenue at its intersection with Queens Blvd. The modern layer was designed to carry the automotive and mass transit city forward and which is pictured in the shot above. The latter two are definitively hostile to pedestrian activity, but the way.

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 5, 2013 at 8:40 am

Hidden Harbor Tours: Newtown Creek tour with Mitch Waxman

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- photo by Mitch Waxman

On Sunday -the 26th of May- the Working Harbor Committee is producing and offering a boat tour of the Newtown Creek for any interested parties to attend. A special emphasis on the waterway’s storied history and maritime legacy will be made.

I’m going to be doing the history part, speaking in my capacity as the Newtown Creek Alliance Historian, and am tasked with highlighting the various points of interest encountered along the route. Anticipated to be some three hours in length, this boat tour will be delving some three miles inland, proceeding to the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge crossing English Kills in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The Maritime History of Newtown Creek is one largely forgotten in these decadent times, but even now an odd tugboat and barge might be spied making their way down the waterway on any given day. Property owners were considered to have been blessed by some of the finest industrial bulkheads in the world a mere century ago, yet many of the businesses based along the Creek today ignore this invaluable resource, allowing their waterfront property to decay and decline.

Nevertheless, a staggering amount of maritime traffic is still observed here, and towing companies such as Reinauer, K-Sea, DonJon, and Poling and Cutler are regular visitors.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Vast operations will be witnessed by those onboard, many of which are involved in the scrap metal and recyclables trade. Responsible for an enormous amount of cross harbor shipping, companies such as SimsMetal are heavily reliant on the maritime trades for their economic success.

Not all that long ago, Newtown Creek carried a greater tonnage of cargo than the entire Mississippi River.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

An active and thriving industrial zone in the center of New York City, from the water one can truly grasp the sheer scale of Newtown Creek’s busy waterfront. Normally hidden by high fences and obscured by street facing structures, the intensity of the Newtown Creek is laid bare before the admiring gaze of first time visitor and veteran urban explorer alike.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

A tributary of the estuarine East River, Newtown Creek extends some 3.8 miles from its junction with the more familiar waterway, and provides demarcation for the currently undefended border of much of Brooklyn and Queens. Named to the Federal Superfund list, the Creek suffers from a history of environmental degradation and municipal neglect.

An era of great change is upon the Newtown Creek, and this trip will be one of your last chances to see it in its current form.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

We will see four moveable bridges, and this year will be your last chance to see the static Kosciuszko Bridge as the NYS DOT has indicated that construction on its replacement will begin as early as the Fall of 2013.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Along it’s banks, great fortunes have risen.

Amongst others- Peter Cooper (BO Railroad, Canton Iron, and Cooper Union), Charles Pratt (Astral Oil, and Pratt University), and ultimately John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil)- all grew richer than the dreams of avarice in this place. Alongside them, the darkest mills of the industrial revolution- rendering plants, yeast distilleries, bone blackers, and acid factories provided tens of thousands of jobs to the immigrant populations of Brooklyn and Queens. Today- National Grid, BP, Amoco, ExxonMobil, and a host of other multinational companies still maintain an enormous investment in this valuable industrial canal.

Upcoming tour: Hidden Harbor Tours: Newtown Creek tour with Mitch Waxman.

On May 26th, Mitch shares his unique point of view and deep understanding of the past, present and future conditions of the Newtown Creek as the narrator and expedition leader for this years’ Hidden Harbor Tours: Newtown Creek tour with Mitch Waxman.

Our NY Water Taxi leaves from South Street Seaport at 10 a.m. (sharp) for a three hour tour of the Newtown Creek. From the East River we’ll move into the Newtown Creek where we’ll explore explore vast amounts of maritime infrastructure, see many movable bridges and discover the very heart of the Hidden Harbor.

Limited seating available, get your tickets today.

Tickets $59, trip leaves Pier 17 at South Street Seaport at 10a.m. sharp.

We will be traveling in a comfortable NY Water Taxi vessel with indoor and outdoor seating. There will be refreshments and snacks available for purchase at the bar.

Other 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.

for a full listing and schedule of tours and events, click here

The 2013 Spring and Summer Tours Schedule

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“follow” me on Twitter at @newtownpentacle

Pana_NCA_CreekEDU_Boat_102311_013359_a

- photo by Mai Armstrong

Want to see something cool?

Odds are that a bunch of the folks who will be reading this might have no idea who Mitch Waxman is, why they should come along with him on a tour of some weird neighborhood in Brooklyn or Queens or Staten Island, nor what a Newtown Creek or Kill Van Kull are- let alone where. Who is this weirdo?

Check out the “bio” page here at Newtown Pentacle, or this profile of me from the NY Times published in 2012. My tours of Newtown Creek have garnered no small amount of interest from the fourth estate- whether it be DNAInfountappedcities.com, Queens Chroniclenewyorkview.net, the 22blog, photobycateblog.com, or Queensnyc, and I’ve turned up in a bunch of media reports, documentaries, and been interviewed for multitudinous reports on the lamentable history of the Newtown Creek.

Most recently, it was National Geographic and Curbed. Attendees on my tours come from a variety of backgrounds- photographers, history and rail buffs, maritime enthusiasts, and there always seems to be an odd and welcome concentration of elected officials and journalists about.

What is with this guy?

I’m the Newtown Creek Alliance Historian, Official Photographer and Steering Committee member of the Working Harbor Committee, a member of the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee and the Newtown Creek CAG, and am also a member of the Kosciuszko Bridge Stakeholders Advisory Committee. Newtown Pentacle, this blog, has been steadily published since 2009. I live in Astoria, Queens with my wife and our little dog, Zuzu.

In just the last few years, I have exposed thousands of people to the Newtown Creek, and its incredible history. This is where the industrial revolution actually happened, along this 3.8 mile long waterway that defines the border of Brooklyn and Queens.

t3_Atlas_PoisonCauldron_082512_012520_a

- photo by Mai Armstrong

In 2013, continuing relationships with Atlas Obscura, Newtown Creek Alliance, and the Working Harbor Committee (as well as friends like the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, and others) allow me to offer the following schedule. Live ticketing links will be made available as they come online, and all dates are subject to cancellation or rescheduling due to weather or unforeseen circumstance. There are 6 unique walking tours listed here, and one boat trip in which I will be the principal speaker.

Private tours are possible, schedule permitting, and can be arranged by contacting me here. Last year, for instance, several private University classes engaged me for a day at the Creek, as did a few private groups. As mentioned, contact me and we will figure something out if you’ve got a meetup group, college class, or special request.

Here then, is my official schedule as it stands right now. There will likely be a few additions as time goes on, which I will let you know about as they occur. Best to subscribe to this blog (top right, email subscription)  or “follow” me on Twitter @newtownpentacle for news.

In April, 2013- There will be a brand new tour  of Greenpoint debuted, which I call “Glittering Realms.”

Glittering Realms- Saturday, April 20, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets now on sale.

In May, 2013- We start off with 13 Steps around Dutch Kills, go to the Insalubrious Valley, visit DUKBO, and finish off the month with a Working Harbor boat tour.

13 Steps around Dutch Kills- Saturday, May 4, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets now on sale.

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

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

Hidden Harbor: Newtown Creek tour with Mitch Waxman – Sunday, May 26,2013
Boat tour presented by the Working Harbor Committee,
Limited seating available, order advance tickets now. Group rates available.

NCA Birdwatch Bus tour- June 24, 2012

- photo by Mai Armstrong

In June, 2013- We visit the Poison Cauldron, return to the Insalubrious Valley, and check out the Kill Van Kull.

The Poison Cauldron- Saturday, June 15, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets on sale soon.

Kill Van Kull- Saturday, June 22, 2013
Staten Island walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Working Harbor Committee, tickets on sale soon.

The Insalubrious Valley- Saturday, June 29, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Newtown Creek Alliance, tickets on sale soon.

In July, 2013- We visit Queens’s Hunters Point with a brand new tour. I might have another offering or two for you, but nothing I can speak about quite yet.

Modern Corridor- Saturday, July 13, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets on sale soon.

t3_MWA_COWD_071412_012314_a

- photo by Mai Armstrong

In August, 2013- We return to the Poison Cauldron, repeat the 13 steps, and the Kill Van Kull walks.

Kill Van Kull- Saturday, August 10, 2013
Staten Island walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Working Harbor Committee, tickets on sale soon.

13 Steps around Dutch Kills- Saturday, August 17, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Newtown Creek Alliance, tickets on sale soon.

The Poison Cauldron- Saturday, August 24, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets on sale soon.

There are a few other dates coming in the fall, and a couple of more summer events which are still being discussed, but I’ll let you know more about them in coming posts.

Also, I will definitely be onboard but not on the microphone during the Working Harbor Committee “Beyond Sandy” Hidden Harbor tours on Tuesday nights, all summer. Hope you can come along.

Click here for more on “Beyond Sandy.”

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