The Newtown Pentacle

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systemic horror

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An altar to Lord Dattatreya, at Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Last Sunday, which was the only day in Decemeber that has actually felt – climatologically – like December, one found himself in the company of a couple of my Creek chums in a small boat on Newtown Creek. We saw something odd while out on the poison waters.

Our excursion was launched in pursuance of surveying certain bulkheads in an area defined by the former Penny Bridge and the Maspeth Avenue Plank Road. We were literally studying the Creek, and I was along to gather photographs for further inspection at a later date – this is the sort of sinister stuff we get up, in Newtown Creek Alliance. Our survey of the study area was completed, a loop through the East Branch tributary was enacted, and we were headed west towards a dock at North Brooklyn Boat Club nearby the Pulaski Bridge in Greenpoint.

That’s when one of my companions asked if I’d seen “the statue.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Restaurant Depot company, a wholesaler which supplies commercial food establishments, sits on part of the former Phelps Dodge property in Maspeth. Their property is lined with industrial piers which have seen better days, but which were stoutly constructed and you can still observe rail tracks adorning them. In a couple of spots, the piers have decayed or collapsed, and there are little wooden bays amongst the piles.

That’s where the statue is.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The style of the thing is clearly southeast Asian, and specifically subcontinental. Given the reach and spread of Indian culture, which is far flung, it’s often difficult to say “Indian” as opposed to “South East Asian.” The statue, however, displayed certain details which betrayed its stylistic and ritual origins, and after a bit of research – the specifics of its representation.

How it ended up in the littoral zone at the former Phelps Dodge property on Newtown Creek in Maspeth is anyone’s guess. I’ve long stopped asking these sort of questions on the Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The statuary was around three to four feet in height, and seemed to be made from molded concrete. It depicts Lord Dattatreya, who is a well known member of the Hindu Pantheon. The particulars of the statue are that it represents the Hindu trinity of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva – which members of the faith refer to as the Trimurti.

Note – if I get something wrong here, my Hindu friends, please offer correction in the comments section: 

Dattatreya is a primordial figure in Indian culture, and is mentioned in the Mahabharata – an epic holy text whose origins are nearly prehistoric. Mahabharata scholars believe its texts were originally written between 800 and one thousand BCE, making it a 2.5-3,000 year old holy book which is coincidentally the longest epic poem ever written at nearly two million words. Mahabharata is as culturally significant a text as the Christian Bible or the Quran, and offers spiritual guidance to what probably boils down to as much as a quarter of all living humans.

Dattatreya veneration was ancient when the Mahabharata was written, and the deity was originally represented with one head. Dattatreya came from the Deccan Plains in South Eastern India, which is one of the cradles of human civilization. The Trimurti version of the deity, seen above, has six arms and three heads. That’s Brahma on the statue’s left, Vishnu in the center, and Shiva on the statue’s right. The hands are all meant to be holding symbolic weapons and icons of these deities. The cow is sacred to Vishnu, and although it’s not terribly clear in the representation above, there are traditionally four dogs on a Dattatreya statue. Hindu scholars debate the meaning of the dogs.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

When the Vedic religious traditions began, Dattatreya was reconsidered as an avatar of the Trimurti. About a thousand years ago, it became common practice to represent the deity as three headed. Certain Hindu sects revere Dattatreya as a supreme being singularly, with others placing him near the top of the food chain in the pantheon, but still subordinate to Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. His sister is Chandra, who is the moon goddess.

One can merely speculate as to the presence of the statue in the tidal zone of Newtown Creek, and as to what sort of congregants might rise from the water to worship before it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned above, our party was out on the water performing a bulkhead survey, and we were in search of something far more modern and mundane than an ancient Indian God. Controversy in the Superfund community has recently involved discussion of “Manufactured Gas” and the ebullition (reverse dripping) of coal tar sludge from subaqueous pockets in the sediment up to the surface. This has resulted in a humble narrator “getting smart” about the waste materials which the manufactured gas industry spewed out. Coal tar, and coal tar sludge, were – by far – the most abundant material that arose from the retorts and distillation equipment of the industry, but were hardly the only noxious material produced.

We were searching for “blue billy” amongst the rip rap shorelines of the lugubrious Newtown Creek, which is “spent lime” that had become infiltrated by ferrocyanide compounds during the industrial gasification of coal. There was no aftermarket for this material, and more often than not it was just dumped. Examining photographs of “blue billy,” my cohorts in NCA and I all remarked on how familiar it seemed, and set out to find some.

Instead, we found an Indian God.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

December 23, 2015 at 11:30 am

dog trot

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A bit of weirdness encountered in Maspeth.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Before launching into my usual folderol, mention must be made that an equipment failure here at HQ has sent my mac to the shop, and any oddities in formatting of posts and interactions for the next few days are due to the fact that several workarounds have been enacted in the name of keeping the ship afloat. I’m working off an iPad and Our Lady of the Pentacle’s laptop. The iPad is a familiar tool, but crap at formatting posts. The laptop is using a newer operating system than the one I normally use – which is unfamiliar at best and there is a learning curve. Never a dull moment.

Anyway, check out this little oddity noticed on Rust Street in Maspeth.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A humble narrator had been out and about for several hours when these shots were captured, and having just stepped between a parked truck and the fencelines adjoining the LIRR tracks in pursuance of a private spot in which to answer the call of nature. Whilst painting the street with urea, this little fellow was noticed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I know a lot of tree huggers around Newtown Creek, but this was a new one for this little pisher.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It will be somewhat light fare at this, your Newtown Pentacle, for the next few days. When the repairs are completed, I can begin churning out photos from the “master cylinder” desktop machine again.

I will mention, incidentally, that I find it surprising how the modern operating systems offered by apple get in the way of doing actual work. Then again, they aren’t in the business of selling workstation computers anymore.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

December 7, 2015 at 11:00 am

border of

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Devastations, concrete and plastic.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Broken, abused, cast aside. That’s me. Like every other bit of wind blown trash in NYC, I find myself staring into the abyssal darkness which is the Newtown Creek. Poisoned, polluted, and abandoned. That’s me too.

Here in the wasteland, where dissolution and disease can be found, this is where I belong.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Shouting at bureaucrats, angrily decrying the injustices of municipal apportionment, demonstrating that the sky is indeed falling to those who can stop it. Demanding not justice, but a simple admission of culpability for the collapsing heavens. That’s me too. Doesn’t make me popular with officialdom, but there you are. Somebody has to do it, and as with a lot of other sections of my life – you gotta do whatcha gotta do.

Assailed from all sides, by do gooders who would rather complain than actually do anything to change this catastrophe we live in, by cocktail party scholastics, by the politically correct. That’s me too.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Periodically, the bile rises in my throat, and rage clouds my eyes. Rhetorical flourish and clever retort gives way to a growling and wild eyed sermon which demands acknowledgment that a dangerous storm is forming in front of the lucky recipient.  It is in these moments that I remind people, and myself, that I am – in fact – not a nice guy by nature and especially by nurture.

What would Superman do? That’s what pulls me back from the edge, when I remember what I aspire to, rather than what I am.

In fact, I can be quite an asshole when I don’t hold myself in check, and remind myself about Superman.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It’s at these times that a humble narrator picks his way over to his beloved Creek, musing on his private fantasies of visiting exquisite vengeance upon those who have angered him. It’s also when he finds himself thinking of himself in the “third person” and decides that it’s time to get a grip. Superman always keeps his grip, lest all those things which he gazes upon, and through (x-ray vision, which would be handy), burst into flame. He lives in a world made of paper, of course, but hey – you can have your Jesus, my ideal being and eidolon has heat vision and can fly. He’s also highly resistant to bullets and temperature extremes, but has an aversion to shiny green rocks.

It’s not so easy, living between my ears, but shiny green rocks bring me back to Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

What this city needs is a good plague, I’ve always thought. That’s the sort of thing Superman never thinks. Newtown Creek, what it really needs are the direct attentions of Superman, but he’d probably avoid the place because it’s covered in shiny green rocks. Superman could probably solve every little Newtown Creek problem in an afternoon, mainly because there would be no one who could say “no” to him.

All Newtown Creek’s really got is me and a few of my friends, I’m afraid. It’s also likely where that plague mentioned above might come from.

We will have to do, until someone better comes along.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

December 4, 2015 at 11:00 am

flat platform

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Trucks, trucks, horses, trucks.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One spent a pretty decent amount of time wandering about the wastelands for Thanksgiving Weekend.

It was likely a good decision to do so, as my company is aberrant and I can be quite “the downer” around the holidays. My understanding of the origins of the term “downer,” by the way, is that it refers to a cow that was sick when it arrived at the stock yards. Common practice in the factory abattoirs of the 19th century was to move the downers to the front of the slaughter line while distracting the government inspectors. The inspectors were glad to be distracted, but they were already in the pockets of the beef trust anyway.

Cattle which was fed on distillery slop, which produced the “swill milk” which I’ve explained endlessly, were covered in sores and boils and were referred to as “steely.” It was a miserable job slaughtering the steely cattle, according to the historic record, but it’s hard to find any profession in the industrial sectors of the 19th century which wasn’t miserable.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Horses, mules, and oxen were not supposed to be part of the food ecosystem, nor were goats. Saying that, an enormous amount of horse meat found its way into cans of “tinned beef” back then and it was pretty common for “lamb chops” or “mutton” to have exhibited little verisimilitude to lambs. Goat makes for a good stew, at any rate, but I’ve been to Greece a few times and Hellene cuisine can make almost anything taste good. Supposedly, a significant number of the casualties in both the Civil and Spanish American wars were caused by soldiers consuming the tainted tins of meat in their rations.

By the beginning of the 20th century, NYC was producing something like ten million tons of horse manure a day. Modern people – myself included – bitch and moan about truck traffic but can you imagine the amount of shit that our modern world would produce if pack animals were still roaming the streets?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It’s hard to imagine that version of NYC, although there are a few people left amongst us who experienced it directly. It was still pretty common up until the 1920’s for Fire Engines in Brooklyn and Queens to be driven by teams of horses. FDNY, after the consolidation of the City of Greater New York in 1898, began to outfit the departmental structures in outlying districts and standardize their equipment around the internal combustion engine but that took a while and as you’d imagine – downtown Manhattan came first.

Until the ubiquity of cheap petroleum became a reality, and the supply chain of an automotive industry existed, the horse was still your best bet for moving people and cargo around.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There was an entire industrial complex built around the horse and carriage trade, as you’d imagine. Just as we don’t think twice about taking a long drive, secure in the knowledge that should we need to replace an engine part or a tire that there’ll be a Pep Boys or auto mechanic everywhere you choose to go – so too did the carriage trade enjoy a dispersed network of supply and demand based equipment and an abundance of skilled mechanics, stable keepers, and tradesmen in every town and village they’d pass through.

Newtown Creek, on the Queens side in particular, hosted a variety of trade manufacturers who supplied the carriage trade. Atavistic industries produced “carbon black,” a kind of paint manufactured from burning and then crushing up animal bones, which provided Victorian era horse carriages (think any Sherlock Holmes movie or TV show) with their shiny black coatings. Others manufactured “neet oil” and the various bits and bobs which the Teamsters would require to ferry people and commerce around the city at the speed of a trotting horse. Funnily enough, that’s just under the speed at which the current Mayor’s “Vision Zero” traffic initiative requires motor vehicles to operate at.

When the pack animals were spent, and their useful occupation at an end, companies like Van Iderstine’s rendering plant in Blissville or Peter Cooper’s Glue factory in Bushwick awaited their arrival.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Researching the history of Newtown Creek, as I do, one often encounters early versions of environmentalist sentiment. A particular period in the 1880’s saw Manhattan based reformers complaining in vociferous fashion about the smells, carried on the prevailing north westerly winds which then as now swept across the Creek and East River, which plagued Murray Hill and the east side of Manhattan Island. I’ll be exploring this in some detail next week, but the really interesting part of this narrative from the 1880’s is the push to rid the Creek of the “organics” processors like the rendering plants, glue factories, bone blackers, and “superphosphate” manufacturers in favor of the “scientific manufacturers” like General Chemical (Phelps Dodge) and the petroleum distillers like Standard Oil. As mentioned, more on this one next week.

As a note, check out that truck in the shot above. Not only is it parked in a bus stop, but it’s also blocking a fire hydrant.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

December 3, 2015 at 11:00 am

ultimate effect

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The nighted Newtown Creek, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As detailed in several posts this week, one decided to take advantage of the creepy atmospheric effects of the temperature inversion last Thursday – which produced copious mist and fog – and a journey on foot from Astoria to Newtown Creek began at four in the morning. My eventual destination was the historic Maspeth Avenue Plank Road, from whose vantage I planned on capturing a series of “night into day” shots.

The images in today’s post are what I expended the effort for.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking into Brooklyn, that’s the Empire Transit Mix company’s bulkheads. They were just getting to work, as it was just about 5:30 in the morning. Industrial types get started early. Twilight would begin at 6:04 so there was little time for me to fool around, and one started clicking away.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking eastwards towards Grand Street and Newtown Creek’s intersection with another of its tributaries – English Kills. As a note, these shots are quite a bit brighter than what the human eye could see, but that’s actually what I was “going for.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking across the Turning Basin of Newtown Creek towards the National Grid Liquified Natural Gas facility found at Greenpoint’s historic border with Bushwick.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A wide shot of the tuning basin, with the Kosciusko Bridge at right.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Zoomed in on the bridge, that dark hill is Calvary Cemetery and you can just make out the skyline of Long Island City rising behind it in the mists. What might seem like a developing error – the halation present around the bridge and crane – was actually visually present. The fog and mist were being lit up by work lights.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The remnants of the Plank Road itself, which last spanned the Newtown Creek when Ulysses S. Grant was President in 1875. When the whole superfund thing is over, I’m going to market mud and water from the waterway in the same manner as the folks who do the stuff from the Red Sea – claiming the benefits of its preservative qualities.

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duplicate and exceed

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In the wind, and flying with the Night Gaunts in Industrial Maspeth.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Continuing my walk through the nighted streets of Maspeth, the path chosen carried me from Astoria to the streets surrounding the Newtown Creek. Caution regarding traffic guided my steps. As illustrated in yesterday’s post, the greatest danger you face around here is heavy vehicle traffic. Despite this assertion, when I mentioned my plans to come down here in the small hours to my neighbor, I was offered a firearm to carry, as he was concerned about me meeting up with malign elements of our society.

Untrained as I am in the brandishing of such weaponry, I retorted that I’d probably end up shooting myself if any attempt was made to discharge the thing and I declined. When I go out shooting, it’s about light hitting a camera lens, not little bits of metal hitting things. The atmosphere continued to thicken as one transversed the sloping street which inevitably led to the fabled Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

If you want to experience “spooky,” however, one cannot recommend the feeling of isolation and exposure which is offered by industrial Maspeth at night. You truly feel alone here, all of the steel gates are down, with the exception of an occasional warehouse operation’s loading dock being open and spilling light onto the street.

The smell of the place, on a foggy night, is exceptional. Misty atmospherics, fed by high humidity and air temperatures quite a bit higher than those in the gurgling waters of the sewage addled Newtown Creek, caused an omnipresent stink to inhabit the place. One does not like to think what he was breathing, but suffice to say that on a night like this you are fully in touch with Newtown Creek – in fact, you are respirating it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

You know that you are out early when the DSNY workers haven’t made it to work yet. The Sanitation Department maintains an enormous facility nearby my destination, and the corner of 48th street and 58th road was where I had been heading for all night.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Maspeth Avenue Plank Road, a street end which has been recently made salubrious by the efforts of my chums at Newtown Creek Alliance. This is the spot which I had in mind when I announced to Our Lady of the Pentacle that I would be foregoing sleep and heading out to “do some night shooting.”

This is also why I schlepped the tripod with me, as there were a few shots which I was desirous to capture.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A quick change up of my gear and camera settings began. The tripod came out of its carrying case, and so did a remote shutter release. The dslr was affixed to the tripod, and the shutter release to the camera. One was intent on working in the “night into day” genre, and began a series of long exposure shots of the environs.

The shot above is part of the series, an “amuse bouche” as it were, for the set of images which will greet you in tomorrow’s post.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

November 11, 2015 at 11:00 am

betraying myself

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Like the ghouls and ghasts, loosed upon the night wind.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As described in yesterday’s post, one decided to take advantage of the atmospherics offered by temperature inversion last week and proceed to hike over to Newtown Creek from Astoria at four in the morning. As also mentioned in the prior posting – the manifestations of high humidity like fog and mist, coupled with spring like temperatures, created a physically arduous environment. Perspiration offered an abundance of skin secretions for my clothing to absorb, which, combined with worries about condensation on camera and lens – caused a rather uncomfortable series of existential challenges to endure. No one ever promised me a rose garden, however, so your humble narrator soldiered on into the night.

The apex of this part of Laurel Hill, sitting alongside a shallow valley through which a lost tributary of the lugubrious Newtown Creek which was known as “Wolf Creek” once flowed, is always that moment when a humble narrator comments to himself that the creeklands have been reached.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Calvary Cemetery’s newer sections are on the left side of the shot above, and the “House of Moses” occupies the center. That’s the Long Island Expressway at center and above, with industrial Maspeth to the right.

This is where 48th street, whose gradual climb in altitude I had been ascending since Northern Blvd., begins to slope roughly towards the elluvial flood plains of the Newtown Creek. Once, this ancient road was paved with crushed Oyster Shells. That colonial era surface would have been replaced with horse and carriage friendly Belgian Blocks (colloquially known as cobble stones) shortly before the Civil War, and later in the 19th century by tar and Macadam. The modern road is formed out of a concrete bed underpinned by steel rebar and is paved in a petroleum industry waste product called “Asphalt.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Industrial Maspeth never knows sleep. 

There are vast fleets of trucks, locomotives, and shifts of laborers converging at all hours of the day and night on this area, and on every day of the year (except Christmas and Thanksgiving, mostly). Sodium street lamps lend the place a sickly yellow glow, and the harsh illumination of passing heavy trucks provides for occasional blinding white blasts of light.

One has received “safety training” from Union laborers and corporate entities over the years, so a certain amount of confidence in how to handle oneself in locales such as this informed my actions. Donning an orange safety vest with reflective strips was one of the preparations made before leaving Astoria, incidentally. Night time in an M1 zone is one of the few times when the wandering photographer definitely WANTS to be noticed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There are lots of giant machines moving around in industrial Maspeth, and 21st century industrial America operates within and promulgates a certain cultural imperative. That culture is called “workplace safety” and it’s important to understand the “lingua Franca,” customs, and mores which these laborers operate within – and their expected cultural normatives – as one moves about.

As a rule, never walk in front of a truck or any sort of machine without its operator acknowledging your presence, and if possible indicate to them which way you will be going and wait for them to further acknowledge that before proceeding – that’s one of them. Another is to not just wander across a driveway without looking. These hard working people aren’t expecting some idiot with a camera to be wandering around at 4:30 in the morning, after all, and the cops don’t exactly enforce the 25 mph speed limit around these parts.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

At the bottom of the hill into which 48th street was carven, the grid of the streets is broken, and you can either head west towards Blissville in Long Island City or deeper into industrial Maspeth to the east or south. The Long Island Railroad tracks are found just beyond the fence line pictured above. That’s Review Avenue/56th Road/Rust Street you’re looking at. This is the very definition of a “not pedestrian friendly” intersection and is a dangerous crossing when on foot or a bike.

How dangerous is it, you ask?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Another one of the thousands of ghost bikes is found here, a roadside memorial to someone who got squished. Every time you find a ghost bike, you find a human life cut short.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Crossing the LIRR tracks. It should be mentioned that the “Haberman” section of these tracks are quite active these days, and that the signals are in terrible condition. Over the summer, just east of here, a truck crossing the tracks was swept away by a freight train. The exact spot which this shot was captured saw a similar incident occur a couple of years ago. In both cases the barriers never came down, the bells and flashing lights never sounded, and unlike the summer 2015 event to the east – this is where a fatality occurred.

In the distance, the Kosciusko Bridge project lights the horizon.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There’s a bit of lens flare present in the shot of the Ferrarra Brothers Concrete trucks above, but there’s little one can do about that in context. The shots in today’s, and yesterday’s, post are almost entirely handheld. High ISO settings, coupled with a “wide open” aperture, and compensating for the counterpoints of bright artificial light and enveloping darkness make for quite the technical challenge. It’s all about technique, shooting postures, and being able to force the camera into “seeing the light.”

Sometimes that means light is bouncing around inside the lens, producing flares. “Work with it” as my pal Bernie Ente used to say.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Heading towards Maspeth Creek along 49th street. I’ve been told that this, the section of 49th pictured above, is actually one of the lowest places in NYC – in terms of altitude relative to sea level and the sewer shed that feeds into the Newtown Creek. It’s a guarantee that you’ll alway see some flooding here every time it rains, which is something I can say with authority, and based on observation.

An apocryphal story offered by one of my many neighborhood informants stated that during a Hurricane Sandy, geysers of water were erupting from the sewer grates and manhole covers in this spot.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The shot above, depicting Newtown Creek’s tributary “Maspeth Creek” on a foggy night in November of 2015, was actually the first tripod shot which I popped off last Thursday.

I bagged the dslr momentarily, and employed my trusty old Canon G10 with its magnetic tripod and a remote shutter release. The magnet allows me to “clang” the camera onto fences, fire hydrants, anything ferrous. The shot is a 15 second long exposure, which characteristically causes water to assume a mirrored glass like appearance. In the distance – the Kosciusko Bridge, with Manhattan’s skyline lost in the mist rising from that malign example of municipal and corporate excess known only as the lugubrious Newtown Creek.

Tomorrow – more.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

November 10, 2015 at 11:00 am

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