The Newtown Pentacle

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It’s all so depressing.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A somewhat random series of images greets you today. As endlessly mentioned in recent posts, I’m bored boredity bored bored, tired of winter already, and literally dying for something interesting that isn’t horrible to happen. This horsey ride over in Sunnyside… I wish they made adult versions of these things so I could at least have something to look forward to after the goal of achieving fifty cents was accomplished.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Spotted this arrangement over in LIC, on Jackson Avenue. I don’t think that the Union guys consciously create compositions when they’re doing their thing, but they are often responsible for moments of true rapture.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The literal dust bin of history was stumbled across at the Vernon Blvd. street end in LIC’s DUPBO, where some thoughtful soul had disposed of a series of history textbooks and what seemed like an entire library of Time Life WW2 hard cover photo books.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

While I was there, in LIC I mean, exploitation of one of the many holes in the fencing of the LIRR Hunters Point yard was undertaken. I’ve got a catalog of these holes and POV’s, incidentally, which includes the entire Sunnyside Yards and follows the Montauk line all the way back to Ridgewood. For those of you who live in Bushwick, Ridgewood, or East Williamsburg – two words – Scott Avenue (bet Randolph and Meserole).

Trust me, but be there early or late.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

For some reason, I’m fascinated by laundromats at the moment, a subject which I’m planning on discussing with my team of physicians. This one is in Park Slope, where I somehow ended up one day.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Over at Central Park Zoo, there are Grizzly Bears. Their names are Betty and Veronica, and I have no idea which one this is. Where’s Archie, ask I?

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Written by Mitch Waxman

February 4, 2016 at 11:00 am

these views

with 10 comments

Welcome to the Montauk Cutoff, Long Island City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Recently, one found himself hitting the tracks just before sunrise. I was there with sanction, accompanied by an MTA employee and entirely “legal.” It should be mentioned, again, that illegal trespass is against a humble narrator’s code, and like a vampire – I need to be invited in to do my thing. You also really, really, don’t want to get caught trespassing up here by the railroad cops, by the way. You also really, really, don’t want to meet the sort of person who camps out along railroad tracks in LIC when you’re all alone in the wee hours.

The Montauk Cutoff in Long Island City was designed to connect the North Shore line with the Montauk Line. The Montauk Line uses the tracks which follow the shoreline of Newtown Creek through Queens, eventually intersecting with the Bushwick Branch and both head for the rail yard at Fresh Pond. The elevated trackway of the Montauk Cutoff crosses Skillman, 49th, 50th, 51st, and Borden Avenues, whereupon it meets a rail bridge called Cabin M which spans Newtown Creek’s tributary Dutch Kills.

The North Shore line used what are approximately the modern LIRR passenger tracks, give or take a few yards, which transverse the Sunnyside Yards and head through Woodside on their way east. The Montauk Cutoff was built for freight, as were the North Shore and Montauk Lines. Passenger service was always a loser for the LIRR. Modern day freight on the LIRR is handled by the New York & Atlantic company.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The first discussion, which I’ve been able to find at least, about building LIC’s Montauk Cutoff was in 1906 – as part of a series of railroad projects either proposed or already under construction at the start of the 20th century by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company – projects which included Penn Station and Sunnyside Yard. Other documents I’ve examined state that the LIRR was paying taxes to New York State as early as 1912 on the Montauk Cutoff, which suggests that it came into service around the same time that the Sunnyside Yards came online. The surrounding Degnon Terminal wasn’t far behind the rail complex, either, with the Loose Wiles factory and other mega factories opening in the 1920’s.

As is always mentioned, old Mitch ain’t no authority on the whole railroad thing. If there’s something wrong in my little summary, please let me know in the comments and corrections or an errata will be incorporated. I can speak pretty intelligently about the maritime/locomotive complex around Newtown Creek, but I’ll admit to having vast gaps on the particular subject of the iron road. That was my pal Bernie Ente’s area of expertise.

For a historic series of shots, maps, and technical descriptions of anything involving the LIRR, you are going to have to visit the fairly excellent trainsarefun.com. Here’s their Montauk Cutoff Page.

Another set of maps and historic shots can be accessed at an equally fantastic site called arrts-arrchives.com. Here’s their Montauk Cutoff page.

I’ve written about the Smiling Hogshead Ranch before, which sits on the interchange between the Degnon Terminal Railway and the Montauk Cutoff, over at my old Brownstoner Queens column.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The view from up on the Montauk Cutoff is unique. That big parking lot at the bottom of the shot above is a UPS shipping center, the one on 49th avenue. Rearing above and behind it is the Queens Midtown Expressway section of the Long Island Expressway, which arches up and over Dutch Kills some 106 feet from its beginning at the Queens Midtown Tunnel – which is around a half mile away.

My MTA companion and I met up at the Smiling Hogshead Ranch at 5:30 in the morning to get these shots, which gave me a solid hour to work in absolute pitch darkness up on the tracks. The shots in today’s post are obviously tripod shots, and long exposures. Leaving the shutter open for 20-30 seconds at a pop, you can gather a tremendous amount of light and color, but the hot spots of electric street lighting always cause certain problems. Compensation for this is to move the aperture into “hyperfocal” range, f11 and narrower, which is counterintuitive for night shots but nevertheless effective. It also produces those neat little star bursts around the lights.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

So, why was I out on a chilly November morning with an MTA property manger, walking on a century old rail spur in Long Island City?

The MTA has decided to “abandon” this line. Abandon doesn’t mean the same thing in “railroad” as in does in english. It means that the agency has no current plans for the line and wishes to free itself of the duties necessitated in maintaining it as functional track. It means that the MTA will retain ownership of the Montauk Cutoff, and can at any time reactivate the pathway should “future use” require it. Given the speed with which rail projects generally move, however, that means a window of at least a couple of decades of inactivity awaits the property no matter what happens.

Accordingly, MTA has issued a “Request for Expressions of Interest,” or RFEI, regarding the Montauk Cutoff and is seeking potential lessees for the space.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As defined in the RFEI document, the MTA is seeking out creative uses of the land with an eye towards community improvement. The agency has set down a few ground rules for any potential lessee of the site, many of which are quite expensive – such as insurance, utility service – those sorts of things. The property, as defined in the RFEI, includes the Smiling Hogshead Ranch – who currently lease and pay insurance on the parcel in which the community garden is operated.

Before certain web masters start pointing their fingers and shouting “j’accuse” at me while spinning a conspiratorial tale, Smiling Hogshead is indeed associated with Newtown Creek Alliance, as am I. You can absolutely bet that I’m a fan of SHHR’s operations and programming, and friends with a lot of their members. Long Island City needs every bit of green space it can get, which is how I finally get around to explaining why me and the MTA guy were here on the day before Thanksgiving and just before sunrise.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A “Request for an Expression of Interest”? You can say that I’m interested. I’m interested in seeing this trackway converted over to green space, in much the same way that the Degnon Spur on Pearson and Skillman – a weedy dumping ground and homeless camp – was turned into a lush garden by a group of dedicated volunteers.

Can you imagine what a group like Smiling Hogshead’s could do up here?

If you want to get in on the conversation, or contribute some time and knowledge to the project – shape the future, as it were – whatcha doing on the 2nd of December? A bunch of us are going to attend a “visioning meeting” at Nomad Cycle (47-10 Austell Pl, Queens, NY 11101) which is set to happen between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My companion and I had discussed the possibility of getting up here in the pre dawn hours, and a couple of previous appointments had to be cancelled on account of weather. We had met on a walk through of the site which MTA had conducted back in October for parties interested in acquiring the land, an excursion which occurred just before solar noon – which is not the most efficacious time to photograph LIC. I made the case to him that a “proper” set of photos would be needed for this project and quite handy to boot, which my new friend at the agency agreed with. Hence, where we were, when we were, and why we met up in the dark on Skillman Avenue on the day before Thanksgiving.

The wrinkle in this potential project is this – it doesn’t necessarily have to become a green space. Anyone can “express interest” in the Montauk Cutoff, and as long as their proposed project meets the requirements set aside by the MTA, it will be considered a viable option.

I see this as being a frankly huge opportunity to create an enormous acreage of green space in an otherwise completely barren industrial area which can be best described as a “devastation of concrete.” My interest in this thing is simple – this property touches Dutch Kills, where the borders of the “abandoned” section ends, which is “my house.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Montauk Cutoff begins at Sunnyside Yard, and at its southeastern edge connects to the M Cabin truss bridge over Dutch Kills which connects to the Blissville Yard, which in turn feeds the tracks that travel under the Greenpoint and Kosciuszko Bridges to Maspeth, Ridgwood, and all points east. The RFEI states that the M Cabin bridge will be opened, and secured in that position, and that a barrier of some sort will be erected at the edge of the Montauk Cutoff’s lot.

Additionally, I cannot begin to, nor have I ever believed that this is the original bridge on this site. I’ve got some Intel that suggests the early 1940’s for its origins, but nothing solid enough to to stick a pin into. The original early 20th century bridge is long gone at any rate.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I can tell you with some certainty that the nearby DB Cabin rail bridge is from 1919, and is a swing bridge that hasn’t opened since 2002. My pal Bernie, mentioned above as having been THE authoritative source on all things rail around LIC, told me once or twice that two industrial wreckers are required to tow it from either side to open the bridge. The swing bridges motors are non functional, something that has caused no small amount of grief for the EPA’s Superfund investigators. DB Cabin allows access from the Wheelspur Yard to the Blissville Yard and the Montauk Line.

Like I said, Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking northwards along Dutch Kills, at a scene familiar and loved by long time readers of this – your Newtown Pentacle. That’s the Borden Avenue Bridge, with the LIE above, spanning Dutch Kills. I’ve been writing about this neighborhood for years, it’s one of my favorite locations in New York City. The Montauk Cutoff leads directly to this spot, which in my mind directly connects it to the environmental problems of the Newtown Creek watershed.

Know how I’ve been rattling on for years about “combined sewer outfalls” and the problems presented to the ancient sewer system during rain events? Montauk Cutoff represents an opportunity to create a nearly four acre long green sponge that can drink up a significant amount of the storm water that carries garbage, grease, and poop into this water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Montauk Cutoff. This is a once in a generation opportunity to do something right for the environment in the ruined biome of Long Island City. Every elected official I’ve spoken to about this idea is “into it” although they haven’t made any public declarations yet (too early in the process to bring them in) and recently – Community Board 2’s environmental committee voted to support the use of these tracks as “green infrastructure.”

Want to get involved in the future of the Montauk Cutoff? As mentioned above, a “visioning meeting” which be taking place at LIC’s Nomad Cycle (47-10 Austell Pl, Queens, NY 11101) on December 2nd, between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

continuous system

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Holiday pretty pictures, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s the Long Island Railroad crossing Borden Avenue in LIC in the shot above, which was captured around ten years ago. I take a lot of pictures of trains, mind you, but the one above remains one of my favorites. It’s number 401, btw.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Number 420 was observed at the Sunnyside Yards’s Harold Interlocking not too long ago, and funnily enough it was smoking up. If you don’t get the joke, just google 420 for what it means to our inebriated friends.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

411 doesn’t just provide directory assistance, it also transits from the Hunters Point yard in LIC to the Hunters Point stop at the southern end of the Sunnsyide Yards – the only place in the entire 183 square acre rail yard where you can actually board a train.

Back Monday with some slightly more substantive content, and may all your Friday’s be black.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

November 27, 2015 at 11:00 am

creaking joints

with one comment

I’m all ‘effed up.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The compulsions to record and categorize everything one encounters, which a humble narrator suffers from, must be related to some form of narcissism – which is the favorite “go to” syndrome for every arm chair and amateur psychologist’s diagnostic assessment. “Dude, you’re a total narcissist,” might be an appropriate statement were it not for the fact that when I reach out to touch the eidolon of decay staring back at me from beyond a pane of silvered glass, that monster always recoils in shock and horror and retreats.

Pictured above, a locomotive unit of the Long Island Railroad transiting the Sunnyside Yards, full of people who – unlike me – have somewhere else to go.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

“Dude, you’re a freaking sociopath, and all you’re doing is trying to prove how shit the rest of the world and everybody in it is while making yourself out to be somehow above it all” is one I’ve heard as well. In all actuality, I think the rest of you are amazing, and wish that I could somehow function on the level that others seem to effortlessly maintain. One can barely pull himself out of bed in the mornings and climb across the giant piles of ennui and hubris which litter my floors. Buying an egg sandwich and an orange juice for breakfast is a moral dilemma for one such as myself.

Pictured above, illegal dumping along Skillman Avenue, wherein a bag (?) of paint was left to harden into putty on the sidewalk. In all seriousness – who has a bag of paint? Doesn’t paint usually come in a bottle, jar, or can?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

If I’m not disappointing someone with my personal failings, abrasive and egomaniacal behavior, moral assertions and precepts, or preconceived notions – my day is ruined. A friend of mine once suggested that I should start a business offering “freelance, unsolicited criticism.” I would walk into a bank, tell the manager that they had set up the ropes all wrong, and hand them a bill.

Many employees of the government would offer that “freelance unsolicited criticism” is what I’ve actually been offering them for the last few years, particularly a group of NYC EDC employees whom I recently sat down with regarding their feasibility study for decking over the Sunnyside Yards who received a less than salubrious series of exultations regarding their ruinous plans. The usual “who do you think you are” expression was quite visible from my side of the table, incidentally.

Pictured above, the 7 line of the MTA’s New York City Transit Authority transiting the elevated tracks over Queens Plaza South at the intersection with Skillman Avenue. We don’t call it NYCTA anymore, but the MTA still does.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One has a serious desire for a short vacation, and to visit some vernal wonderland in which the cessation of daylight brings actual darkness. To experience quiet, and the sort of silence which causes a city dwellers ears to ring with tinnitus for a couple of days. I’d like to see something nice, and not chase drunks away from my door for just a day or two.

Unfortunately, one remains trapped within the concrete devastations of the Newtown Pentacle.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Tours –

October 3rd, 2015
Calvary Cemetery Walking Tour
with Atlas Obscura, click here for details and tickets

perpendicular height

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All around the town, in Today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

To start, a somewhat long standing freelance job writing a bi weekly column about Western Queens at Brownstoner Queens has ended. The parting is amicable, and it was a great experience working with the talented group that produce that website. One has felt a bit overwhelmed producing seven posts a week (5 pentacle + 2 BsQ), and I’m feeling a bit “written out” accordingly. There is some VERY cool stuff in the pipe which I’m working on and a bit of breathing room is required to adequately prepare and present it, which includes quite a bit of “boots on the ground” time out in the field. The 7 posts a week thing has kept me spinning my wheels to service deadlines rather than discovery for a while now, and a desire to return to “long form” and “deep research” posts has been burning in me.

My focus will remain fixed upon Western Queens, and a certain body of water that forms its currently undefended border with Brooklyn, but it’s time for me to take a short break. Next week will be one of those “single shot” series of posts, which are designed to give me a bit of breathing room so as to actually get out there and experience the world rather than just writing about it. I’ve got a few irons in the fire as far as future opportunities, which will be described in the future as they develop.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Newtown Creek, obviously, will continue to be my titular focus. A largish project I’m working on, under my official nom de plume as Newtown Creek Alliance historian, will be unveiled in July and August. A full schedule of summer Newtown Creek walking and boat tours is already underway (if you want to get on that boat tour on May 31, buy your tix right now – we are practically full and nearly sold out). There will also be a new industrial East River boat tour which I’ll be one of the narrators for with Working Harbor Committee, and a summer walking tour along the Kill Van Kull on… Staten Island… is also in the works. Just last weekend, I walked members of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce around Calvary Cemetery, and we visited with everyone from Governor Al Smith to Joe Masseria and Esther Ennis.

This weekend, on Saturday, we will be examining Dutch Kills in LIC with Atlas Obscura. Links to ticketing are found below.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The big project next week, which necessitates the need for a bit of breathing room, is compliling and condensing all of the information into my notebooks needed for “The Skillman Corridor” walk. This is a brand new walking tour, which will explore the southern boundary of the Sunnyside Yards as it descends from the heights of Sunnyside to the flood plains of Newtown Creek’s Dutch Kills tributary. Long time readers know that this area is “one of my spots” and is particularly dear.

Come with? 

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Tours –

May 16, 2015 –
13 Steps Around Dutch Kills with Atlas Obscura

with Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman, click here for details and tickets.

May 30, 2015 –
The Skillman Corridor with Atlas Obscura

with Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman, click here for details and tickets.

May 31, 2015 –
Newtown Creek Boat Tour
with Working Harbor Committee and Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman, click here for tickets.

Written by Mitch Waxman

May 15, 2015 at 11:00 am

padding, clicking, walking

with 3 comments

Want to feel better? Take a walk in Queens.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Skillman Avenue between 39th street and 49th avenue is “big sky country” here in Western Queens, with the majesties of the Sunnyside Yard and the glorious skyline of the Shining City laid out for all observers. It has always been one of my favorite spots for a stroll, and never more so than at twilight.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There’s a number of things I can tell you about the yards. When it opened, this was the largest coach yard on the planet, and it hosts the busiest tracks on earth to this day – specifically, the Harold Interlocking, which is shared by Amtrak and the Long Island Railroad. There’s an ocean of PCB’s and other industrial chemicals in the ground here, and its likely going to be listed for some sort of environmental cleanup or remediation before too long.

The odd and continuing appearances of cast off single shoes found along the fence line continues to intrigue and puzzle a humble narrator, but that’s another story.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It seems that the whole “deck over the yard and build a new neighborhood on top of it, with a stadium and hotel complex at the Queens Plaza side and affordable housing to the east” chestnut has surfaced again – the latest iteration of a plan espoused by Dan Doctoroff early in the first Bloomberg term. A number of people have asked me what my thoughts on the matter are.

My reply is always: How, in any way, would that be good for Queens? Does the proposal to deck the yards include hospitals and schools, an annex for the already stretched 104th and 114th precincts, additional FDNY personnel and equipment, or some mechanism to incorporate this new population into the existing wastewater system? Who will bear the costs of these municipal services? It won’t be the entity that builds a stadium or hotel complex, one guarantees you.

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defined apprehensions

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Twirling, ever twirling.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The affability of recent climate has seen me visiting old haunts and novel locale alike in recent weeks, which might be described as having been a somewhat pleasurable set of experiences. That would mean, of course, that your humble narrator was actually capable of experiencing a sensation called “pleasure.” A series of dull events punctuated by occasional gastro-intestinal distress, all sorts of bacterial and viral infections, and the oft bizarre actions of others is the way one such as myself describes “Life.”

One bright spark in the otherwise gathering clouds of existential horror which plague me are unexpected moments of serendipity.

A train passing by can excite one endlessly, and reminds that “you have to appreciate the little things.”

In my case, it’s big things that go “thruuummmm thruuuuuuummmm thruuummmm” or “claaacckkclaaacckkclaaacckk” as they pass by, but I’m all ‘effed up.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Good days are ones where I’m not walking to go anyplace in particular. Days when I leave the house and decide only which compass point to walk toward. For some reason, its not east that often, as that’s usually looking into the light. Instinct always points my path towards water, no matter where I am. It was kind of interesting finding myself in Queens Plaza, which I used to inhabit back in 2009 and 2010 during the Queensboro Bridge Centennial period but which I mainly cross through these days on my way to someplace in Brooklyn or Hunters Point.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Luckily, Our Lady of the Pentacle had agreed to visit the Brooklyn Grange roof top farm here in Astoria with a friend of ours who subscribes to their CSA program and I tagged along. While they picked up some quality produce, I got busy with the camera. Serendipity at work, when I woke up that morning, seeing this vista overlooking the Sunnyside Yards and the Shining City of Manhattan was not on the menu.

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