The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Balm and bitterness, your humble narrator

with 6 comments

NYC panorama2 by you.

Queens museum of art. worlds fair panorama of the entire city -photo by Mitch Waxman

Recently received critiques of the Newtown Pentacle, while undeservedly gracious and overwhelmingly positive, have pointed out that I have a tendency to paint the Newtown Creek as some annex of hell- populated by a relict population of atavist industrialists and lurking gangsters ready to prey upon innocent passersby. I also tend to speak with an authority which I don’t possess, although I strive to speak intelligently, as far I’m able to, and attempt to find and link to original sources.  As I’ve said since my first post- If I’m wrong, let me know, as corrections and addendums are always welcome at the Newtown Pentacle. If you’ve got something to say or announce- please contact me.

A little about your narrator-

Let me state categorically however, that I when I walk these streets I do so as an outsider, alien, and antiquarian. On a journey of revelation seeking the penitent redemption of a mendicant soul, the Newtown Creek offers me a corridor of remarkable introspection. The observations of the wonders of this place are what compelled me to begin the Newtown Pentacle, and write about MY Newtown Creek. When I reach my rotting hand out to the mirror surface of Dutch Kills, the monster I see… I’m all effed-up.

My pedantic and tiresome personal perspective (formed whole cloth from comic books and movies) is always that of the shunned, the disappointed, the confused- God’s forgotten and lonely man. All of this is the product of a sheltered childhood spent in lonely rooms filled with dusty hangings- and only a bw TV serving as a playmate. I’m kind of a drag to hang out with, and always disappoint the expectations of others. Sickly, pale, and obsessed with odd subjects that appeal only to fellow acolytes of the bizarre and hidden- I am a noxious and disagreeable man best experienced at a distance.

This rather dire self image I’ve cultivated produces an outlook that sees our world as a ruined and incomprehensible abattoir of hidden dangers and unreasonable horror (and subjects my wife, the ever patient and long suffering “Our lady of the Pentacle”, to endless ruminations on perceived sleights, discernments, and punditry). An unreasonable and unattainable set of personal standards- which I have never met- further frustrates, angers, and drives me to melancholy.


This carefully preserved late adolescent viewpoint often colors my writing, and the critiques received are apt and accepted. 

Ugly bird by you.

In a burned out taxi, Long Island City -photo by Mitch Waxman

My dire and depressed outlook on life, I fear, may be helping to solidify a notion of the Newtown Creek as a hopeless and negative place which concretizes the viewpoints of those who would wish to just pave over it and erect a 4 mile long stretch of condo buildings, and I need to correct these impressions. 

It is difficult not to focus on the horror when discussing this area- and It would be irresponsible (imho) not to warn potential visitors to the Creek of the physical and existential hazards that are encountered in the exploration of its more extant neighborhoods on foot- especially when supplying maps and turn by turn directions for foot paths, but let me be clear- there is great hope for the future at the Newtown Creek.

Look at the experiences of the residents of Seoul, when “their newtown creek- the Cheonggyecheon” was given the attention and care it deserved- read about it in a recent New York Times article.

The story of the Singapore River, another example of a vital industrial waterway that runs through an island city-state, may also bring hope to we Newtownicans.

our pal sweetpea212, a member of our flickr group and a singaporean, supplied the following series of links on the Singapore river:

Singapore Archives Singapore Archive online search engine: not much written material here, just synopsis of some oral transcripts and such. But a lot of archival phots with a huge watermark. I encompassed a period from the 1935 – 2009. You certainly could plug in an earlier date to see what comes up. Here is a blog I like to check in with every once in a while:

And another with a few more anecdotal stories:

On cleaning the Singapore River:

Chicago deals with a problematic waterway called Bubbly Creek, whose 19th and 20th century history eerily mirrors the Newtown Creek’s own. Here’s the plan they are following.

All three examples above were accomplished by Democratically elected governments, although all of them (especially Chicago) possess dictatorial powers that would make even New York’s Mayor blush. The question is ultimately- What  are WE willing to do about it. What can WE spend, in time and treasure, to craft the kind of Newtown Creek we’d like to hand off to the future.

I see 2 viable options, both of which I suggest you do your own research on and form your own opinions. There are “powers that be” to consider- the eggheads from the universities who have the ears of the political class- the owners of the land- the communities that surround the area- the vested interest of the municipalities involved. There’s history and archaeological considerations- this is the epicenter of the Industrial revolution where the Monitor was built, the Oil industry was born, and Jell-O was invented. There’s also active rail, and a still working maritime industry. And tens of thousands of people work here.

A- Restoration of much of the Newtown Creek to a somewhat natural state, purposed as a mixed use waterway.

wnyc Newtown Creek Nature Walk by you.

from the “WNYC Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant Nature Walk with Architect George Trakas” event -photo by Mitch Waxman

Any remediation effort would have to involve large scale dredging of the sediments in the waterway, aeration of English Kills,Dutch Kills, Bushwick and Maspeth Creek, restoration of most of the currently bulkheaded shorelines to wetland, and an uprooting of many of the remaining heavy industries- as well as a complete cessation of municipal sewage outfall. Also, a source of fresh water, a flushing tunnel, would be required to supply a current to the Creek or it will just stay stagnant. The brownfields of the former industrial sites on both sides would then need to be sanitarily capped using the same technologies which seal the surface of garbage landfills. Funding for a project of this scale would most likely necessitate federal Superfund status for the Newtown Creek watershed (which ultimately includes the east side of Manhattan and the north coast of Brooklyn, as well as all of northwest Queens).

Sample plans for this herculean effort are discussed here, and here. At the moment, this seems like the way forward. We favor this one officially at the Pentacle, because we live here, and because it involves science. Of course, every generation has had its own plan to clean up the Creek. Personally, I don’t see superfund coming though, because trillions of dollars of real estate would be devalued by the process. Which beggars the question- Without federal money, who gets to pay to clean up Newtown Creek?

B- Municipal Sacrifice zone

Down under the Kosciuszko bridge -DUKBO -photo by Mitch Waxman

The period of time during which the United States nuclear program was involved in the cold war gave birth to the notion of “a national sacrifice zone“, defining areas too expensive to clean up, or areas like the Los Alamos nuclear testing zone which are hopelessly lethal to human life. 

Leave Newtown Creek the way it stands right now, and continue to focus the dirty and vital industries of New York City here- the recycling and garbage trade, trucking and warehousing operations, the petrochemical industry- in an area that’s already hopelessly and irredeemably polluted. Build power plants and sewage treatment plants of unparalleled size.

If this was the option (which it seems to have been for much of the 20th century), then all new residential construction in this red zone needs to be stopped immediately, and all the new population concentrations at Hunters Point and Greenpoint- and plans for further construction in East Williamsburg and Bushwick- foreseen by PlaNYC 2030 need to be reconsidered. The positives of this plan would be that for all its sins- a lot of otherwise unemployable people will find work here, no new wetlands will be lost, and the Newtown Creek (even today) is a huge earner.

This is the least favorable option, obviously, as it ensures that the children of the Newtown Pentacle will continue to live in a polluted urban distopia and its photographers will continue to marvel at floating pieces of poop.

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 19, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Posted in newtown creek

6 Responses

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  1. When I was young, the Singapore River was a black, oily, putrid swathe of water whose stench would attack your nostrils long before you saw the water.

    Diesel powered bumboats chugged back and forth loaded with goods bound for ramshackle 3-story godowns lining the banks. As industry modernized and shipping moved to a shiny new container port on the other side of the island, the area began to die. The polluted waters of the river however, remained.

    When the Singapore government announced the plan to clean up the river and turn it into a recreational, retail and marina district, I like many of my fellow citizens considered the idea folly. The Singapore River is dead, we said. Everyone was skeptical that this herculean task could be accomplished.

    It took 10 years. Only 10. And, a boatload of money and commitment. Fish swim again in the Singapore River. Tourists come in droves to frolic along its banks; eating, drinking, dancing.

    I drink in the smell of the river now.


    July 19, 2009 at 1:44 pm

  2. […] the past, the desolating loneliness and isolation which define my internal dialogue have been described to you simply – I’m all ‘effed […]

  3. […] everyday and ordinary experiences which are mundane occurrences for everyone else. The impression that I think I’m somehow special would be erroneous however, as this is more curse than […]

  4. […] that’s me! Point by point! […]

  5. […] – the Grand Street Bridge is suddenly risen above the Newtown Creek’s miasmic banks- and your humble narrator falls unabashedly to the tainted ground before it. This is a standing stone, an ancient artifact, […]

  6. […] tour did), as we are limited by time and schedule, but will definitely include DUPBO, DUGABO, DUKBO, and approach the 3.1 mile mark at the Grand Street Bridge […]

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