The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

horrible and unearthly ululations…

with 6 comments

– photo by Mitch Waxman (from the Queens Museum of Art’s “Panorama of the City of New York”)

Loathsomeness awaits, in the deep.

At the end of the Pleistocene, when the ice of the Wisconsinan glaciation was at last defeated by ocean and sun, the rubble which spilled from its ruptured facings piled up to form the terminal moraine of a cyclopean coastal sandbar, as well as many smaller islands. The torrents of flowing mud and water – acting in the manner of icy Lahars– interacted with this loose fill of titan boulders and frosty soil, amalgamating around stoney knobs of bedrock. These rough bits of rock, exposed by the motive traction exacted by ten thousand years of mile high ice, formed and agglutinated into an archipelago and estuary familiar to modernity as New York Harbor.

At the western tip of the sandbar, which european cartography called Long Island, an arabesque web of waterways was carved out of this turbulent tidal and river environment.

Welcome to the Newtown Creek.

from wikipedia

The Wisconsin Glacial Episode was the last major advance of continental glaciers in the North American Laurentide ice sheet. This glaciation is made of three glacial maxima (sometimes mistakenly called ice ages) separated by interglacial warm periods (such as the one we are living in). These glacial maxima are called, from oldest to youngest, Tahoe, Tenaya and Tioga. The Tahoe reached its maximum extent perhaps about 70,000 years ago, perhaps as a byproduct of the Toba super eruption. Little is known about the Tenaya. The Tioga was the least severe and last of the Wisconsin Episode. It began about 30,000 years ago, reached its greatest advance 21,000 years ago, and ended about 10,000 years ago. At the height of glaciation the Bering land bridge permitted migration of mammals such as humans to North America from Siberia.

It radically altered the geography of North America north of the Ohio River. At the height of the Wisconsin Episode glaciation, ice covered most of Canada, the Upper Midwest, and New England, as well as parts of Montana and Washington. On Kelleys Island in Lake Erie or in New York’s Central Park, the grooves left by these glaciers can be easily observed. In southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta a suture zone between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets formed the Cypress Hills, which is the northernmost point in North America that remained south of the continental ice sheets.

The Great Lakes are the result of glacial scour and pooling of meltwater at the rim of the receding ice. When the enormous mass of the continental ice sheet retreated, the Great Lakes began gradually moving south due to isostatic rebound of the north shore. Niagara Falls is also a product of the glaciation, as is the course of the Ohio River, which largely supplanted the prior Teays River.

With the assistance of several very large glacial lakes, it carved the gorge now known as the Upper Mississippi River, filling into the Driftless Area and probably creating an annual ice-dam-burst.

In its retreat, the Wisconsin Episode glaciation left terminal moraines that form Long Island, Block Island, Cape Cod, Nomans Land, Marthas Vineyard, and Nantucket, and the Oak Ridges Moraine in south central Ontario, Canada. In Wisconsin itself, it left the Kettle Moraine. The drumlins and eskers formed at its melting edge are landmarks of the Lower Connecticut River Valley.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (from the Queens Museum of Art’s “Panorama of the City of New York”)

3.8 miles long, its mouth is directly opposite the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in Manhattan, and defines the currently undefended border between North Brooklyn and Western Queens. Estimates state that some 14 million gallons of combined sewage, storm runoff, and industrial waste provide the only flow of water into the Creek. It’s waters are opaque, and in the height of summer turn an unnatural shade of green.

The soft bottom of the waterway is 15-20 feet below the surface of the water, and the hard bottom is occluded by a gelatinous sediment known as “Black Mayonnaise”. Composed of petroleum residues, coal tar, PCB’s, and human excrement- it lies 15 feet thick on the bed. The oxygen content of the water drops precipitously as soon as one leaves the East River. The first of the drawbridges which cross it- known as the Pulaski Bridge, is the borderline beyond which immersion in this water is worthy of full HAZMAT gear and first responders institute biological decontamination procedures for anyone who finds themselves in it.

As I’ve mentioned in the past… the chemicals Putrescine (an organic chemical compound NH2(CH2)4NH2 (1,4-diaminobutane or butanediamine) and Cadaverine (a toxic diamine with the formula NH2(CH2)5NH2) which are produced by the rotting and putrefaction of animal flesh are abundantly found in the Newtown Creek under industrial aliases like Acrylonitrile and are prominent members on the EPA’s list of Volatile Organic Compounds– or VOC’s..

Who can guess, what it is, that may be buried down there?

from brookhaven national laboratories

Sediments from the New York/New Jersey Harborareas are dredged routinely to maintain navigable water depths for shipping channels and berthing areas to facilitate commerce and safe navigation. Historically, the dredged materials was disposed in the ocean. However, ocean disposal has been restricted due to greater regulatory restrictions on contaminant concentrations in the dredged sediments. The dredged sediments typically contain elevated levels of metals, polynuclear aromatichydrocarbons (PAHs) (tars, oils, fuels) polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorinated pesticides and herbicides, dioxins (PCDDs), andfurans (PCDFs) as shown in Table 1-1[l] for Newtown Creek. Table 1-1, included at the end of this section, lists both the range previously available from the Request for Proposal and the average of six samples available to date for the treatability studies.The actual sediment used for the test was a black mayonnaise-like paste that contained few particles (or 0.2% on dry basis) greater than 2 mm, and exhibited an oily, foul odor.

BNL and other governmental federal and state agencies are in the process of developing risk-based and/or specific clean-up standards for the various locations where the treated sediment products are to be used. These standards are likely to be related to the soil clean-up criteria used based on direct soil contact (residential and non-residential) and/or impact to groundwater. For example, Appendix A contains the current soil clean-up criteria used by the State of New Jersey and the Maximum Concentration of Contaminants for the Toxicity Characteristic. Based on the sediment from Newtown Creek and the soil clean-up criteria for direct soil contact, some contaminants already meet the clean-up criteria while some need up to one or two orders-of-magnitude removal. The TCLP values for the Newtown Creek sediment are below the maximum toxicity characteristic value.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There are 5 major vehicular traffic bridges which hurtle over the Newtown Creek, 3 of which are drawbridges and one is a non functioning swing bridge. It’s tributary branches are also crossed by a variety of other spans, from the high flying Queens Midtown Expressway section of the Long Island Expressway and the grade level Hunter’s Point Avenue drawbridge to the Borden Avenue retractile bridge over the Dutch Kills. Additionally, atavist rail bridges and trackbeds stretch from no longer existing car docks at Hunters Point to the massive rail terminals and switchings in Maspeth and lead to points further East. Municipal neglect has rendered many of these bridges dangerously decayed, non functional, or dangerous to operate. Once, this was the busiest industrial waterway in North America.

A spate of emergency repairs and reconstructions was conducted in the 1980’s and 90’s to shore up these crossings. For instance, the 1910 Hunter’s Point Avenue Bridge, originally a double leaf bascule design like the Pulaski, was replaced by a single leaf design and in 1987- the 1929 Greenpoint Avenue Bridge was rebuilt- and the 1959 Pulaski was rebuilt in the early 1990’s.


The Pulaski Bridge, which carries six lanes of traffic and a pedestrian sidewalk over Newton Creek and the Long Island Expressway, is orientated north-south and connects Greenpoint in Brooklyn to Long Island City in Queens. McGuinness Boulevard approaches the bridge from the south and Eleventh Street from the north. The Pulaski Bridge is a 54m double leaf, trunnion type bascule bridge. It has two 10.5m roadways divided by a concrete median barrier. It also carries a 2.7m pedestrian sidewalk. The bridge provides a channel with a horizontal clearance of 45.7m and a vertical clearance of 11.9m in the closed position at MHW and 13m MLW.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There is a “colour” observed around the Newtown Creek. An iridescent sheen which seems to have been drawn from a palette not of this earth, rather it is best described as looking like some “Colour out of space“. Observable on every oil soaked cobblestone which pushes up through the asphalt, and pulsing through thorny vines which line the rotting bulkheads and sway against the putrid breeze, this colour is only the visible manifestation of a detestable lament which has infected the land and percolates in the swampy underworld hidden by piling and cement some 10-20 feet beneath the so called land. Wild catalogs of chemical compounds congeal in unknowable combinations, pooling in vast subterrene chambers and mixing with an underground water table that feed the sickly trees lining area streets.

Fish and invertebrates harvested from the Newtown Creek display open sores, unexplained tumors, and queerly mutated organs. Weird eyeless things can be seen wriggling in the filth, at low tide.

The surface of the water has tested positive for a variety of bacterial specie including Gonorrhea, Typhus, and Cholera.


“Newtown Creek is one of the most grossly-contaminated waterways in the country,” said Acting Regional Administrator George Pavlou. “By listing the creek, EPA can focus on doing the extensive sampling needed to figure out the best way to address the contamination and see the work through.”

EPA responded to requests by members of Congress to evaluate specific sites along the creek by publishing a September 2007 report that contained a review of past work and recommendations regarding future work at Newtown Creek. The state of New York referred the site to EPA due to the complex nature of the contamination along the creek.

Newtown Creek is part of the core area of the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary, which has been designated by EPA as an “estuary of national significance.” Despite the ongoing pollution problems, some residents currently use the creek for recreational purposes such as kayaking, while others catch fish for consumption out of it. Various sediment and surface water samples have been taken along the creek and reveal the presence of pesticides, metals, PCBs, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are potentially harmful contaminants that can easily evaporate into the air.

In the mid -1800s, the area adjacent to the 3.8-mile Newtown Creek was one of the busiest hubs of industrial activity in New York City. More than 50 industrial facilities were located along its banks, including oil refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizer and glue factories, sawmills, and lumber and coal yards. The creek was crowded with commercial vessels, including large boats bringing in raw materials and fuel and taking out oil, chemicals and metals. In addition to the industrial pollution that resulted from all of this activity, the city began dumping raw sewage directly into the water in 1856. During World War II, the creek was one of the busiest ports in the nation. Some factories and facilities still operate along it, and various adjacent contaminated sites have contributed to its contamination. Today, as a result of its industrial history, including countless spills, Newtown Creek is badly polluted.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The northern bank of the Newtown Creek forms the border of Long Island City, and swirls through Laurel Hill (or Blissville), Sunnyside, Ridgewood, and Maspeth in Queens. The southern bank in Brooklyn is dominated by the ancient cities of Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Williamsburg.

from wikipedia

Greenpoint was originally inhabited by Keskachauge (Keshaechqueren) Indians, a sub-tribe of the Lenape. Contemporary accounts describe it as remarkably verdant and beautiful, with Jack pine and oak forest, meadows, fresh water creeks and briny marshes. Water fowl and fish were abundant. The name originally referred to a small bluff of land jutting into the East River at what is now the westernmost end of Freeman Street, but eventually came to describe the whole peninsula.

In 1638 the Dutch West India Company negotiated the right to settle Brooklyn from the Lenape. The first recorded European settler of what is now Greenpoint was Dirck Volckertsen (Dutchified from Holgerssøn), a Norwegian immigrant who in 1645 built a one-and-a-half story farmhouse there with the help of two Dutch carpenters. It was in the contemporary Dutch style just west of what is now the intersection of Calyer St. and Franklin Street. There he planted orchards and raised crops, sheep and cattle. He was called Dirck de Noorman by the Dutch colonists of the region, Noorman being the Dutch word for “Norseman” or “Northman.”

Written by Mitch Waxman

February 28, 2010 at 5:51 am

6 Responses

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  1. […] continues… for the first installment, from the mouth at the East River to the Pulaski Bridge, click here. For more on just the Pulaski Bridge, click […]

  2. […] first installment, from the mouth of the Newtown Creek at the East River to the Pulaski Bridge, click here. For more on just the Pulaski Bridge, click […]

  3. […] can smell it in the air, whether the breeze is coming off the Newtown Creek or Big Allis. A disconcerting sense of change, with long time residents being swept away by […]

  4. […] can smell it in the air, whether the breeze is coming off the Newtown Creek or Big Allis. A disconcerting sense of change, with long time residents being swept away by […]

  5. […] from a Newtown Pentacle post of 2/28/10: […]

  6. […] release of the first Newtown Pentacle book- Newtown Creek for the vulgarly curious) and “horrible and unearthly ululations…” was the first of several posts which attempted to boil complicated and obscure snippets of […]

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