The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

the very worm that gnaws…

with one comment

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Forays into those insidious malignities which can be found only along the storied cobbles of Greenpoint, a village of ancient days which stretches out from a long island into a tidal straight, have been committed by your humble narrator during the torrid months of summer. Blasted in the manner of some second world war set piece, the fire stricken area found along West Street fascinates, and reveals a centuries long industrial tale. This post isn’t about that though (the Greenpoint Terminal Market, that is), this is just one of those weird stories that people like to tell me.

The lumber yards and rope factories mentioned in the ubiquitous quotation below were located along this strip in the independent City of Brooklyn, in those halcyon days of the late 19th century.

from wikipedia

Greenpoint is the northernmost neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. It is bordered on the southwest by Williamsburg at the Bushwick inlet, on the southeast by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and East Williamsburg, on the north by Newtown Creek and Long Island City, Queens at the Pulaski Bridge, and on the west by the East River. Originally farmland (many of the farm owners’ family names, e.g., Meserole and Calyer, still name the streets), the residential core of Greenpoint was built on parcels divided during the 19th century, with rope factories and lumber yards lining the East River to the west, while the northeastern section along the Newtown Creek through East Williamsburg became an industrial maritime reach.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A transformative process, the elimination of these abandoned and tenantless structures- viewed from Manhattan as a drain on the tax base, and a magnetic location for the lower eschelons of Greenpoint Society to conjure deviltry and hooliganism’s, a pure waste of prime land- is under way. A few temporary tenants- mechanics and warehouse operations, artists and artisan studios might be found in certain structures- all will make way for development of private residential structures operated under the condominium or cooperative concepts. The transformation has already begun, at former pencil factories and iron foundries all along the shallow banks of the East River.

Greenpoint has always been all about real estate ultimately, all the way back to the beginning.

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. In 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.” The creek which ran by his farmhouse became known as Norman Kill (Creek); it ran into a large salt marsh and was later filled in.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My purpose in coming here from the blessed hills of raven haired Astoria- for reasons connected with that name which must not be mentioned, and my attempts at its discovery- when described to a saturnine neighbor back in that ancient village elicited him to tell me to stay away from Brooklyn’s rusting shoreline.

The older man, an octogenarian at least, described to me an occasion in the 1960’s when business obligations brought him to West Street to receive a package which had been shipped to him from behind the Iron Curtain.

Already a major percentage of the local population by then, the local Poles had developed certain underground shipping methods which allowed them material and emotional egress to a distant and politically isolated homeland, and my neighbor had contracted with some of them to import certain goods from his native Czechoslovakia. His parcel was wholesome, of course, as he was a record producer who specialized in eastern european folk music and its contents consisted of taped recordings of hundreds of hours of choral singing and wild instrumentals, as performed by Roma musicians, which he planned to sell for use as office elevator Muzak. (you actually can’t make this stuff up- I love Astoria)

The ancient Czech, already pale and wan due to advanced age and fragile health, grew whiter still when he described something he saw happening on West Street.


Dirck Volckertsen, one of the early settlers, “was known as ‘Dirck the Norman’ despite being Scandinavian.” This also seems to have confounded a number of local historians. Actually, he was called “de Noorman” precisely because he was Scandinavian. Norman/Noorman means Norseman or Northman in Dutch.

Volckertsen’s 1645 house was probably not the first house in Greenpoint either. A group of settlers, mostly of Scandinavian origin, had already settled in the area (illegally, I might add) by the time the Dutch West India Company purchased the land in 1638. Volckertsen did not secure legal title until 1645, when he may have decided to build a more substantial dwelling.

In addition, although it is not improbable that Greenpoint received its name because of its verdant appearance when viewed from the East River, the Dutch version was Hout Hoek, or Wood Point, which must have been translated into Greenpoint at a later date.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It was late in the day he said, nearly 7 p.m. during the late summer, and as any resident of Greenpoint or Long Island City knows- a bright time of high contrast, deep shadows, and crimson glare typifies the setting as that thermonuclear eye of god itself dips beyond the shield wall of that Shining City across the river of Sound.

The old man said that he saw something…

…he pretends that his english is lacking to avoid describing it in detail at this point in his telling…

…reach out of a sewer , grab at and seize upon a sleeping dog.

My witness describes the appendage as a greasy black sinewy thing with the texture of a burnt sausage, yet possessed of a hideous strength which allowed it to drag the hapless canine into the sewer and under the street. When pressed, he just says the word “vodník” to describe it and crosses himself.

Shaken by the display, my Czech informant iterates that he heard the dogs panicked barking abruptly stop, and that he has never returned to Greenpoint in all the decades since that day.

He later contacted one of the stout Slavs – via telephone- who oversaw the clandestine network that ran mail, packages, and comestibles between the Soviet world and New York City and offered an insignificant sum to deliver the present and all future shipments to my aged friends Astoria offices – an arrangement which lasted well unto the end of the Cold War and pleased both parties.

Greenpoint is a very, very strange place- apparently.


The native Keshaechqueren originally inhabited this part of Brooklyn. Dutch mercantilists and farmers, arriving in 1638, rapidly developed it into a hub of seafaring commerce. In the 1850s, the community swelled with new residents, of primarily Irish and English descent, when two ferry lines began regularly scheduled runs from the Greenpoint coastline to Manhattan’s East Side. With the almost simultaneous addition of big businesses like the shipbuilding firm Continental Iron Works and fuel provider Astral Oil Works, Greenpoint began to compete on a national level with older naval foundries in Boston and Norfolk.

From the decades following the Civil War through the 20th century, Greenpoint’s population has steadily grown. In the early 1950s, the community began to suffer strain as several waves of immigration met with limited economic opportunities in the neighborhood.

Written by Mitch Waxman

October 6, 2010 at 3:37 am

One Response

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  1. Loads of great photos here along with some pretty cool commentary. Plus I didn’t know there were so many “Down under the . . .” spots in NYC.


    October 12, 2010 at 7:13 pm

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