The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

skeptical, cynical, and disinclined

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Note: This is another one of my “notebook” postings, which are often a little unfinished. When I’m studying something, all sources are initially considered, and sometimes a blind alley or false lead turns out to be wrong. I’m studying Greenpoint at the moment, not unlike the “Bloody Sixth Ward” posts that were presented a few months ago.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Another one of those little observations which serves to shock and stun the more recently arrived and strictly modern populations of the ancient cities found along the Newtown Creek, municipalities like Greenpoint or Long Island City, is that both long time residents and newcomers alike fish in these waters and consume their catches. Same thing happens along the Hudson, of course, and often it is financial necessity which demands that even suspect sources of protein such as those organisms routinely observed in New York Harbor make it to the dinner table. My Dad used to go crabbing along Fresh Creek, for instance, and off the Canarsie Pier.

According to the EPA, fish caught in Newtown Creek have been observed to be offered on neighborhood restaurant menus, so not everything that wriggles out of the water is meant for personal consumption.

It’s also fun, a chance to hang out at the waterfront with friends, as in the case of the anglers pictured above- a group of good natured Greenpointers who were exploiting (as I was) an open street end bulkhead on Kent Street, just off West. Don’t bother looking for it, or them, as fences have been thrown up around this spot at the end of the summer and it is no longer accessible by the general public.

from nycgovparks.org

When European mariners arrived here in the 17th century, they called the entire peninsula “Greenpoint” because of a grassy bluff on the bank of the East River. The Dutch bought Greenpoint, including what would become Williamsburg and Bushwick-Ridgewood, from the Keskachauge in 1638 and named it Boswijck (Bushwick) Township. A Scandinavian ship’s carpenter, Dirck Volckertsen, acquired Greenpoint from the Dutch in 1645. The land then passed to a Dutch military captain, Pieter Praa, and afterwards to an inventor and industrialist, Neziah Bliss.

For almost two centuries, the area thrived agriculturally and remained isolated from the rest of the region. At the time of the Revolutionary War, only five families lived in the Greenpoint area. Annetti Bennett, Pieter Praa’s daughter, and her husband Jacob built the first house near the playground site. This house was close to present-day Clay Street, between Manhattan Avenue and Franklin Street. The first road was built in Greenpoint in 1838, and a regular ferry service followed soon after.

When Greenpoint’s streets were further laid out in the mid-19th century, they received a letter designation in alphabetical order, running roughly southeast starting with A Street and ending with O Street. Many neighborhood residents did not like these initial names, and the streets were renamed with more colorful names, while keeping pattern. A Street became Ash Street, followed by Box, Clay, DuPont, Eagle, Freeman, Green, Huron, India, Java, Kent, Lincoln, Milton, Noble, and Oak. Lincoln Street was later changed to Greenpoint Avenue.

Industrialization and an influx of residents soon followed, flooding the newly laid streets. The area became known for shipbuilding, as well as for what were known as the five “black” arts: printing, oil refining, cast iron manufacturing, and glass and pottery making. By 1875, more than 50 oil refineries were located in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick. Charles Pratt’s great Astral Oil Works were located along nearby Newtown Creek. Notable products from Greenpoint include the first ironclad warship, The Monitor, built by Thomas Rowland’s Continental Ironworks at Calyer and West Streets. Examples of the wrought ironwork created during that period can still be seen in the details of Greenpoint residences and businesses today. Immigrants from Ireland, England, Russia, Italy, and Poland crowded into Greenpoint during the late 1800s to work in the factories.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Kent is just down the riverfront from Java street. The duo in the right corner of the shot above are actually sitting on the bulkheaded shoreline of Java, which was the location of the Meserole House- once found on the East River shoreline between India and the aforementioned Java street.

The Meseroles were one of the original Dutch families which populated Greenpoint, and were crazily well off by the financial standards of the time. In 1810, one of their descent- one Mary A. Meserole- married a particularly important person in Greenpoint (and Queens) history- the yankee engineer Neziah Bliss, and this is where their home once stood.

Bliss, of course, was a superintendent of the Novelty Iron Works in Manhattan and was instrumental in laying out the early roads that connected post colonial Greenpoint with the larger towns of Brooklyn and Queens, and ne of the fathers of the industrial city which would emerge later in the century.

from nyc.gov

Greenpoint is generally defined as the district bounded by North 7 Street on the south, the East River on the West, Newton Creek on the north and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway on the east, corresponding approximately to the area of ward 17 in the 19 century. th

Once also known as Cherry Point, Greenpoint, got its name from the eponymous spit of grassy land that extended into the East River near the foot of what later became Freeman Street. The name came to designate all of the 17 ward when Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Williamsburg were joined to Brooklyn in 1854. At that time, the 17 ward was home to approximately 15,000 inhabitants. A sandy bluff, over one hundred feet high in some parts, overlooked the shoreline between Java and Milton Streets, but it was leveled before the middle of the 19 century for use as building material and landfill both in New York and locally. The original Greenpoint spit disappeared between 1855 and 1868 when the western half of the blocks along the once white sandy shoreline west of West Street were created by landfilling. During this period, the blocks west of Commerce Street between Ash and Eagle Streets were also created or in the process of being filled.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

By the late 19th century, and the first half of the 20th, this part of Brooklyn was defined by heavy industry and maritime interests. Vast agglutinations of what Dickens or Milton might have described as “dark satanic mills” lined the shore, until they were crowded out by the growing petrochemical industry. In the case of this locale, Kent Street that is, it was Jones’ Lumber Yard. The shot above is from a couple of blocks away near the remains of the Brooklyn Terminal Market around Noble Street complex, exhibited just for context.

also from nyc.gov

For Greenpointers in the first half of the 19 century, the waterfront was a place for both work and play. Before oil refineries lined the shore, the waters of Newtown Creek were ideal for boating, fishing and swimming. At the mouth of the creek, where it joins the East River, Pottery Beach, named for early pottery works that operated there, was a favorite place for swimming. Above the beach rose Pottery Hill, where spectators gathered to watch the start of yacht races up the East River. At other times, thousands lined both sides of the creek to watch oarsmen race their sculls from the Manhattan Avenue Bridge to the Penny Bridge at Meeker Avenue, two bridges that no longer exist.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Friends who grew up here warn me not to talk with people you might meet along the waterfront, lest I find out more about the ancient place than is desirable, and that the whole stretch of West Street was once a stupidly dangerous place to be at any time of day- but especially at night.

One buddy of mine, a highly corruptible italian irish hybrid employed by certain union interests, swears that the entirety of the East River waterfront in Greenpoint is haunted- “and I mean effin ghosts- bro- izz-all-fockt-up down there”. He describes odd shadows cast by impossible forms, and half imagined faces that appear in the flash of automobile headlamps.

Greenpoint is a very, very strange place- apparently.

and finally, also from nyc.gov

Another important shipbuilder of the time was John Englis of New York City, who established a ship yard on the Greenpoint river front between Java and Kent Streets. He manufactured some of the ships that were used in the blockade of the Confederate states during the Civil War; vessels for the China trade, and passenger steamers. Englis’ shipyard, established in 1850, endured until 1911. The Sneeden and Rowland shipyard, formed as a partnership between Thomas Fitch Rowland and Samuel Sneeden in 1859, was also located along the East River waterfront. The first contact awarded to Sneeden and Rowland was for the manufacture of the wrought-and cast-iron pipes, 7½ feet in diameter, to carry the water over the Highbridge Aqueduct of the Croton system. The partnership was dissolved in 1860, and Rowland reorganized the company, renaming it the Continental Works.

Written by Mitch Waxman

October 7, 2010 at 4:17 pm

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