The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

tears of long weeping

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Your humble narrator, afflicted by vast physical cowardice and a strangely shy nature, rather enjoys visiting the location of an auspicious event long after its danger has faded away.

The event- an apocalyptic fire at the Sone and Fleming refinery in 1919 (seriously, click this link and check out the NYTimes report on this) that consumed a large chunk of the Greenpoint waterfront- drew me there some 90+ years after the fact. Of course, the Exxon facility which is handling the remediation of the great Greenpoint Oil spill is directly across the street from the structure pictured above, and stands on the site of the old Standard Oil yard which was immolated by that self same 1919 fire.

from a crainsnewyork report of June 25, 2010

Kalmon Dolgin also arranged the sale of an 114,000-square-foot development site at 365 Kingsland Ave., also in the area, for $10 million. Mr. Dolgin, along with his colleagues Mr. Nicholas and Jean Cook, represented both seller Broadway Stages and buyer Kingsland 359 LLC in the sale.

The property features a 20,000-square-foot building on a plot of 114,000 square feet zoned for industrial use. It was previously used for the parking and storing of trucks. The new owners who purchased the property plan to continue to use the site as an industrial storage facility.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The colour is impossible to ignore in this part of hoary Greenpoint, with its long industrial history and shadowed past. Iridescent, it is neither black nor gray, and this colour- like something out of space- seems to coat every sickly tree limb and worm eaten pilaster. The splendid isolation which is always supplied by the creeklands on the weekend is absent here, and one has the sense of being watched by hidden eyes. Perhaps it is just the security men, but intuitions suggest that some malefic presence or supernal intelligence is nearby, however that’s just ridiculous and paranoid.

from nysdecgreenpoint.com

The former ExxonMobil terminal is located at 400 Kingsland Avenue. The property is bordered by Newtown Creek to the east, various Norman and Kingsland Avenue businesses to the south, Kingsland Avenue to the west and the 460 Greenpoint Avenue property to the north. Two additional properties are also associated with the former ExxonMobil terminal property, the Monitor yard (located west of the terminal property between Kingsland Avenue and Monitor Street) and the North Henry Yard (located west of the Monitor yard between Monitor and North Henry Streets).

By 1892, five of the petroleum refineries in the Greenpoint area (Central Refining, Washington Oil Company, Kings Company Oil Refining, Empire Refining Company, and The Deove Manufacturing Brooklyn Oil Works) were purchased and became known as the Standard Oil Trust. In 1911, the Standard Oil Trust was dissolved and these properties became the Standard Oil Company of New York (SOCONY) and by 1929, had expanded to over 79 acres along Newtown Creek, including the property currently owned by BP. In 1931, SOCONY merged with the Vacuum Oil Company, which later became Mobil, and now is known as ExxonMobil. ExxonMobil ceased its refining operations in 1966 and in 1968, sold a portion of their property to Amoco Oil Company (Amoco) and other entities. Following the discovery of petroleum products seeping into Newtown Creek in 1978, ExxonMobil began to investigate and remediate the plume, and by 1993, had discontinued all fuel operations on the terminal property. In 2007, ExxonMobil removed the empty above ground storage tanks associated with its former refinery operations and is currently in the process of excavating and removing all underground piping from the former terminal property.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

When I let my imagination wander, on these long pilgrimages across this Newtown Pentacle, it often drifts to those days when the degenerate Dutch controlled the land we call Greenpoint.

from bklyn-genealogy-info.com

In these early days the houses were heated by great wide open fire places in the living room. This was the place where the food was prepared and eaten and where the family in the evening gathered about the fire place, warmed themselves at the great log fire, and discussed family, social, and political affairs.  The casual caller was entertained at this hospitable fire place. Wood was the only fuel and every farm had its wood lot. For the fire a huge back log was rolled into place, then smaller logs about six feet in length would be piled in front and on top of the back log. A roaring fire could easily be kept going to make the entire house comfortably warm except in bitter winter weather.

Each house had its outdoor oven in which the busy housewife could easily bake a dozen loaves of bread or as many pies at a time. The vigorous outdoor life was conducive to healthy appetites, but these Dutch families were all good providers. Large families were also the rule. This sparsely settled section gave small opportunity for social life. The farms were large and widely separated and the church and store a great distance away. The gallants who sued for the favor of the several daughters of Pieter PRAA and Maria Hay must have been rowed up and across the East River by their slaves in order to do their courting. All these daughters married merchants or professional men from across the river.

Prior to 1824 nearly all Dutch families were slave holders. Pieter PRAA was the owner of quite a number and in his will he provided that each slave should choose among which of the children he desired to serve. To his body servant. Jack, was given by terms of the will an island, a part of which is now Long Island City and which was known for more than a century later as “Jack’s Island.” Although not a large island it was sufficiently large for his maintenance.  The Dutch enjoyed a reputation of treating their slaves with consideration. Although the act of 1824 freed all slaves in New York State, these black servants continued to regard themselves as members of the household to which they had formerly belonged. Many of these slaves had been brought up to a trade and there was work in abundance for all.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Its not the official story that I ponder, of course, and instead focus on the fascinating intercourse of cultures that must have happened amongst the working folk. Remember, historical records from the 17th and 16th centuries pay particular attention to the masters- not their slaves. What syncretic beliefs emerged in this place amongst the poor and working classes, with its admixture of religion and folk tradition combed together from far flung sources all over the Dutch trading empire, which stretched from the Americas through Europe and Africa and even included far off Pohnpei?

from slavenorth.com

Between 1636 and 1646 the price of able-bodied men in New Netherland rose about 300 percent. By 1660, slaves from Angola were selling for 300 guilders and those from Curaçao for about 100 guilders more. By the time the British took over the colony in 1664, slaves sold in New Amsterdam for up to 600 guilders. This was still a discount of roughly 10 percent over what they would have brought in the plantation colonies, but the West India Company had been subsidizing slavery in New Netherland to promote its economic progress. The Hudson Valley, where the land was monopolized in huge patroon estates that discouraged free immigration, especially relied on slaves.

The purely economic status of slaves in New Netherland contrasted with the malignant and sometimes bizarre racism of the religious British citizens who followed the Dutch into the north Atlantic colonies. Free blacks in New Netherland were trusted to serve in the militias, and slaves, given arms, helped to defend the settlement during the desperate Indian war of 1641-44. They were even used to put down the Rensselaerswyck revolt of white tenants. Blacks and whites had coequal standing in the colonial courts, and free blacks were allowed to own property (Jews, however, were not). They intermarried freely with whites and in some cases owned white indentured servants.

Slaves who had worked diligently for the company for a certain length of time were granted a “half-freedom” that allowed them liberty in exchange for an annual tribute to the company and a promise to work at certain times on company projects such as fortifications or public works. Individual slaveowners, such as Director General Peter Stuyvesant, adopted this system as well, and it enabled them to be free of the cost and nuisance of owning slaves year-round that they could only use in certain seasons. For the slaves, half-freedom was better than none at all.

Written by Mitch Waxman

October 12, 2010 at 11:19 pm

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