The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Archive for February 15th, 2012

demoniac alteration

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Fiery concatenation and syncopated horror haunt my steps whenever visting DUKBO.

Sarcastic and conceit laden, the label I give to this place is nevertheless apropos, for it is very much Down Under the Kosciuszko Bridge Onramp.

Welcome to DUKBO on the Brooklyn side of Newtown Creek- beneath the thrice damned Kosciuszko Bridge. It’s the sort of place which might best be described as either an “M1 industrial zone” or as a “literal hell on earth”.

Either way, it has been like this around here since around the Civil War.

from Harper’s weekly, Volume 38, 1894- courtesy Google books


The city of Brooklyn, having purged itself of the malodorous political institutions that were so long a blot upon its southern border, might well turn its attention to some nuisances of a more literally malodorous kind that flourish along its northern border, a detailed description of which will be found in another column of the Weekly’. It appears that in an early day the valley of Newtown Creek, which is the boundary between Kings and Queens counties, was selected by various manufacturers as an eligible site for the location of factories. The location was then far on the outskirts of the city, and no doubt quite unobjectionable. A great variety of institutions were set iu operation here, including those useful and necessary but unpleasant factories whose purpose it is to transform the animal refuse of a city into merchantable produce. The gases generated by these factories had an odor almost unendurable, as any one can testify who was accustomed to travel on the Long Island Railroad from the Thirty-fourth Street ferry in years gone by.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Elucidating on J. Rosenberg’s “model tallow rendering factory”, or the infamous Night Soil Dock of Conrad Wissell, or the extant nightmares of the Kings County Chemical works would be superfluous if describing the 19th century industries located on either side of the Newtown Creek as “dirty”.

They were good guys, who at least attempted to reform their industrial practices. It was the smaller operators in the distillery and fat rendering trades who were truly vile, at least according to the historical record.

Describing the transport and storage of rotting butchers scrap, animal waste, rotten eggs, and dead horses- all of which sat stinking in the summer sun while waiting to be weighed by the rendering plant bosses- or envisioning the attendant plagues of insect and rodentine vermin which followed these redolent piles (whose numbers were checked only by the acid rain and those environmental calamities which were caused by unregulated petroleum and chemical interests) from points all over the cities of Brooklyn, Long Island City, and New York would surely be a form of macabre and historical pornography.

However, that’s what the businesses here used as raw materials.

from The Sanitary Era, Volume 1, 1887, courtesy google books

Newtown Creek — No city in the Union has so foul a pest hole at its boundaries as Brooklyn. The sludge acid discharged from the works of the Standard Oil Company seems to possess an ominous potency for stirring up the sewage in the creek, and its black and thickened current seethes with bubbles of sulphuretted hydrogen. The shores, banked with this acid and with nameless filth, empoison the atmosphere at low water, while every rising tide seems to free a new supply of sludge. When to the oil industry is added the manufacture of fertilizers and a plenitude of pigs along Queens County shore, the sources of supply for a great nuisance or a grievous plague are discernible to all but official eyes and nostrils. Newtown Creek should be filled up, though not with sludge acid, and the nuisance makers removed to a distance. Our, Health Commissioner is authority for the statement that “You might as well try to fight the devil as the Standard Oil Company.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There have always been jobs here, the sort of jobs which those who cannot find employment in conventional occupations covet. Topical observation of the area reveals the modern presence of scrap yards, abattoirs, warehouse and trucking concerns, and light manufacturing facilities. Of course, the gargantuan National Grid property is nearby, but that’s a horse of a different shade.

There are a LOT of scrap yards in this little slice, this angle between the neighborhoods of Greenpoint and East Williamsburg, which creates a concentrating point for heavy metals. Of course, this is still preferable to the lagoons of sludge acid and animal waste which distinguished the place 100 years ago.

from The City record, Volume 6, Part 4, 1878, courtesy google books

Newtown Creek for many years has been a source of nuisance. It receives the contents of several of the large sewers ot Brooklyn. From above Penny Bridge to the East river are factories of various descriptions, oil refiners, fat inciters, gut cleaners, distilleries, car stables, super-phosphate factories, ammonia works, varnish works, and last, but not least, immense piles of stable manure, stored for future shipment, the refuse from all of which runs into the creek, and polluting the waters to such an extent as to have killed all the fish.

At low tide acres of land, covered to the depth of several inches with fat, the refuse of the oil-stills, are exposed. At high tide the oily portion of this refuse floats on the surface of the water, still giving forth its characteristic tarry odor. To add to this, many oil works, when the storage tanks are full, run their waste alkali and even their sludge-acid into the creek; in the latter case giving rise to the well known sludge smell.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Faceless, those who labor here find themselves stained with “the colour”, an iridescent sheen permeating the Creeklands that no known detergent can easily remove. These laborers are exposed to precipitate from the endless truck and automotive traffic passing by on the highway and bridge above, a dusty particulate rises from tire shattered roadways, and the very air they breathe is a poisonous fume of industrial chemicals and spent fuel. Live poultry concerns, some quite large, maintain depots here as well. The birds, like the workers, quickly display the colour.

This colour is like no earthly hue, rather it is like something from out of space, and a stark contrast to the Shining City of the western horizon just a few miles away.


THE NUISANCES MUST GO; Gov. Flower Says that Newtown Creek Must Be Purified. FIVE FACTORIES ORDERED CLOSED Private Business Not to be Allowed to Jeopardize the Health of Brooklyn and Long Island City

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