The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Archive for June 21st, 2012

greater reality

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

The opportunity to visit the NYC DEP Manhattan Pump House on the Lower East Side of the Shining City drew me to the center of the human infestation in the desperate manner of an opiate addict.

The Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee is a community group which provides input and access to the people of Greenpoint in matters related to the reconstruction and operations of the Newtown Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant in Brooklyn. Despite geographic and political boundaries, the pump house is an integral part of that facility and has been undergoing its own upgrade and reconstruction.


DEP meets monthly with the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee (NCMC), a committee of volunteers from the Greenpoint community, which was established in 1996 pursuant to a City Council resolution allowing the City to acquire property required for the upgrade of Newtown Creek WWTP. NCMC members are appointed by the local City Council member, the Brooklyn Borough President and Brooklyn Community Board #1. NCMC, with the assistance of its technical consultant, reviews and makes recommendations about activities associated with the treatment plant upgrade in order to mitigate potential impacts to the Greenpoint Community. NCMC worked with DEP to identify and design community amenities such as the Nature Walk, and is one of the longest standing citizen oversight committees in New York City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Vast trunk line pipes underlie Manhattan and carry waste water from storm water cisterns and weirs as well as residential sewage. Every cleaning chemical, medicinal formulation, or cold cup of coffee which goes down the drain is agglutinated and homogenized into the flow, all of it headed for a relatively small building sited between a power plant and a city housing project.

Titan works exist hidden here, and the part of the structure visible from street grade elevations are merely the tip of a finger.


The Avenue D Pump Station (also known as the 13th Street Pump Station or more commonly the Manhattan Pump Station)  is currently being upgraded as part of the Newtown Creek Upgrade Project.  The Manhattan Pump Station provides the Newtown Creek WPCP with more than half of its flow, 155 million gallons per day (mgd) for treatment.  The pump station was put into service in 1965 and is currently undergoing a total reconstruction upgrade.  As part of this upgrade, the station will receive five(5) new 2,500 horsepower motors controlled by energy efficient Variable Frequency Drives, new screening equipment, a full emergency power generation system, and an architectural façade.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

At the lowest levels of the place, one will find the elephantine plumbing which quietly accomplishes the expurgation of Manhattan’s waste. Hidden behind masonry and cement, a multi million gallon tank allows for the orderly disposition of the waste water into the subaqueous piping which carries it across the East River and into Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Our group moved through the facility, visiting several specialized levels and chambers.

The guide for the journey was none other than Jim Pynn of the DEP, an engineer who is superintendent of the ongoing reconstruction project on the larger facility in Brooklyn.


Jim Pynn is the Plant Superintendent for the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment plant in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Jim, a lifelong Brooklynite, has worked at DEP for nearly 36 years. He enjoys the daily challenge of working at a venue that taps into his high energy and his ability to multi-task. There is no such thing as a routine day. “In addition to regular work with the staff here at the plant,” Jim said, “my day can begin with a meeting with construction contractors, engineers and architects, followed by a visit from a local school and end with a meeting with members of the community. I really enjoy the variety.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Ascending into it’s heights, Mr. Pynn described the function of the various caches of machinery we passed by, offering insight and experience gained during his long employment and familiarity with the construction, design, and function of the DEP infrastructure. A familiar face in Greenpoint, Mr. Pynn often leads the popular NCWWTP public tours of his plant, and he’s a charismatic and knowledgeable speaker.

He’s also a heck of a nice guy.


Although tours of the entire Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant facility are not available, we do have monthly public tours of the award-winning Digester Eggs. Please see our events calendar for the next scheduled tour.  Reservations are required.  To make a reservation on the next tour please email

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Near the end of the tour, while instructing us on the electrical backup generators installed within the structure, he announced our next stop would be the so called “Surge Tower” whose entrance was located on the buildings paramount. He warned us to prepare ourselves, and to ensure that any jewelry or eyeglasses worn by members of the group be secured.

from wikipedia

Originally, the “Lower East Side” referred to the area alongside the East River from about the Manhattan Bridge and Canal Street up to 14th Street, and roughly bounded on the west by Broadway. It included areas known today as East Village, Alphabet City, Chinatown, Bowery, Little Italy, and NoLIta.

The exact western and southern boundaries of the neighborhood are a matter of perspective – New York natives and long-time neighborhood residents, especially the Puerto Rican and black community, and the Jewish community, don’t have East Village in their vocabulary, and refer to it as the Lower East Side. The so-called debate about naming conventions typically only applies to the post-gentrification crowd. Most recent arrivals to the area, including new visitors and residents prefer to call the area north of Houston Street the East Village – a name not coined until around 1960.

Although the term today refers to the area bounded to the north by East Houston Street, parts of the East Village are still known as Loisaida, a Latino pronunciation of “Lower East Side.” Avenue C is known directly as “Loisaida” and is home to the Loisaida Festival every summer.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The tower itself, viewed from its exterior, is polished aluminum and appears banal. The roof of the tower is equipped with specialized equipment designed to reduce and eliminate the infiltration of odors into the nearby residential complexes which distinguish this long troubled section of Manhattan, once known to all New Yorkers as “Alphabet City”. Our group circled around the great cylinder, entered into a doorway, and ascended a staircase which ended at a locked door.

Keys were produced, and we entered the “Surge Tower”.

from wikipedia

Until the early 19th century, much of what is now Alphabet City was an extensive salt marsh, a type of wetland that was part of the East River ecosystem. The wetland was drained, and a patch of the river bed reclaimed, by real estate developers in the early 19th century.

Like many other neighborhoods on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Alphabet City became home to a succession of immigrant groups over the years. By the 1840s and 1850s, much of present-day Alphabet City had become known as “Kleindeutschland” or “Little Germany”; in the mid-19th century, many claimed New York to be the third-largest German-speaking city in the world, after Berlin and Vienna, with most of those German speakers residing in and around Alphabet City. In fact, Kleindeutschland is considered to have been the second substantial non-Anglophone urban ethnic enclave in United States history, after Germantown in Philadelphia.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Gaze into the maelstrom, lords and ladies, and imagine the crashing sound of water echoing within the metallic cylinder housing it. Little good can be achieved in attempting to describe its scent, which will be left unspoken. The bottom of this tank was invisible to the naked eye and swathed in primal darkness- only by setting my camera flash to its maximum setting and “throw” was the bottom rendered visible. The bright orbs you see in the shot are likely not spiritual ectoplasm nor evidence of some ghostly or supranormal presence, rather they are suspended dust and reflective particulate hanging in the air and illuminated by the actions of the strobe light.

from wikipedia

A maelstrom /ˈmeɪlstrɒm/ is a very powerful whirlpool; a large, swirling body of water. A free vortex, it has considerable downdraft. The power of tidal whirlpools tends to be exaggerated by laymen. There are virtually no stories of large ships ever being sucked into a maelstrom, although smaller craft are in danger and tsunami generated maelstroms may even threaten larger craft. Tales like those by Paul the Deacon, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe are entirely fictional.

One of the earliest uses of the Scandinavian word (malström or malstrøm) was by Edgar Allan Poe in his story “A Descent into the Maelström” (1841). In turn, the Nordic word is derived from the Dutch maelstrom, modern spelling maalstroom, from malen (to grind) and stroom (stream), to form the meaning grinding current or literally “mill-stream”, in the sense of milling (grinding) grain.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Mr. Pynn and his associate, a fellow engineer named Basil, carefully vouchsafed us as we moved around this containerized cataract. Ichor collecting, this is the duodenum of Manhattan itself, and another of the vast and hidden works which allow the occupants of that unsustainable City to convince themselves that everything is just fine.

from “A Descent into the Maelström“, by Edgar Allen Poe, courtesy wikisource

In a few minutes more, there came over the scene another radical alteration. The general surface grew somewhat more smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one, disappeared, while prodigious streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and entering into combination, took unto themselves the gyratory motion of the subsided vortices, and seemed to form the germ of another more vast. Suddenly—very suddenly—this assumed a distinct and definite existence, in a circle of more than a mile in diameter. The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.

The mountain trembled to its very base, and the rock rocked. I threw myself upon my face, and clung to the scant herbage in an excess of nervous agitation.

“This,” said I at length, to the old man—”this can be nothing else than the great whirlpool of the Maelström.”

Click for details on Mitch Waxman’s
Upcoming walking and boat tours of Newtown Creek, and Staten Island’s Kill Van Kull

June 23rd, 2012- Atlas Obscura Thirteen Steps around Dutch Kills walk (this Saturday)

for June 23rd tickets, click here for the Atlas Obscura ticketing page

June 30th, 2012- Working Harbor Committee Kill Van Kull walk

for June 30th tickets, click here for the Working Harbor Committee ticketing page

July 8th, 2012- Atlas Obscura Walking Tour- The Insalubrious Valley

for July 8th tickets, click here for the Atlas Obscura ticketing page

July 22nd, 2012- Working Harbor Committee Newtown Creek Boat Tour

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