The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for November 2015

these views

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Welcome to the Montauk Cutoff, Long Island City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Recently, one found himself hitting the tracks just before sunrise. I was there with sanction, accompanied by an MTA employee and entirely “legal.” It should be mentioned, again, that illegal trespass is against a humble narrator’s code, and like a vampire – I need to be invited in to do my thing. You also really, really, don’t want to get caught trespassing up here by the railroad cops, by the way. You also really, really, don’t want to meet the sort of person who camps out along railroad tracks in LIC when you’re all alone in the wee hours.

The Montauk Cutoff in Long Island City was designed to connect the North Shore line with the Montauk Line. The Montauk Line uses the tracks which follow the shoreline of Newtown Creek through Queens, eventually intersecting with the Bushwick Branch and both head for the rail yard at Fresh Pond. The elevated trackway of the Montauk Cutoff crosses Skillman, 49th, 50th, 51st, and Borden Avenues, whereupon it meets a rail bridge called Cabin M which spans Newtown Creek’s tributary Dutch Kills.

The North Shore line used what are approximately the modern LIRR passenger tracks, give or take a few yards, which transverse the Sunnyside Yards and head through Woodside on their way east. The Montauk Cutoff was built for freight, as were the North Shore and Montauk Lines. Passenger service was always a loser for the LIRR. Modern day freight on the LIRR is handled by the New York & Atlantic company.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The first discussion, which I’ve been able to find at least, about building LIC’s Montauk Cutoff was in 1906 – as part of a series of railroad projects either proposed or already under construction at the start of the 20th century by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company – projects which included Penn Station and Sunnyside Yard. Other documents I’ve examined state that the LIRR was paying taxes to New York State as early as 1912 on the Montauk Cutoff, which suggests that it came into service around the same time that the Sunnyside Yards came online. The surrounding Degnon Terminal wasn’t far behind the rail complex, either, with the Loose Wiles factory and other mega factories opening in the 1920’s.

As is always mentioned, old Mitch ain’t no authority on the whole railroad thing. If there’s something wrong in my little summary, please let me know in the comments and corrections or an errata will be incorporated. I can speak pretty intelligently about the maritime/locomotive complex around Newtown Creek, but I’ll admit to having vast gaps on the particular subject of the iron road. That was my pal Bernie Ente’s area of expertise.

For a historic series of shots, maps, and technical descriptions of anything involving the LIRR, you are going to have to visit the fairly excellent trainsarefun.com. Here’s their Montauk Cutoff Page.

Another set of maps and historic shots can be accessed at an equally fantastic site called arrts-arrchives.com. Here’s their Montauk Cutoff page.

I’ve written about the Smiling Hogshead Ranch before, which sits on the interchange between the Degnon Terminal Railway and the Montauk Cutoff, over at my old Brownstoner Queens column.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The view from up on the Montauk Cutoff is unique. That big parking lot at the bottom of the shot above is a UPS shipping center, the one on 49th avenue. Rearing above and behind it is the Queens Midtown Expressway section of the Long Island Expressway, which arches up and over Dutch Kills some 106 feet from its beginning at the Queens Midtown Tunnel – which is around a half mile away.

My MTA companion and I met up at the Smiling Hogshead Ranch at 5:30 in the morning to get these shots, which gave me a solid hour to work in absolute pitch darkness up on the tracks. The shots in today’s post are obviously tripod shots, and long exposures. Leaving the shutter open for 20-30 seconds at a pop, you can gather a tremendous amount of light and color, but the hot spots of electric street lighting always cause certain problems. Compensation for this is to move the aperture into “hyperfocal” range, f11 and narrower, which is counterintuitive for night shots but nevertheless effective. It also produces those neat little star bursts around the lights.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

So, why was I out on a chilly November morning with an MTA property manger, walking on a century old rail spur in Long Island City?

The MTA has decided to “abandon” this line. Abandon doesn’t mean the same thing in “railroad” as in does in english. It means that the agency has no current plans for the line and wishes to free itself of the duties necessitated in maintaining it as functional track. It means that the MTA will retain ownership of the Montauk Cutoff, and can at any time reactivate the pathway should “future use” require it. Given the speed with which rail projects generally move, however, that means a window of at least a couple of decades of inactivity awaits the property no matter what happens.

Accordingly, MTA has issued a “Request for Expressions of Interest,” or RFEI, regarding the Montauk Cutoff and is seeking potential lessees for the space.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As defined in the RFEI document, the MTA is seeking out creative uses of the land with an eye towards community improvement. The agency has set down a few ground rules for any potential lessee of the site, many of which are quite expensive – such as insurance, utility service – those sorts of things. The property, as defined in the RFEI, includes the Smiling Hogshead Ranch – who currently lease and pay insurance on the parcel in which the community garden is operated.

Before certain web masters start pointing their fingers and shouting “j’accuse” at me while spinning a conspiratorial tale, Smiling Hogshead is indeed associated with Newtown Creek Alliance, as am I. You can absolutely bet that I’m a fan of SHHR’s operations and programming, and friends with a lot of their members. Long Island City needs every bit of green space it can get, which is how I finally get around to explaining why me and the MTA guy were here on the day before Thanksgiving and just before sunrise.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A “Request for an Expression of Interest”? You can say that I’m interested. I’m interested in seeing this trackway converted over to green space, in much the same way that the Degnon Spur on Pearson and Skillman – a weedy dumping ground and homeless camp – was turned into a lush garden by a group of dedicated volunteers.

Can you imagine what a group like Smiling Hogshead’s could do up here?

If you want to get in on the conversation, or contribute some time and knowledge to the project – shape the future, as it were – whatcha doing on the 2nd of December? A bunch of us are going to attend a “visioning meeting” at Nomad Cycle (47-10 Austell Pl, Queens, NY 11101) which is set to happen between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My companion and I had discussed the possibility of getting up here in the pre dawn hours, and a couple of previous appointments had to be cancelled on account of weather. We had met on a walk through of the site which MTA had conducted back in October for parties interested in acquiring the land, an excursion which occurred just before solar noon – which is not the most efficacious time to photograph LIC. I made the case to him that a “proper” set of photos would be needed for this project and quite handy to boot, which my new friend at the agency agreed with. Hence, where we were, when we were, and why we met up in the dark on Skillman Avenue on the day before Thanksgiving.

The wrinkle in this potential project is this – it doesn’t necessarily have to become a green space. Anyone can “express interest” in the Montauk Cutoff, and as long as their proposed project meets the requirements set aside by the MTA, it will be considered a viable option.

I see this as being a frankly huge opportunity to create an enormous acreage of green space in an otherwise completely barren industrial area which can be best described as a “devastation of concrete.” My interest in this thing is simple – this property touches Dutch Kills, where the borders of the “abandoned” section ends, which is “my house.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Montauk Cutoff begins at Sunnyside Yard, and at its southeastern edge connects to the M Cabin truss bridge over Dutch Kills which connects to the Blissville Yard, which in turn feeds the tracks that travel under the Greenpoint and Kosciuszko Bridges to Maspeth, Ridgwood, and all points east. The RFEI states that the M Cabin bridge will be opened, and secured in that position, and that a barrier of some sort will be erected at the edge of the Montauk Cutoff’s lot.

Additionally, I cannot begin to, nor have I ever believed that this is the original bridge on this site. I’ve got some Intel that suggests the early 1940’s for its origins, but nothing solid enough to to stick a pin into. The original early 20th century bridge is long gone at any rate.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I can tell you with some certainty that the nearby DB Cabin rail bridge is from 1919, and is a swing bridge that hasn’t opened since 2002. My pal Bernie, mentioned above as having been THE authoritative source on all things rail around LIC, told me once or twice that two industrial wreckers are required to tow it from either side to open the bridge. The swing bridges motors are non functional, something that has caused no small amount of grief for the EPA’s Superfund investigators. DB Cabin allows access from the Wheelspur Yard to the Blissville Yard and the Montauk Line.

Like I said, Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking northwards along Dutch Kills, at a scene familiar and loved by long time readers of this – your Newtown Pentacle. That’s the Borden Avenue Bridge, with the LIE above, spanning Dutch Kills. I’ve been writing about this neighborhood for years, it’s one of my favorite locations in New York City. The Montauk Cutoff leads directly to this spot, which in my mind directly connects it to the environmental problems of the Newtown Creek watershed.

Know how I’ve been rattling on for years about “combined sewer outfalls” and the problems presented to the ancient sewer system during rain events? Montauk Cutoff represents an opportunity to create a nearly four acre long green sponge that can drink up a significant amount of the storm water that carries garbage, grease, and poop into this water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Montauk Cutoff. This is a once in a generation opportunity to do something right for the environment in the ruined biome of Long Island City. Every elected official I’ve spoken to about this idea is “into it” although they haven’t made any public declarations yet (too early in the process to bring them in) and recently – Community Board 2’s environmental committee voted to support the use of these tracks as “green infrastructure.”

Want to get involved in the future of the Montauk Cutoff? As mentioned above, a “visioning meeting” which be taking place at LIC’s Nomad Cycle (47-10 Austell Pl, Queens, NY 11101) on December 2nd, between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.

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continuous system

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Holiday pretty pictures, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s the Long Island Railroad crossing Borden Avenue in LIC in the shot above, which was captured around ten years ago. I take a lot of pictures of trains, mind you, but the one above remains one of my favorites. It’s number 401, btw.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Number 420 was observed at the Sunnyside Yards’s Harold Interlocking not too long ago, and funnily enough it was smoking up. If you don’t get the joke, just google 420 for what it means to our inebriated friends.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

411 doesn’t just provide directory assistance, it also transits from the Hunters Point yard in LIC to the Hunters Point stop at the southern end of the Sunnsyide Yards – the only place in the entire 183 square acre rail yard where you can actually board a train.

Back Monday with some slightly more substantive content, and may all your Friday’s be black.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

November 27, 2015 at 11:00 am

louder drone

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Holiday pretty pictures, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Found an unfortunate chicken on Newtown Road in Astoria a few years ago. It seemed like a cat had gotten at the upper reaches of the thing, so one decided to focus instead on the feet, since “out of frame” is “out of mind.” The family resemblance to Dinosaurs always seems pretty clear when you look at avian feet, no?

Enjoy the roast dinosaur you’re eating today, accordingly.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s my pal Jiminy the Parrot in the shot above, who will describe to you in fairly perfect English how he’s feeling about this or that. Jiminy often completes sentences started by the primates he hangs around with, which is a bit disconcerting. It’s also weird when he calls you a bird brain, but there you go.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The pigeon above was spotted in Sunnyside one day, and seemed to be considering something massive while a humble narrator clicked away with the camera. For some reason, it made sense that a thanksgiving post at this – your Newtown Pentacle – would be one for the birds.

Remember, you are what you eat, which means that when you start buying presents tomorrow on “Black Friday,” Jiminy the Parrot might call you a turkey or dinosaur – depending on his mood or if he’s green with envy.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

November 26, 2015 at 11:00 am

or depend

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Holiday pretty pictures, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Arguably one of my best shots, ever. A weather phenomenon known as “Mammacular Clouds” occurred in NYC one day around sunset, and luckily I was in the right place at the right time.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Weather is a photographers nemesis most of the time. It’s too hot, or raining, or too cold. One night, while onboard a boat in NY Harbor, the weather actually worked in my favor as a storm front was blowing past the Freedom Tower.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It was actually lovely weather the day this portrait shot of the Empire State Building was captured, and I happened to be in Queens’s Calvary Cemetery at yet another “right place” and “right time.”

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Written by Mitch Waxman

November 25, 2015 at 11:00 am

babbling over

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National Feasting week is upon us, eat long and hard, lords and ladies.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Pictured above is the magical Chrysler Building, surrounding by the dross modernity of Manhattan. One of the few shots captured in the City after a recent crossing the Queensboro Bridge, which was detailed in recent posts. Odds are that few, or any, of you reading this post will actually be in New York for the holiday weekend – so Newtown Pentacle will be going into its traditional holding pattern for the next few days.

Don’t worry, I’ll still be publishing, but it’s just going to some pretty pictures for a few days, without much meat on the bone.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Personally, your humble narrator will be in town.

Holiday weekends such as Thanksgiving are a fantastic time to avoid family and friends for me, and to wander aimlessly about in the concrete devastations of the nearly deserted industrial quarters of the Newtown Creek. There’s quite a few irons in the fire, however, and one fairly earth shattering project in LIC which I’m extremely excited about which I’ll fill y’all in on when you settle back into your desk chairs on Monday next.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Suffice to say that it involves a defunct railroad trackway, LIC, and the MTA itself. I’d tell you more, but that would technically be “spoilers.”

Have a happy and a healthy one, lords and ladies.

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leftward fork

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Down Under the Kosciuszko Bridges Onramps – DUKBO, part 2 – in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As described in my last post, a visit to the NYS DOT’s Kosciuszko Bridge project site was arranged for members of the “Stakeholders Advisory Group” that is connected to the project. Community members, business owners, representatives of municipal agencies and elected officialdom, the SAG’s job is to bring concerns to the attention of the project managers of the K Bridge project. Anyone interested in finding out more about the project straight from the source, or who feel that they should be involved, can contact the Community Liason’s office.

There’s all sorts of job opportunities available on the project as well, for those of you involved with the trades, but quite obviously that’s not something a humble narrator can help you out with.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On the left side of the shot above is the Robert Moses 1939 era “New Meeker Avenue” Bridge, which was rechristened in 1940 as the Kosciuszko Bridge. Its original purpose, as far as Mayor LaGuardia was concerned, was to allow egress for the multitudes of Brooklyn to the 1939 Worlds Fair over in what we refer to as “Flushing Meadow Corona Park.” For Moses, it was the first link in a chain which he originally called the “Brooklyn Queens Connecting Highway” which modernity knows as the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.

Technical note – the Gowanus Expressway actually was the first part of the modern BQE to be built, but my understanding is that Moses didn’t intend for it to be part of the BQE – it was incorporated into the larger expressway when the Verazzano was being built.

That’s my understanding, I might be incorrect, so “grain of salt.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Brooklyn side of the Newtown Creek enjoys a rather shallow firmament, as a craton which underlies this section of western Long Island – essentially an enormous glacial erratic or boulder – is only about sixty to seventy feet below the surface and sits at a fairly oblique angle relative to the land.

The Queens side is basically a giant pile of mud more than a hundred feet deep, and the bedrock craton on the northern or Queens side of the Creek is more difficult to access. The original or 1939 Kosciuszko Bridge piers on the Queens side are essentially founded on concrete blocks floating in this mud. The new bridge will be anchored in the bedrock instead. (This, incidentally, isn’t something I know from the SAG, rather its “history” stuff).

The piles seen above are in various stages of being driven down to the craton – or bedrock.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As we neared the shoreline of Newtown Creek, I mentioned to several people that this was one of the spots which I had never actually set foot upon. There used to be a carting company here which was… let’s just say that they didn’t like people with cameras wandering around, and that the few times which I did approach their fencelines over the years resulted in my being literally threatened by several mustachioed people with a distinctly Italian variant of the North Brooklyn accent. As I often say, I only run when someone or something is chasing me, and after meeting these fellows I was running.

The metallic box pictured above was a pretty cool thing, however.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The new Kosciuszko Bridge is going to be a “cable stay” bridge, the first of its kind in NYC. The device pictured above is what the cables will be running through. The cables will leave their anchorage and climb up and over the towers, feeding down to and supporting the roadway over the water. This is a pretty important bit of kit, obviously, as the BQE carries a couple of hundred thousand vehicles a day over Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking towards West Maspeth’s border with Blissville near Calvary Cemetery, across the lugubrious Newtown Creek. The Queens side of the job is on schedule, but the process isn’t quite as far along on the north shore. You can see the piers which will carry the road, but the towers which will support the cables haven’t been erected yet.

There’s a whole lot of environmental “ugly” in the shot above, the ground to the right is part of the Phelps Dodge State Superfund site. The sediments in this section of the Newtown Creek are rife with organocoppers and all sorts of bad stuff, which is why the water and what lies below is part of the Federal Superfund site, and not too long ago it was determined that the chemical condition of the land at Phelps Dodge was too extreme for it to serve as a parking lot for USPS trucks.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking up the dizzying heights of the two concrete towers of the Brooklyn side, which are still rising. There were gangs of laborers working up there, who are clearly made of sterner stuff than I. I’d need the Fire Department to come rescue me, as paralysis would set in due to the height.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking back towards the south/south west, along the ramps of the Kosciuszko Bridges. You can really see the difference in the two spans’ deck heights in the shot above. The DOT folks tell me that this is to ensure a smoother experience for drivers, as they won’t have to crest quite as high an incline. Additionally, the BQE will no longer compress to three lanes from four and then back to four again on the new bridge. There is also meant to be an entirely dedicated approach to the Long Island Expressway when the job is finished.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Our visit over, the Stakeholders Advisory Group was escorted back to Meeker Avenue, where we turned in our hard hats and other safety gear.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

November 23, 2015 at 11:00 am

brought up

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Down Under the Kosciuszko Bridges Onramps – DUKBO – in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The other day, Tuesday the 17th to be exact, one found himself wearing an orange vest and a hard hat with a Skanska logo on it in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

I’m a member of the Stakeholders Advisory Group for the Kosciuszko Bridge project, and we had been invited out by the NYS DOT for an inspection of the massive construction site. These are fairly exclusive shots, incidentally, and this post will be the first of two describing what I saw.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Kosciuszko project involves not just the construction of a new K bridge, and the demolition of the 1939 original, but the rerouting and redesign of the 2.1 miles of approach roads.

These roads include the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and the notoriously problematic cloverleaf exchange the BQE has with the Long Island Expressway. The project is being run by the NYS Department of Transportation, and executed by a partnership between Skanska, AECOM, and Kiewit. Skanska is the managing partner for the two phase project, the first part of which (half the new bridge, roadwork, and demolition of the original) is budgeted at $550 million.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It’s a massive Union Labor kind of job, and it seemed that every trade organization was present on site. These fellows were iron workers, installing the rebar which would provide structural support for the concrete deck of the BQE. The concrete guys were getting busy about a quarter of a mile back, incidentally, filling in the steel webbing that these guys were building.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Another team of laborers were observed lowering structural steel into place on one of the overpasses for the highway. The sections of the new bridge currently under construction are slightly to the east of the current roadway and bridge. When this phase of the project is complete, traffic will be shifted over to it, and the 1939 Kosciuszko and BQE will be demolished.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Once demolition is complete, phase two will see the westerly half of the new Kosciuszko and BQE built. According to the officials from DOT we were with, the project is slightly ahead of schedule and they are confident they’ll meet the 2017 goal date for the opening of the new bridge.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The ramp leading to the bridge is nearing Newtown Creek, but isn’t quite there yet. The ramps sit on a series of concrete piers supported by columns which rise hundreds of feet from a section of DUKBO which I’ve often referred to as the “Poison Cauldron.” Down below, there’s a series of realigned local streets which are currently off limits due to the construction.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking back to the south, the construction guys were hard at work. This is a massive undertaking, the sort of thing you don’t see that often in New York City, or at least not since Robert Moses was kicked out of power.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Down on “used to be Cherry Street” we headed north towards Newtown Creek, pausing periodically for the laborers to finish up a task. Above, a crew was moving soil around, and grading the surface.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The ramp for the BQE comes into view as you approach “used to be Anthony Street.” The new bridge will be considerably closer to the ground than the original. The 1939 bridge was built with maritime shipping in mind, and it’s altitude accommodated the height of smoke stacks typical of ocean going military and cargo ships.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Under the ramp, you can see the progress that the triple partnership and DOT have made. The structure on the right is part of the new approaches. The actual new Kosciuszko that over flies the water will be a cable stay bridge, which will make it unique in NYC. The good news, for me at least, is that the westerly section erected in stage 2 will include a pedestrian and bicycle lane that looks west along Newtown Creek towards Manhattan.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Newtown Creek is found just beyond the horizon in the shot above. That’s the old Kosciuszko Bridge on the left, with the new one being built up on the right. Traffic flows overhead, uninterrupted, during all of this activity. Beyond the Creek, it’s West Maspeth and Blissville on the other side, in Queens.

Monday, I’ll show you what we saw down at the waters edge, here in DUKBO – Down under the Kosciuszko Bridges Onramps.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

November 20, 2015 at 1:00 pm

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