The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for December 3rd, 2015

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Trucks, trucks, horses, trucks.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One spent a pretty decent amount of time wandering about the wastelands for Thanksgiving Weekend.

It was likely a good decision to do so, as my company is aberrant and I can be quite “the downer” around the holidays. My understanding of the origins of the term “downer,” by the way, is that it refers to a cow that was sick when it arrived at the stock yards. Common practice in the factory abattoirs of the 19th century was to move the downers to the front of the slaughter line while distracting the government inspectors. The inspectors were glad to be distracted, but they were already in the pockets of the beef trust anyway.

Cattle which was fed on distillery slop, which produced the “swill milk” which I’ve explained endlessly, were covered in sores and boils and were referred to as “steely.” It was a miserable job slaughtering the steely cattle, according to the historic record, but it’s hard to find any profession in the industrial sectors of the 19th century which wasn’t miserable.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Horses, mules, and oxen were not supposed to be part of the food ecosystem, nor were goats. Saying that, an enormous amount of horse meat found its way into cans of “tinned beef” back then and it was pretty common for “lamb chops” or “mutton” to have exhibited little verisimilitude to lambs. Goat makes for a good stew, at any rate, but I’ve been to Greece a few times and Hellene cuisine can make almost anything taste good. Supposedly, a significant number of the casualties in both the Civil and Spanish American wars were caused by soldiers consuming the tainted tins of meat in their rations.

By the beginning of the 20th century, NYC was producing something like ten million tons of horse manure a day. Modern people – myself included – bitch and moan about truck traffic but can you imagine the amount of shit that our modern world would produce if pack animals were still roaming the streets?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It’s hard to imagine that version of NYC, although there are a few people left amongst us who experienced it directly. It was still pretty common up until the 1920’s for Fire Engines in Brooklyn and Queens to be driven by teams of horses. FDNY, after the consolidation of the City of Greater New York in 1898, began to outfit the departmental structures in outlying districts and standardize their equipment around the internal combustion engine but that took a while and as you’d imagine – downtown Manhattan came first.

Until the ubiquity of cheap petroleum became a reality, and the supply chain of an automotive industry existed, the horse was still your best bet for moving people and cargo around.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There was an entire industrial complex built around the horse and carriage trade, as you’d imagine. Just as we don’t think twice about taking a long drive, secure in the knowledge that should we need to replace an engine part or a tire that there’ll be a Pep Boys or auto mechanic everywhere you choose to go – so too did the carriage trade enjoy a dispersed network of supply and demand based equipment and an abundance of skilled mechanics, stable keepers, and tradesmen in every town and village they’d pass through.

Newtown Creek, on the Queens side in particular, hosted a variety of trade manufacturers who supplied the carriage trade. Atavistic industries produced “carbon black,” a kind of paint manufactured from burning and then crushing up animal bones, which provided Victorian era horse carriages (think any Sherlock Holmes movie or TV show) with their shiny black coatings. Others manufactured “neet oil” and the various bits and bobs which the Teamsters would require to ferry people and commerce around the city at the speed of a trotting horse. Funnily enough, that’s just under the speed at which the current Mayor’s “Vision Zero” traffic initiative requires motor vehicles to operate at.

When the pack animals were spent, and their useful occupation at an end, companies like Van Iderstine’s rendering plant in Blissville or Peter Cooper’s Glue factory in Bushwick awaited their arrival.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Researching the history of Newtown Creek, as I do, one often encounters early versions of environmentalist sentiment. A particular period in the 1880’s saw Manhattan based reformers complaining in vociferous fashion about the smells, carried on the prevailing north westerly winds which then as now swept across the Creek and East River, which plagued Murray Hill and the east side of Manhattan Island. I’ll be exploring this in some detail next week, but the really interesting part of this narrative from the 1880’s is the push to rid the Creek of the “organics” processors like the rendering plants, glue factories, bone blackers, and “superphosphate” manufacturers in favor of the “scientific manufacturers” like General Chemical (Phelps Dodge) and the petroleum distillers like Standard Oil. As mentioned, more on this one next week.

As a note, check out that truck in the shot above. Not only is it parked in a bus stop, but it’s also blocking a fire hydrant.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

December 3, 2015 at 11:00 am

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