The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for March 2nd, 2016

mortal assurances

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Did you feel that? Did a truck just go by?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The geology of Western Queens is fairly fascinating. A humble narrator is interested in all things, and one of them is the very ground beneath his feet. Historically speaking, the zone which modernity calls Queens Plaza and Court Square in Long Island City were wetlands. There is rock down there somewhere, but the “craton” which underlies this section of a very Long Island was deposited by the glacial retreat at an odd angle which slopes downward as you head south. A craton is essentially a giant boulder, and that underground slab of rock which is found in LIC’s neck of the woods is buried beneath layers of naturally occurring clay and sand, and a loosely packed 20-30 foot thick layer of anthropogenic landfill material sits atop it. True geologic bedrock doesn’t appear until you get to Maspeth, where the terminal moraine of Long Island begins.

Municipal landfill began to reduce the wetlands and swamps of LIC beginning in the early 19th century, which buried many of the now lost tributaries of both Newtown and Sunswick Creeks which flowed through these parts. Once, you could sail from Newtown Creek all the way to Northern Blvd. at 31st street, and by once I mean 1881. The desire to stamp out typhus and cholera in LIC, Dutch Kills, and Astoria during the “sanitary era” is part of what provided impetus for the landfill process.

The construction of the Queensboro Bridge and the Sunnyside Yards in the first decade of the 20th century finished the job of reclaiming what was – by all accounts – a pestilential swamp. Modernity has forgotten all about that, just ask the East Side Access guys who accidentally found one of those buried waterways  – a catastrophic discovery which delayed their progress and added billions of dollars onto the cost of the project.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Now, I’m not much of anything, let alone an engineer or a geologist. What I am, however, is a guy with a collection of old maps and a series of books which describe what things were like in the area surrounding Jane Street Queens Plaza from the colonial period to the start of the 20th century. The engineers who worked on Sunnyside Yards described some pretty esoteric conditions at the corner of Skillman and Thompson – for instance – including mud that would form 18 feet high waves spontaneously as the tidal action from surrounding waters transmitted through it. The Ravenswood houses are built on a tidal pond/marsh/swamp formed by Sunswick Creek, and the area around the present day LaGuardia Community college was known as the “waste meadows” until Michael Degnon got ahold of them in the 1910’s and filled the wetland swamps in with rock tailings harvested from the subway tunnels which his company was working on.

I’m also a guy who understands that even the stoutest limb will crack if it’s made to bear weight beyond its tolerance. Now, it’s pretty unlikely that a craton, which is a boloid of rock the size of an asteroid that is miles across and thousands of feet thick, would crack. It could sink, however, into the glacial till which it rests upon. This fills me with real concern, given the whole climate change/sea level thing that the Republicans claim isn’t happening. How much crap can you pile in one place before something “gives”?

The firmament is literally shaking in LIC these days, what with all the high rise construction going on, and the truck loads of structural steel and concrete rolling through.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My buddies in construction tell me that once you find solid footing – driving steel and concrete down until it meets that rock craton – you can pretty much build as big as you want. The piles sit on the rock, then you create a concrete slab which provides for a stable surface that spreads weight load out over a large area, and you build. Engineers calculated wind sheer, vibration, soil solidity and a thousand other factors years before the first shovelful of earth was turned. An elaborate bureaucracy of planners and building specialists have scoured the plans, looked for any possible error or issue, and made corrections when warranted. Believe when I tell you, these people won’t allow any single structure to crack the earth open anywhere in NYC.

Saying that, they are all largely looking at projects on an individual basis, and not a holistic whole. What will happen when everything scrapes the sky? Will the ground continue to shake, or will LIC just sink?

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle


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