The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Archive for September 2016

civic spirit

with 16 comments

Happy Centennial, Hell Gate Bridge.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One hundred years ago today, the construction of the Hell Gate Bridge was finished. It had been ongoing since 1912, and it was a bit of a contemporaneous construction miracle – as far as the details of how the Pennsylvania Railroad engineers (specifically Gustav Lindenthal) managed to build the span out from both shorelines simultaneously – and to have the completed sections precisely join (with a 5/16th of an inch tolerance) over the Hells Gate section of the East River between Astoria and Randall’s Ward’s Island. It was “officially” dedicated and opened to rail traffic on the March 1st March 9th of 1917. The first commercial usage of the bridge began on April 1st of 1917, when a Washington to Boston passenger train crossed it. These days it’s owned by Amtrak. (strike throughs indicate corrections offered by my pal Dave Frieder, the “Bridge Man,” who is going to be presenting his vast knowledge on the subject at a lecture at the Greater Astoria Historic Society next Monday night).

For a piece on the bridge that I wrote for my old Brownstoner Queens column back in 2013 – click here. For another Brownstoner Queens column that discusses the Hells Gate section the East River – click here.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Hell Gate is as iconic to Astoria, Queens as is a plate of spanokopita.

Lots of local businesses, even the Greater Astoria Historic Society, use images of the bridge on branded clothing items like t-shirts and hats and there’s an assortment of local businesses that incorporate “Hell Gate” into their name.

Virtually no one talks about Mighty Triborough as being our icon, incidentally. There’s ancestral memory in Astoria that remembers Robert Moses carving the Grand Central through the neighborhood, which left a bitter taste.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It’s a rail bridge, Hell Gate. Most of the traffic you see using it is passenger service run by Amtrak, but occasionally CSX or another freight carrier transits from Queens to the Bronx via Hell Gate. The bridge plugs into the Long Island rail network via the New York Connecting Railway, which extends to the Sunnyside Yards (where you can switch into the LIRR system) and uses the East River tunnels to travel into Manhattan – and by extension travel under the Hudson and into New Jersey and the rail network of the entire country. This bridge, and those tunnels, are Long Island’s only rail link to the continent.

That’s it, other than floating rail cars around on barges, but that’s a whole other banana.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Astoria locals, as in the folks who are in the “born and raised” crowd hereabouts, have all sorts of spooky adolescent legends about the Hell Gate Bridge. There was supposed to have been a child killer living in the tower on the Astoria Park side… there’s a demon train which will appear if you dare to climb the bridge to its deck… there’s a lot of Astoria stories out there.

I’m told that climbing Hell Gate is a rite of passage for teenage boys hereabout, and observable graffiti up on the deck seems to back that up. There’s meant to be four tracks up there, but I’m told that one of them is all but abandoned.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There’s a local committee that’s sprung up to celebrate the Bridge centennial, but so far there’s only been a couple of meetings and not too much has emerged from attending them. Nice people though. Anywhere else is the United States, or even in NYC, the centennial of a major bridge like this would be met with parades, and fanfare, and school kids would be taught about the days when Americans were still capable of doing great things… but… this is Queens…

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Personally, I’m regretting the inclement weather today as I wanted to to go visit the old girl on her de facto birthday.

Upcoming tours and events:


“The Untold History of the Newtown Creek (aka Insalubrious Valley)” walking tour
with New York Adventure Club, Saturday, October 1st from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.
 TOUR CANCELLED DUE TO WEATHER. 


“First Calvary Cemetery” walking tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, Saturday, October 8th from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

September 30, 2016 at 11:30 am

furtive signs

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Triffids at Newtown Creek?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Last weekend, I was enacting my usual pilgrimage back from Greenpoint to Astoria and since it was a nice day I decided to take the long way home and visit Newtown Creek’s Dutch Kills tributary as it had been a good 72 hours since the last time I was there. That’s the Queens Midtown Expressway truss bridge of the larger Long Island Expressway highway complex at its highest altitude, some 106 feet over the water.

In truth, the Dutch Kills route is actually a bit of a shortcut for me, as the route is a good number of blocks shorter than taking the Greenpoint Avenue pathway eastwards through Blissville and Sunnyside due to the somewhat triangular relationship between Northern Blvd. and GP avenue. I like to cut down 27th street from Borden Avenue, in order to access Skillman Avenue, which runs roughly parallel to Northern Blvd. until 39th street.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It was on 27th street, right in front of what was once known as Irving Subway Grate, that I spotted this bizarre plant. One would like to imagine two distinct scenarios to describe it – one involving extraterrestrial spores settling down upon LIC and spawning an alien vegetable, the other is that the mutagenic chemicals swirling around in the waters of Dutch Kills have perverted and created a new and debased form of life.

It’s probably something that a botanist would instantly recognize, but please – allow me my little fantasies.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

These seed pods, or perhaps fruit, were heavily armored. They were fairly large, at about 3-5 inches in length.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Were they not shaped like the pincers of an insect, or crab, I would have produced my trusty pocket knife and cut one open to reveal what was inside. Instead, I was fearful that I might get pinched by some autonomic reaction so I stayed at a safe distance. What if they were man eating Triffids in some juvenile form?

You can’t be too careful around Newtown Creek. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

What were they? Only that impossible thing, which cannot possibly be real, hiding in the cupola of the sapphire megalith of Long Island City that stares down upon the world of men through its three lobed burning eye, can know for sure.

Upcoming tours and events:


“The Untold History of the Newtown Creek (aka Insalubrious Valley)” walking tour
with New York Adventure Club, Saturday, October 1st from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“First Calvary Cemetery” walking tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, Saturday, October 8th from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

last straw

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Always surprising – Astoria, Queens.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Our Lady of the Pentacle has been quite busy in her professional life of late, and she rang me up recently as she was leaving her offices to suggest that we visit our local Astoria pub to grab a late dinner. As the bride working late is a fairly normal occurrence, we shortly settled in at some familiar outdoor seating at our “local,” ordered ourselves a couple of pints and plates of food. While discussing our day, I noticed a truck full of port-a-potties speeding down Broadway, and splashing the “via publica” with those blue chemicals that are found in the portable commode’s septic tanks.

Lovely, thought I. After paying the bill, we went home and while sitting outside on our porch with my sleepy dog (named Zuzu), certain odd sounds woke up and drew the attentions of that ever vigilant canine guardian of the domestic portico. These emanations were coming from an alley separating my building from the next one to the north. Said alley contains my neighbor Mario’s collection of safety cones as well as a collection of junk which my landlord is holding on to until an opportune moment for bulk disposal presents itself.

From the dog’s reaction to these sounds, I figured “rat.” Maybe “cat.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

However, after having peered over the veritable edge of my leased domain and gazing into the alley with the aid of one of my trusty flashlights… It was then that I went inside and fetched my camera.

It seems that there is now an Opossum living in the aperture between the two buildings, which is something that one of my neighbors – a sturdy Croatian – finds quite amusing. I believe it’s a “Virginia Opossum,” specifically, but I’m from Brooklyn so at the time I was referring to it as a “some kinda friggin thing.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Opossums are fairly harmless critters, apparently, despite packing some fifty teeth and a nifty set of claws. I freaked the thing out, not with the flashlight mind you, but with the sound of my camera shutter flipping. This friggin thing didn’t want to leave the alley after hearing the shutter sound and hunkered down. I had grown bored with it by this point, so I decided to do some Opossum research at two in the morning. They’re Marsupials, I’ve learned. I also learned that if you cook one, it’s best to serve these friggin things with sweet potatoes. They are virtually immune to rabies, and highly resistant to snake venom. Y’know – Possum research.

That’s the sort of thing that normal people do at two in the morning, right?

As an aside, since these photos were taken – another Possum was spotted just about a block away (Zuzu scared that one too) and another, distinctly juvenile version, of these friggin things was observed hanging out on my porch.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There’s a defense move that Opossum’s do, “playing possum” as its called. They simulate that they’re a rotting corpse by stiffening up, curling back their lips and foaming at the mouth, and these friggin things release a foul smelling liquid that they secrete from their butt glands which smells like putrefaction. The particular Astoria Opossum in the shot above decided to forgoe the stiffening and foaming, and instead went directly for the corpse smell.

Zuzu was fit to be tied over that.

The juvenile one I spotted a couple of days later did the whole stiffen up thing, complete with the curled up lips, especially when the dog charged at it. Friggin thing.

Zuzu completely bought the corpse act though. The dog danced around like she had just found the last dodo, so I shuttled her back inside before she decided to eat or hurt the friggin thing, and I gave her a dog cookie to commemorate her victory.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Over the years, many sorts of critters seem to have have turned up on my porch. Birds of all sorts – including a seagull and a nest of sparrows, raccoons, rats, mice, squirrels, and just about every kind of insect you can think of from digger wasps to centipedes. Now we’ve got a possum. This is all above the ground, of course.

Makes me wonder, and more than wonder, what else there may be lurking around in the underworld of sewer and subway tunnels under Astoria. There has been a foul wind exhaling from the sewer grates of late, and DEP workers have been observed operating heavy equipment at access holes all along the avenue.

Who can guess, all there is, that might be hidden down there?

Upcoming tours and events:


“The Untold History of the Newtown Creek (aka Insalubrious Valley)” walking tour
with New York Adventure Club, Saturday, October 1st from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“First Calvary Cemetery” walking tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, Saturday, October 8th from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

September 28, 2016 at 11:00 am

worldly affairs

with 2 comments

More adventures with the new lens, the Sigma 50-100 f1.8.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned in prior posts, I recently acquired a new lens which I’ve been running around the City and using profusely in the hope of learning its ways. This is one of those posts where I pull back the curtain and talk about how, exactly, I shoot the photos which have populated the better than 2,000 posts published at this – your Newtown Pentacle.

The shot above was captured recently at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and well after dark. It was captured hand held with the lens wide open at f1.8, and the camera set to 1/50th of a second and the ISO sensitivity at 6400. Needless to say, it was quite dark, and that I was in the Navy Yard legally. That’s the actual color of the light, incidentally. The new lens is a real performer in this kind of setting, and there’s enough “brains” chipped into it that I was able to use it on autofocus rather than manual setting despite the low light. Those “army sniper” body posture techniques which I’ve mentioned in the past really come in handy when you’re trying to shoot something at under 1/100th of a second shutter speed. One of those “sniper techniques” is to squeeze the trigger after exhaling, for instance, as your body is steadier when in between breaths than during.

In my experience, 1/50th is the absolute lower limit for steadying handheld shots, which is due to my age and particular physiology. Younger and steadier people might be able to pull off 1/30th, but that’s right around where your pulse begins to interfere with the capture process and you’ve entered tripod territory.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Sigma 50-100 performs admirably in daylight as well, the shot above depicting a train in Queens Plaza was captured at ISO 400, f5.6, and at 1/640th of a second. Color rendition from Sigma’s art series lens family is always a bit oversaturated and garish, which – as I’ve said in the past is something I quite like – but I do find myself dialing the saturation back a bit when developing the daylight shots I gather with it.

The Sigma is HEAVY, weighing in at almost four pounds, incidentally. It’s quite a workout lugging the thing around for the 3-4 hour photowalk sessions I normally engage in, and for the first couple of weeks I was carrying it around with me my “carry arm” was quite sore when I arrived back home. While discussing the weight of the thing with my pal “Mumbly Joe the Union Insulator” at the local pub here in Astoria, who carries a massive tool kit around with him, he proferred that whenever you add a new tool to your kit it always feels like you’ve added a cinder block to your bag, but eventually you get used to it. At least that’s what I think he said, like I said – Mumbly Joe.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This somewhat sad shot of a Barbie brand bicycle lying astride the rocky shoreline of Hells Gate, in Astoria, was captured at 1/320th of a second shutter speed, at f5.6, and at ISO 200. It was also shot with the Sigma, and there’s a gnarly set of circumstances herein to capture – due to those bright white tires and the super saturated magentas of the bike coupled with the reflective translucency of the water. There’s a bunch of different exposure parameters at work in that photo, which form the compromises of the exposure triangle presented above.

Upcoming tours and events:


“The Untold History of the Newtown Creek (aka Insalubrious Valley)” walking tour
with New York Adventure Club, Saturday, October 1st from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“First Calvary Cemetery” walking tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, Saturday, October 8th from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

September 27, 2016 at 11:00 am

uncanny subjects

with one comment

Ain’t nothing like taking a walk in Queens.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One was merely strolling about one recent afternoon, when a sudden whimsy manifested and my perambulatory route was altered to include a southerly crossing of Crescent Street. Musing upon the loquacious, and having just dodged the dizzying passing of two tiny boys who were running down the pavement towards the next corner, the looming megalith and that thing which cannot exist in its cupola suddenly seized upon my every attention.

That devilish intelligence, with its singular but three lobed burning eye that has stared down upon Queens in unoccluded fashion for so long, has had its view suddenly blotted out by the irritating industry of man and a red hot real estate market.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Most of what’s rising in LIC these days are glass boxes of questionable architectural virtue, and quite bland to my tastes. I want something a bit more “Gotham City” in LIC, with robust stone walls and an impressive facade. What do I know about architecture, though? I know’s what’s I like’s.

That’s the (seemingly) nearly complete Hephaistos Building Supply building which is found on the corner of Crescent street and 37th avenue. Normally, buildings in LIC shoot upwards and are finished in pretty quick order, but this project has been going on for years. I’ve been paying attention to the construction project for some reason, and now I know why.

There seems to be a Greek temple at the cornice of it, and how cool is that?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

When I say that this project has been proceeding slowly, just as a “for instance,” the shot above is from May of 2014. Somewhere in the archives I’ve got shots of the raw steel girders standing here for what must have been a couple of years.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Hephaistos Building Supply has a storefront down the block on 37th avenue’s intersection with 24th street. Can’t tell you much about the company other than it seems to be an Astoria based supplier of construction materials, specifically selling their wares to the professional contractor’s market.

That, and they built what looks like a Greek temple on their roof. If anyone from Hephaistos Building Supply is reading this, I’d love to get some shots from up there on that roof of yours.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Interestingly, Hephaistos Building Supply uses the original transliteration of the name of the Hellenic God of “blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals, metallurgy, fire and volcanoes,” although it’s meant to get a little tilde over the “e” – Ἥφαιστος Hēphaistos.” There’s apparently evidence that Hēphaistos was worshipped in very early times, dating back to the Bronze Age (and possibly the oldest city in Europe) city of Knossos on the island of Crete. Classical Age worship of the God Hēphaistos was centered around Lemnos, but the Romans (who called the God “Vulcan”) were convinced he maintained a workshop under Mount Aetna.

Hēphaistos was an Olympian. This page at theoi.com has an interesting series of anecdotes from ancient literature describing the worship and veneration of the God of smiths in antiquity. As far as modern veneration here at the very southern edge of Astoria, Queens, where it bumps up against the northern borders of the Dutch Kills section?

Who can say? I haven’t been invited to that party as of yet.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My path down Crescent Street proving fruitful, one continued in the general direction of Queens Plaza. The light was lovely, and the visible sections of the flood plain of the former wetlands of Sunwick Creek, where the Big Allis power plant squamously spreads, were beautifully illuminated.

Upcoming tours and events:


“The Untold History of the Newtown Creek (aka Insalubrious Valley)” walking tour
with New York Adventure Club, Saturday, October 1st from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“First Calvary Cemetery” walking tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, Saturday, October 8th from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

September 26, 2016 at 11:00 am

never cease

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Out on the water with the Working Harbor Committee, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A recent Working Harbor Committee excursion was billed as presenting “Brooklyn waterfront, past and present” and I was on the microphone for a good stretch of the trip. I was sharing the narration duty with my pal, Capt. Margaret Flanagan of the Waterfont Alliance organization, who I told point blank before the trip started that once the boat got past Red Hook “I got nothing.” Not a problem for Capt. Flanagan at all, as her able narration and vast knowledge of all things NY Harbor allowed me to slip away from the proverbial pulpit and shoot a few photos.

One bad thing about being one of the tour leaders for these excursions is that it has really cut into the amount of time I have to shoot, and since I’m Working Harbor’s official photographer – this has created a shortage of photos.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A full harvest moon rose while we were out, and the shot above was captured while our vessel – a NY Waterways ferry – was plying the rippling surface of Gowanus Bay in South Brooklyn. As is often opined, the best times of year in NYC for photography are in the late spring and early fall, when the angle of the burning thermonuclear eye of God itself in relation to the City is quite efficacious. Obviously, these shots were captured at sunset and dusk.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One has a tremendous desire to just get out on a boat and shoot for hours and hours during these intervals, and record the glorious parade of maritime industrial splendor out on the sixth borough. I took the East River Ferry to Manhattan’s Pier 11 from LIC to meet the Working Harbor chartered vessel in the City, but since the ER Ferry service concludes its schedule in the early evening, one was forced to enter the sweating concrete bunkers of the Subway system to get back to almond eyed Astoria.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

At 59th street, one encountered this fellow, who seemed intent on blowing his own horn.

Upcoming tours and events:


“The Untold History of the Newtown Creek (aka Insalubrious Valley)” walking tour
with New York Adventure Club, Saturday, October 1st from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“First Calvary Cemetery” walking tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, Saturday, October 8th from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

tangible miasma

with one comment

The native art form of Queens, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Long has one postulated that the native art form of Queens is illegal dumping. It is accomplished with a compositional flair and attention to detail that Brooklyn and the Bronx can only dream of. When you spend as much time as I do around the Newtown Creek and the concrete devastations surrounding it, this becomes obvious.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I was heading over to Greenpoint recently, to accomplish some sort of folderol, when the tableau above was observed in LIC’s Blissville section. This was on Greenpoint Avenue, incidentally.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The dumped mattresses exhibited the tell tale signs of a bedbug infestation, so I was using my telephoto zoom lens to capture shots of it – not wanting to get closer to the things than I needed to.

Bedbugs… brrr…

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I’m not sure if bedbugs can leap, or jump, or propel themselves through the atmospheric void in some unknown manner which would indicate that they can fly like Superman, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

Bedbugs, or “vantzen” as my grandmother would have called them, are grotesque human predators. Vampire insects. The stains on the mattress covers are actually produced by their fecal matter and are literally digested human blood.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Grossed out, I propelled myself across the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge which spans the lugubrious Newtown Creek. Whatever ails you, parasite wise, will likely be cured by the therapeutic poisons of the Newtown Creek. If Newtown Creek doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger… that’s what I tell myself all the time.

Newtown Creek, is there anything you can’t do?

Upcoming tours and events:


“The Untold History of the Newtown Creek (aka Insalubrious Valley)” walking tour
with New York Adventure Club, Saturday, October 1st from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“First Calvary Cemetery” walking tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, Saturday, October 8th from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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