The Newtown Pentacle

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It’s National French Toast Day, in these United States.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I was on my way to the ferry one recent morning, but had to make a quick stop nearby Queens Plaza. Lotsa running around, me. The light bouncing around in Queens Plaza caught my eye, however.

That’s the Rosenwasser Bros. factory at the right hand side of the shot, all illuminated by one of the shiny mirror box condo towers being built in Queens Plaza. It’s Orchard street, by the way, corner of Jackson Avenue. The Rosenwassers were magnates in the rag trade who started out – like many Jewish garment tycoons – in the shirtwaist industry of Lower Manhattan. Running what 21st century eyes would process as a sweatshop, they accumulated enough money to set up a large industrial combine in Queens shortly after the Queensboro bridge opened in 1909, and enjoyed several military as well as civilian contracts. By 1913, they were an established and well known Queensican company run by its President, Morris Rosenwasser, which offered baseball cleats (sold under Babe Ruth branding) and scouting equipment to retailers.

At its height in 1918, the Rosenwasser Company employed some 2,500 people. During the First World War, the firm enjoyed several valuable contracts with the Federal Government. The factory in Queens Plaza turned out an average of 6,000 pairs of shoes a day, 15,000 pairs of leggings, and an undetermined number of canvas gas masks, rucksacks, and other commodities for the war department. A so called “open shop,” the Rosenwassers were prime movers in a case (Rosenwasser Bros. Inc. v. Pepper et al, NYS Supreme Court October 1918) which defined the rights and limitations of organized labor during wartime for a generation.

Who knew?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Welfare Island Bridge opened, officially, on May 18, 1955. We know it as the Roosevelt Island Bridge.

Like the nearby Pulaski Bridge over Newtown Creek, which was erected in the same era, Frederick H. Zurmuhlen of the Dept. of Public Works oversaw the design and construction of the Welfare Island Bridge. One of the unsung men who built the modern city, Zurmuhlen served under three mayors and one Robert Moses.

The Welfare Island Bridge, known to modernity as the Roosevelt Island Bridge, has recently undergone a refurbishment and makeover. Much was made of the cosmetic improvements to the span, but the reality of the investment was a determination that in case of a seismic event – which the City of New York is long overdue for – the Bridge would suffer catastrophic damage. A massive earthquake is one of the unspoken horrors which the City government had been quietly planning for during the twelve year tenure of Michael Bloomberg, something which that Mayor’s office would be applauded for were it more widely known. A tip of the hat goes out to the municipal engineers and planners for both their discretion and the secretive work which they had been performing. Of course, that sort of thing went out the window when the Dope From Park Slope showed up.

As far as the current Mayor… he’s busy trying to build “affordable” waterfront housing that starts at $3,700 for a one bedroom. A highly technical description of NYC’s earthquake risk factors, as prepared and offered in 1998 by the NY State DOT, can be accessed here.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

These shots were captured from the NYC Ferry’s Astoria line, which is one of the few things that I consider the current Mayor as having done well in his first term. Of course, I can tell you that I’d been hearing about this expansion of the East River Ferry service in harbor circles for years, and can quietly point you at certain employees of the NYCEDC who handed the current Mayor a finished plan for him to put his name on the day he got into office, but regardless – if you haven’t ridden the new ferry from Astoria yet, what are you waiting for? You paid for it, you might as well use it. The experience is pretty cool, and it’s only $2.75.

Pictured above is a section of the Big Allis power plant, with the sapphire megalith of LIC peeking through some of its works. Big Allis supplies about 16% of NYC’s electricity, and was the first million kilowatt generating facility in the entire country. Built at the behest of Consolidated Edison, Big Allis (aka Ravenswood Number Three) first went online in 1965. Upon activation, the
dynamos of Big Allis were reduced to slag by the heat issuing from within its massive, natural gas driven turbines. Six months later, a rebuilt system managed to withstand a full hour and twenty seven minutes of these cosmic forces before it too went out of commission for a further four months. The problem was diagnosed by experts and teams of engineers being caused by a malfunctioning bearing which was producing concatenation and vibrations.

Did you know that Big Allis was originally meant to be a nuclear plant?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s the Queensboro Bridge, pictured above, looking back along the shoreline of Queens at the border of Hunters Point and Ravenswood. The borders between these areas are always hazy, and are often the subject of debate amongst those with an appreciation for times past and things forgotten. I’ve coined the term “angle” to describe these blended neighborhoods; Blissville and West Maspeth, Woodside and Sunnyside, Astoria and Elmhurst etc. In the case of Blissville and Maspeth, the Koscisuzcko Bridge sits on the exact border between the two… but where does Woodside start and Sunnyside end? Even worse, where does Winfield fit into the puzzle? Angles, I tell you, angles.

At least along the East River, things are fairly simple – Astoria, Ravenswood, Hunters Point – from north to south.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

You’ve got a lot of “sub zones” as well in those East River neighborhoods in Queens, the Astoria Ferry Line leaves from Lawrence or Astoria Point at Hallets Cove, and the “north side” ferry dock pictured in LIC above is found alongside future superfund site Anable Basin. A hundred years ago, the area where all of those shiny new residential towers pictured above sit in modernity was once the property of the Standard Oil Company and hosted a pretty large parcel of petroleum oriented equipment, chemical and paint factories, and one or two large oil canning operations.

There was also the Ward and Co. Oil and Lard mill back there, which is one of those late 19th and early 20th century industrial operations whose occupation and business… well… common usage would describe it as “Dickensian.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It’s always difficult to do justice to the East River.

The bridges, the history… it’s a maritime corridor in which so much happened that it’s often hard to believe. In many ways, it’s where American capitalism “figured itself out.” In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it’s where the slave ships were built over on the Manhattan side. It’s where the financial powers which would become “Wall Street” began issuing the credit documents and bills of laiding recognized by the European colonial powers, where the first modern steel hulled and steam powered ships were built, and where profiting from the “five black arts” were perfected and practiced.


Upcoming Tours and events

Calvary Cemetery Walking Tour, with Atlas Obscura – Sunday, December 10th, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Explore NYC history, hidden inside sculptural monuments and mafioso grave sites, as you take in iconic city views on this walking tour, with Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman details here.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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