The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for July 2018

last cleaning

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Utopia, along the East River?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One had an interesting but short chat last night, with the always interesting and sometimes chatty Robert Singleton of Greater Astoria Historic Society, about a piece he had recently written for a magazine about colonial era Maspeth and how he framed his tale around the desires of those long ago and far away colonists seeking “utopia” in the so called “new world.” I haven’t read Bob’s piece yet, but I’m sure it matches up with his normal high standards (Bob is who I publicly call “the acknowledged expert” on the subject of colonial era history in Western Queens). It did spark a few thoughts in my mind though, on the utopian eidolon which drew so many of our ancestors to what would become the United States. For native born 21st century citizens of the United States and Canada, “freedom” is a fairly abstract idea, but to our predecessors who undertook the dangerous journey from Europe to North America it was crystal clear what they were trying to leave behind.

It’s hard to imagine in modernity – the iron grip of the Hapsburgs, the Tsars, the Ottomans, the Popes, even the relatively “liberal” enlightened despots and parliaments of Western Europe – maintained a choke hold on thought, science, business, religion, and dissent in their lands. Especially after the French Revolution, and the appearance of Napoleon the antichrist, these governments maintained networks of domestic spies and employed forces of “Secret Police” to maintain their franchised version of “order and stability” at all costs.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Utopia is what Americans, and New Yorkers in particular, have been chasing since the first Dutchman cut down a few trees in what was once a forest that stretched from coast to coast, to began clearing a spot to build a house. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and prosperity? That’s the American Dream, right? The pursuit and concept of “utopia” in the years leading up to the Civil War of the 1860’s eventually morphed into “progress” in the late 19th and entire 20th centuries, and is currently being conceptually framed as the quest for “equity” and “fairness.” Translating that for those of you who aren’t wise to these DEP currents: ‘Murica.

Chasing the utopian ideal in the United States has actually resulted in and spawned a modern day dystopia, with a government that maintains the status quo with a domestic spying network and literal armies of police – both public and secret – who are tasked with maintaining order and stability at all cost. Ironic, isn’t it?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Over the years, I’ve had friends who espouse all sorts of solutions and often radical visions of how to “fix” America. Socialist and Communist leaning folks want to institute a one size fits all approach with a super powerful central authority that dictates behavioral and social norms via the redistribution of private wealth through the “state,” not realizing that at no time in history has this not resulted in the appearance of an “elite” group of administrators and politicians that resemble nothing other than “born to the manor” nobility. Business and militaristic focused people want a system of lassez faire government whose only role is “ensuring the general welfare” and national defense, which historical precedent suggests as resulting in the subjugation of individual liberty and fostering military adventurism and leads to the formation of an elite group as well. Both are extremes, neither results in “utopia.”

What’s the way forward then? What can we do to answer the dreams of our forebears? Do we launch colony rockets into space, hoping some future version of the Pilgrims or Waloons can figure it out? What is Utopia?

As mentioned, a chat with Bob Singleton is often interesting and thought provoking.


Upcoming Tours and Events

Friday, August 3rd, 6:30 p.m. – Infrastructure Creek – with Newtown Creek Alliance.

If you want infrastructure, then meet NCA historian Mitch Waxman at the corner of Greenpoint Avenue and Kingsland Avenue in Brooklyn, and in just one a half miles he’ll show you the largest and newest of NYC’s 14 sewer plants, six bridges, a Superfund site, three rail yards with trains moving at street grade, a highway that carries 32 million vehicle trips a year 106 feet over water. The highway feeds into the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and we’ll end it all at the LIC ferry landing where folks are welcome to grab a drink and enjoy watching the sunset at the East River, as it lowers behind the midtown Manhattan skyline.

Tix and more deatils here.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 31, 2018 at 1:00 pm

poignant sensation

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Underground philosophizing, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A humble narrator does three things, generally, while riding in “the system.” One, I’m trying to get a few decent shots of trains coming and going into the station. Two, I’m usually listening to music of one sort or another on my headphones. Three, I’m struggling with some existential dilemma, which I tend to avoid thinking about when I have better things to do.

Since time spent in “the system” is essentially the exploration of a parabola of mindless intent, I figure you might as well use it to work out some deep seated personal conflict or other bull crap that’s slowing things down when you’re not on the Subway. I’ve been told by MTA employees that train operators (that’s the driver, the conductor is the one mid train who opens and closes the doors) loathe getting photographed, so I make it a point of doing so. One of the many things I plot, plan, and philosophize about are passive aggressive revenge scenarios against fairly unreliable and impersonal government agencies. It keeps me from pondering what sorts of debased life may be hiding in the sweating concrete bunkers just beyond the light puddles created by the station platforms, at any rate.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In case you’re wondering why today’s post has little to do with what I did last week, it’s because the rain and high humidity  basically cancelled out any and all plans that didn’t involve a humble narrator earning a paycheck. My time was essentially spent staring into space and bemoaning the climatological extremes, in between subway trips.

While on the train, I pondered why so many Democrats describe themselves as “progressives,” as they don’t actually seem to know the mean of the word (Robert Moses was a progressive, as in “progress”) and why so many Republicans call themselves “conservatives” since they too seem ignorant of what that term indicates. Progressive is “you need to move, since the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and the many need an eight lane highway instead of your house,” and Conservative is “things are pretty good the way they are, so I’m going to resist anything but incremental change.”

As a note, one thing I don’t wonder about are the incorruptible human remains of Saints. They were embalmed in honey. Honey is basically a time machine. They pull jars of the stuff out of Egyptian tombs that are pretty much edible 5,000 years later. In ancient times, if you received a wound, they’d put honey (liquid gold) in it. Then they’d layer some odiferous powder like Frankincense on top (to defeat the olfactory senses of flying insects), and splatter a resin like Myrrh on top to seal it. The whole affair would get wrapped in clean linen. Y’all don’t need three wise men, you have me.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One spends a pretty good amount of time wondering what the steel dust choked air, combined with the electromagnetic spill over from the energized third rail and the nitre coated concrete walls of the subways, is breeding underground. You’ve got all you need down there to replicate the early conditions for life on Earth – electrical fields, organic molecules, lots of solute choked liquids…

Who can guess, all there is, that might be festering into life down there?


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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 30, 2018 at 1:00 pm

always inclusive

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Summer Friday odds and ends.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One is always puzzled by this sort of sight, when a piece of heavy construction equipment rolls by on area streets. A buddy of mine in construction once opined that some heavy equipment handlers, who are apparently the construction workers you’ll see who wear  brown helmets with a bunch of stickers on them, aren’t allowed to leave the vehicle alone on the job site. They are obliged to use it for transportation from site to site, and even use it if they’re just picking up lunch somewhere. That doesn’t sound right to me, but I only wear a hard hat occasionally and when it’s required for visiting a work site I’m photographing, but the heavy equipment I’m rolling with is a camera.

Still, screw your bike lanes, “I wants me one of dose tings” pictured above. If I couldn’t find parking, I’d be able to dig a hole for it to live in.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Next week promises to be more of the same, weather wise, and my schedule is lightly packed. Perhaps I’ll spend some time down in the sweating concrete bunkers of the MTA and raise the suspicions of bored police officers again by photographing trains. I don’t know, I make things up as I go along. One has to be open to serendipity when you’re staring at the world through a camera’s diopter. One has to go the City a couple of times in the coming week to accomplish a few errands, so I might try to find some time to hit the zoo or a museum while I’m in town.

Been meaning to wander around lower Manhattan at night again anyway.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One of my errands is to get a discounted camera maintenance and sensor cleaning session over at Beards and Hats on Sunday, which will eliminate some pesky dust motes that have resisted all my efforts at removal. You can only discern these occlusions in long exposure and tight aperture shots, which are exactly the direction that my proverbial muse is currently pointing at.

It’s always something.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 27, 2018 at 1:00 pm

positive humour

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Can’t we all just get along?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

“History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up,” is what Voltaire said, but of course he said it in French and that philosophic author was – in fact – kind of an elitist douche in my opinion. Voltaire was a pen name, the fellow was actually named François-Marie Arouet, and he was the son a royal treasury official and a low ranking noblewoman. Voltaire was a member of the upper class, spending most of his days around money and royalty. He hated the church in particular, and despite his douchiness – was far ahead of his time.

In 1763 he said “It does not require great art, or magnificently trained eloquence, to prove that Christians should tolerate each other. I, however, am going further: I say that we should regard all men as our brothers. What? The Turk my brother? The Chinaman my brother? The Jew? The Siam? Yes, without doubt; are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same God?”

Funny thing is, whereas Voltaire was offering that little diatribe in the name of enlightening his 18th century chums, a modern day “leftie” would turn red in the face and start lecturing him about defining people by their nationality and in the case of terms like “chinaman,” gender specific pronouns.

Perspective. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

About twenty years ago, I did a historical comic based on the conquest of Aztec Mexico by Hernan Cortez and the nascent Spanish Empire. As is the case to this day, I went to extremes in terms of research. I started with a biased but first hand account by Bernal Diaz, who was one of Cortez’s soldiers and was present for the entire campaign. Then I dove into scholarly MesoAmerican studies literature, and learned everything I could about the Mexica (which is what the Aztecs were actually called), the Triple Alliance of Lake Texcoco, and the predicate religion and culture that their nation emerged from. I learned a few things and got busy with the writing and scribbling pictures.

One of the things I learned during my research for the Cortez comic is that it is impossible to read about the past without modern day political bias filtering in. When I started the comic, I wanted Cortez’s portrayal to be negative and reminiscent of what I would likely do with Mao or Hitler, but the thing is – you had to put yourself in his shoes when writing him – and think about his perspective. It made me understand that nobody ever thinks of themselves as a villain.

Perspective is key.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Aztec Empire was still forming up when the Spaniards arrived at Vera Cruz in April of 1519, which was coincidentally the date on the Aztec calendar which was prophesied as being the day which an anti-christ analogue would arrive and destroy the world. Cortez was lucky, showing up on the day – and at the time – he was supposed to. He also fit the physical description offered by the Aztec priests, and had miraculous to their eyes technologies at his command. Guns, horses, armor, cannons, galleons. The Aztecs were no slouches. They commanded a million man army that controlled about 50% of modern day Mexico. These Warriors were armed with spear and dart thrower equipped swords called “Atl Atl,” and Aztec missiliers were observed driving obsidian glass darts through the trunks of trees. The Atl Atl, when used in hand to hand combat, was a war club arrayed with obsidian glass razors that could decapitate or disembowel with ease. The Aztecs were conquerors, who had just bloodily assembled an Empire. The Spaniards, on the other hand were the inheritors of the wars of El Cid, and in the case of many of these Conquistadors – their fathers had served with the great general in pushing their own long seated Moorish conquerors out of what became Spain and Portugal. Basically, both sides were – from the modern point of view – bad guys. 

Revisionist history often neglects to mention the Tlaxcalans and other tribal nations who threw in with the Spaniards to push their Aztec out of power. Aztec Emperors taxed their subjects heavily, even to the point of demanding children be sent to their capital at Tenochtitlan for use as human sacrifices to Tlaoc, Huitzilopochtli, Xipe Totec, Coatlicue, and a host of other deities. When the Spanish first defeated a numerically superior Aztec army in battle, the Tlaxcalans essentially said “Thank you gods, for sending these men.” Cortez honestly believed, according to all reports and in his own diaries, that he was sent by God itself to stamp out a devil worshipping group of infidels.

Both sides had fathers that wore Voltaire’s wooden shoes, and their kids who did the fighting in Mexico were wearing the silk ones. Both sides were enslavers, and conquerors, motivated by greed and amplification of power over others. If you were to suddenly drop into Caligula’s Rome or Mongol Babylon, accompanied by a fully supplied battalion of modern day United States Marines, what would you do?

Thing is, and I had to translate this situation into a modernist perspective to understand it, Cortez was sort of like a space alien that looks just like Jesus Christ (as described in the New Testament Book Revelations, bloody robes and riding a lamb) who blunderingly lands his flying saucer in front of the Vatican on Easter Sunday. This alien then displays magical technologies, and is coincidentally accompanied by 400 and change of his “angels.” The alien soon realizes that Europe has been caught in a military tournament between the United States and Russia for most of the last century, and that there’s a long standing mythology about a returning Messiah which he can cloak himself in, who then sets about changing and exploiting all that. What the happy Europeans don’t realize, as they see both American and Russian armies crushed, is that the Space Alien is planning on setting himself up as the king of Rome afterwards.

Perspective. 


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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 26, 2018 at 11:00 am

malignly silent

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Hudson Yards vs. Sunnyside Yards, what’s the difference?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Last week I was invited to speak to a group of architecture students about the Sunnyside Yards. Part of the presentation involved discussion of the Hudson Yards project over in Manhattan, and how it can provide a model for development of the Sunnyside Yard. This is a false equivalency being offered by the powers that be, for a variety of reasons. The first and foremost thing to mention is that the Hudson Yards sit over an outcropping of Manhattan Schist and Gneiss, which provides for a stable underpinning for mega towers. Foundations are somewhat important, my engineer friends tell me, and the Sunnyside Yards sits on a compacted pile of clay and sand which until quite recently (1909) was a swamp.

Actual rock underpinnings on the northwestern side of a certain Long Island are absent west of Maspeth. If you find yourself in Maspeth, look west at what would appear to be a soup bowl, formed by elluvial deposits left behind by post glacial flooding. The piles which the mega developments of Long Island City sit upon are thus more numerous, and driven far deeper, than those in Manhattan which is technically a ridge of igneous rock. Soil conditions can be “engineered around” of course, since – theoretically speaking – if you possess enough money and technical acumen, you could build a ladder to the Moon if you wanted to. It’s just not practical to build a ladder to the moon, but since when does practical consideration get in the way of our Mayor’s political calculus.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Hudson Yards was a challenge to the construction and engineering crowd, but a staightforward one inasmuch as the trackage leading out of Penn Station is arranged in parallels as you’ll notice in the shot above. What that means, from a decking perspective, is that you can set out the beams and columns needed to support the above ground structure at regular intervals and you’re essentially constructing a grandiose table or bench supported by multiple legs. The main problem they experienced was how to coordinate the movement of equipment in the cramped quarters of Manhattan.

Sunnyside Yards is defined by a convoluted series of intertwined rights of way which criss cross each other. Some of them, like the “balloon,” or turnaround, track travel over sweeping arches to switches which feed into either tunnels or holding tracks. You’ve even got the busiest railway switch in the entire country in there, the Harold Interlocking. Sunnyside Yards is complicated, and is already the eastern focal point of the largest capital project in the United States – the long delayed and vastly over budget East Side Access project which will allow Long Island Railroad access to Grand Central Terminal via LIC.

Why is it so over budget and so delayed, you ask? Because the MTA didn’t take into account the presence of buried waterways around and in the Sunnyside Yards (which was a big part of the Pennsyvania Railroad’s construction efforts a century ago), which any Queens historian can tell you are the buried remnants of Newtown Creek’s Dutch Kills tributary, and which once flowed to modern day Jackson Avenue and 29th street. Why do you think that section of LIC was called “Dutch Kills,” since it wasn’t named that for shits and giggles?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The parallel nature of the tracks at Hudson Yards allowed for the usage of an esoteric bit of kit called a Beam Launcher, pictured above. The Beam Launcher facilitated the placement of the deck’s supporting beams onto concrete foundation from above, literally lowering them into place from above. The big yellow thing above is the Beam Launcher, which was about 3/4 the length of a Manhattan block. Steel beams were unloaded from trucks, which in some cases were loaded up from barges, brought to the job site, and then manipulated into position. 

The beam launcher dealie is described in some detail, in this post from 2014.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 25, 2018 at 11:00 am

carved overmantel

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Who wouldn’t want to live in Queens Plaza, that’s the question.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Probably the most unwelcoming place on the planet, an area which is frankly antithetical to human life, Queens Plaza has nevertheless become a hub of residential development in recent years. You’ve got the 24/7 vehicle traffic spilling angry motorists on and off of the Queensboro Bridge, a complex of elevated subway lines above (the steel rafters are infested with vampires, but that’s a whole other story) and a complex of underground subway lines below. The sidewalks have become nonexistent due to the exigent needs of the construction industry, and there are thousands upon thousands of residential units opening within the new and quite banal glass boxes that soar twenty and thirty stories above the traffic choked streets.

The political class in Western Queens loved all of this “growth” as it meant campaign donations from banks and real estate interests flowed freely into their reelection accounts, and then they also got to talk about “affordable” housing as if it was actually “affordable” while insisting that the real estate people hand out a token number of plum development jobs to friendly construction unions.  This caused even more campaign donations to manifest from cultic eidolons like the Working Families Party and the trade unions. Since the Democrats of Queens generally run unopposed by other parties, the cash they didn’t have to spend during the elections then allowed them to use these campaign donations as slush funds to curry favor with, and financially support, weaker candidates in districts that enjoy actual elections. The whole time, these elected officials referred to themselves in glowing terms as “progressives,” which is a term that they don’t seem to have ever looked up in a dictionary.

There are no food markets, bodegas, coffee shops, parking lots, nearby schools, or hospitals on the construction schedule… but there’s lots of noisy traffic if that’s your bag… Just imagine if you had an emergency and you needed to wait for an ambulance to navigate through rush hour traffic at Queens Plaza. You won’t see a lot of municipal investment here in Queens Plaza or LIC as a whole, except for tax abatements and City subsidies encouraging the growth of more tower apartment buildings, as the political class is averse to being perceived as having “increased government spending.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The bought and sold politicians of Western Queens are in a tizzy at the moment. First Marge Markey, then Liz Crowley – and even Joe Crowley – have been seen applying for benefits at the unemployment office. They’re the first.

Comical just desserts have been served by the electorate to the “growth at any cost” crowd, as election results for Boss Crowley’s downfall have shown that he lost to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez not because of some demographic change amongst the burgeoning Latino population or the “I want to help POC” crowd who wanted “one of their own,” rather it was the overwhelmingly wealthy Caucasian and Asian gentrifier crowd that are moving into the tower buildings in places like Queens Plaza and Court Square who booted him out. Markey and Liz Crowley lost their jobs because they sided with City Hall against their own communities.

The body politic is changing in Queens, and for those politicians who used to count on incumbent victories due to low voter turnout and the affections of the party faithful, a chill is in the air. As I’ve often said to these elected officials “how do you know that these rich people from the Midwest are Democrats?” “Aren’t you concerned that you’re unintentionally shifting the electorate to the right, since the demographics and politics of the moneyed people who can afford $3,000 for a studio apartment are very, very different than those of the people you’re claiming to represent?”

They don’t teach that in politics school, apparently.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The thing is, a humble narrator watches all of this dispassionately. He rages against the sophists and the connected, is rude to the mid level representatives of “the powers that be,” and enjoys popping the egomaniacal balloons arrayed at political events. Ultimately, it’s all wasted effort.

The reality of things is that while all of this extra inventory of apartments has been created over the last twenty years, rent has gone up all over the City and that homelessness is now approaching levels not seen since the Hooverville’s of the Great Depression. Job creation and sustainability is not on the syllabus offered by these so called progressives, except for themselves and their staffs. These progressives close hospitals and nursing homes rather than open them, allowing their donors in the real estate industrial complex to then convert the structures to bespoke luxury condos with some token “affordable” component which no NYPD or even Teachers Union employee could afford to live in. 

Growth, unchecked, is called Cancer.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 24, 2018 at 11:00 am

astonished to

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Tell me what to do, everyone.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As is my usual habit, while the 7 line Subway was entering the Vernon Jackson Station, the camera was busily clicking away a couple three weeks ago. You’ve seen lots and lots of these shots here at your Newtown Pentacle, as every time I leave the neighborhood on whatever mission the day presents, I document my journeys photographically and that includes getting on the train. Like the Kiwi, I’m a funny and fuzzy little fruit with a lot of personality. On this particular afternoon, the gendarme who had so successfully pissed off his bosses that he was assigned to sit in the cop box at the end of a subway platform in Queens decided to punctuate his obvious boredom by confronting me about taking pictures in “the system.” How retro.

Given that I’m overly familiar with not just MTA’s policies towards photographic pursuits on their property (no commercial shoots, camera supports, lights, or flashes without a permit) but NYPD’s (standing orders from former Police Chief Kelly about not harassing photographers) as well, a brief conversation with the officer ensued. He accused me of using a flash, which he claimed “bothered” the conductors. I asked if he saw a camera flash, to which he replied he couldn’t see flashes inside his little cop box. Believe me, if I was using the flash I carry, you’d see it from up on the street. As is my habit, I offered to go with him to the nearby 108th precinct to have a conversation with his Desk Sergeant and Captain Forgione about NYPD’s rules on this subject. The officer declined the opportunity and asked me for ID and to see the pictures I had taken, to which I asked if I had committed a crime. Further, I offered that if he wanted to examine my camera card, he would need a subpoena.

He soon realized that he had stepped into a bear trap and returned to his cop box.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It’s been a while since I was last hassled by cops for brandishing the deadly weaponry known as a camera. I mean, it’s called a Canon, right? There are no laws in NYC, or in fact the United States, which preclude photographic pursuits in public spaces. There are a few exceptions, to be fair, but they mainly center around military installations. Everytime you see a sign like the one above, simply read it as an abrogation of your constitutional rights. The same legal pretense that allows NYPD and other security oriented organizations to hang surveillance and robotic red light cameras on lamp posts, private businesses and homeowners to brocade their walls with CCTV security cameras, also allows one such as myself to capture images of anything encountered whenever and wherever I want to.

A few years back, after reluctantly showing up for Jury Duty, the bailiffs of the Queens County court system went apoplectic when they saw my camera bag. They had no reaction whatsoever to the web connected video camera everybody else was carrying… you know, iPhones… but the DSLR represented some sort of existential threat to them.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There are rules governing photography regarding private property, as a note. If I wander into a shopping mall, or cemetery, and start clicking away and am then confronted by representatives of the property owner who tell me to cease and desist I am obliged to do so. Again, it’s public space versus private space. If you can see it from the sidewalk, it’s kosher. 

Photography. Not a crime. Forcing a cop to work inside a box at the Vernon Jackson station might be a human rights violation, however. This fellow should be out there on the streets doing something useful.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 23, 2018 at 11:00 am

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