The Newtown Pentacle

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Dutch Kills.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It’s become a fairly rare thing for a humble narrator to be out and about whilst the burning thermonuclear eye of god itself is still wobbling about in the sky, but just the other day this was the case. The light was purple in coloration, given that the aforementioned ocular fireball was descending in the west behind New Jersey.

The air smelled uncharacteristically nice at Dutch Kills, which is a tributary of the fabulous Newtown Creek. Dutch Kills diverges from the larger waterbody some .7 of a mile from Newtown Creek’s intersection with the East River, and proceeds into Long Island City roughly 3/4 of a mile. It’s crossed by multiple bridges, and since maritime industrial usage of the bulkheads is zero, self seeded vegetation lines Dutch Kills’ banks.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

If you could see through time like me, you’d observe a swampy marshland here in the pre industrial Dutch Kills watershed. Islands forming around Juniper and Cypress roots covered in cosmopolitan plant colonies – mixed speciations of salt resistant shoreline vegetation. Critters would abound – the Dutch settlers in this area often commented on the vast numbers of deer and birds in this area. So many deer, in fact, that the north side of Newtown Creek reportedly had a wolf problem and Government entities offered a paid bounty for wolf pelts all the way up to the Civil War in the 1860’s.

Upland streams and wetlands were eradicated between the Civil War and the opening of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, and the subsequent creation of the Sunnyside Yards and the Degnon Terminal in the 1910’s and 20’s finished the job of isolating Dutch Kills from the land surrounding it. The waterway became an industrial canal, with railroad tracks crisscrossing the reclaimed land around it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It turns out that some of the trees pictured above, the ones with the purple flowers, are called Empress or Princess or Foxglove Trees (Paulownia tomentosa) and their presence is directly linked to the presence of those rail tracks. To start, Empress Trees are quite opportunistic, and can root themselves into cracks in the concrete, or even in the mortar between bricks. They are also an “invasive specie” native to central and western China. Ecologically speaking, they are amazing organisms to encounter, as their leaves “fix” nitrogen in a very efficient fashion and enrich the soil they grow in as dead leaves decay on the ground. Empress trees also drink up a lot of CO2, sequestering 103 metric tons per square acre of the greenhouse gas into their wood. They also look cool, and as mentioned, the flowers are pleasant smelling.

It seems that during the 19th century, Chinese porcelain manufacturers would use the pillowy seeds of Empress Trees for the same purpose that a modern day counterpart would use styrofoam packing peanuts. Cargo traveling by boat and rail spread the seeds along their courses, which is theoretically why you see so many of this type of tree growing wild in areas like Dutch Kills. Perhaps, in a century or so, there will be styrofoam trees found here.

Note: I’m writing this and several of the posts you’re going to see for the next week at the beginning of the week of Monday, May 25th. My plan is to continue doing my solo photo walks around LIC and the Newtown Creek in the dead of night as long as that’s feasible. If you continue to see regular updates as we move into April and beyond, that means everything is kosher as far as health and well being. If the blog stops updating, it means that things have gone badly for a humble narrator.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Buy a book!

In the Shadows at Newtown Creek,” an 88 page softcover 8.5×11 magazine format photo book by Mitch Waxman, is now on sale at for $30.

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