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civic spirit

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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

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

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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

various stages

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Sangria law is coming.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Ever since Marco Gutierrez, founder of the group Latinos for Trump, laid out his dire warning that “you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner” I’ve been noticing that there already are – in fact, taco trucks on just about every corner. As with all things stupid, some clever quant out there on the web did a calculation regarding the claim, and it emerged that this would represent the creation of something like 15 million new jobs.

I can get behind this sort of capitalist activity, although most of the taco trucks here in Astoria are kind of gross, and offer a quality of foodstuff that’s mainly aimed at inebriates.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I don’t like the “race stuff” and never have. I don’t like lumping groups of people together under a label, whether it be nationalist in nature, racial, or whatever. I don’t like the term “homeless” for instance, as it creates the impression of some homogenous population who all have the same set of problems. I don’t like the idea of calling a huge number of people who hail from widely disparate “south of the border” locales under the umbrella “Latino” either. Labels dehumanize, and once you’ve dehumanized a group…

Do people actually talk to each other anymore, or do they just make stuff up about strangers?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Personally speaking, as the grandson of members of one the groups who were reviled when they arrived in this country a century ago – in my case, Jews from the Pale – the whole taco truck thing is cast in a different sort of light. These are people who arrived here with nothing – like the Italians, Irish, and other Europeans who came in the 19th and early 20th centuries – and who have worked and clawed their way into the entrepreneurial space by the sweat of their brow. The “race stuff” precludes some from seeing what’s going on here, but a taco truck on every corner is actually not a good thing – it’s a great thing. These people are your grandparents, reborn.

I look forward to the introduction of Sangria Law into the United States, as it will be a delicious and refreshing reboot. Every twenty five to fifty years, you need to pull the plug on America, refresh its firmware and update its operating system – if I’m reading Thomas Jefferson’s meaning correctly, and using modern idiom, to paraphrase his “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

Upcoming tours and events:


“13 Steps around Dutch Kills” walking tour
with Atlas Obscura, Sunday, September 18th from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 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 16, 2016 at 4:30 pm

dormant organs

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Sure is nice outside, except if you meet the Queens Cobbler.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The single shoe phenomena has recently kicked back into gear around Wetsern Queens, which suggests to me that the Queens Cobbler is again active. The “Queens Cobbler,” as I’ve christened this licentious stealer of souls (or soles), is the name I’ve assigned to a probable serial killer who leaves behind a single shoe – a calling card that has been plucked from his or her unfortunate victim. Above, a single shoe found displayed on Astoria’s Broadway, quite recently.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Flip or flop, or some combination thereof, the inefficiencies of this model of footwear are well known. It is virtually impossible to run when wearing these “pool” or “shower” shoes – if shoes they be and not sandals. This cerulean trimmed model was just left in the open on Austell Place in the fabulous Degnon Terminal section of Long Island City.

This Queens Cobbler really gets around.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A break in the pattern, perhaps the work of a copy cat, was revealed back in Astoria near Steinway Street. Three matching pairs of shoes were observed in one spot. One hopes that the 114th precinct has assigned a squad of their crack Detectives to investigating this matter, and the killer(s) amongst us.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Our Lady of the Pentacle and myself have learned to stoutly lock our windows and doors at night, and seldom venture out without exhibiting a quick pace and alert posture. Terrors such as only the mind can hold accompany thoughts of the Cobbler’s ghoulish activities. A palpable pall of pestilential fear lurks about Queens, and all watch their steps.

Hopefully, the Cobbler won’t join forces with the Sunnyside Slasher, Ridgewood Ripper, Woodside Whomper, or the Mad Gasser of Blissville and form so,emleague of evil. The streets would be littered with shoes.

Upcoming tours and events:


“Brooklyn Waterfront – Past & Present” boat tour
with Working Harbor Committee, Thursday, September 15th from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“13 Steps around Dutch Kills” walking tour
with Atlas Obscura, Sunday, September 18th from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 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 13, 2016 at 11:00 am

vague aura

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Wood, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

To start, apologies for missing yesterday’s post, but frankly – a humble narrator was completely wiped out from the effort leading up to Wednesday evening’s Fireboat trip on Newtown Creek, which seems to have gone pretty well.

We had about 70 “influential” people onboard, served them BBQ and drinks, and discussed the future of things on the Creek. The Fireboat actually ran aground for a short interval nearby the intersection of the main stem of the Creek with English Kills, as it was low tide and a sediment mound was exposed, but what’s a night out on a historic Fireboat without a bit of adventure?

The shots in today’s post have nothing to do with the excursion, instead, they’re macro shots of parts of a decaying wooden fence which my landlord has decided to remove. The wood is so magnificently weathered, and ridden with wood lice, that I couldn’t resist setting up my “ghetto” lighting rig and doing a few macro shots.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Ghetto lighting is one of terms, btw, for an improvisational setup that doesn’t use “proper” equipment like studio lights with diffuser umbrellas or anything like that. In fact, there’s only two light sources and a flash (set to its extreme low power setting) involved. The cool light comes from a flashlight taped to a small tabletop tripod that’s focused on a transluscent plastic place mat used as an ad hoc diffuser, and the warm one is a flashlight of the same model which has an amber colored pill bottle taped to it. The camera is my trusty old Canon G10, affixed to a magnetic tripod, and the flash was in the camera’s hot shoe.

There’s a reason I call it ghetto lighting.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The funny thing is that these shots were captured while I was stuck at home, on the phone, making final arrangements for the Fireboat excursion. I was literally begging the Borough President of Queens’s office to send out a staffer to come along, but they weren’t terribly interested in attending. The Brooklyn Borough President’s office, on the other hand, wanted to send actual elected officials. I had established a rule on the trip that we didn’t want the actual elected officials onboard, as it would have stifled the conversation and diverted it to other issues, and it was difficult saying no to City Council and Assembly members who wanted to come onboard. Saying that, we had a Deputy Commisioner of the DEP, the show runner of Riverkeeper, and lots of other important folks onboard. I’m VERY happy to say that I actually managed to get representatives from Maspeth, East Williamsburg, Bushwick, LIC, and – of course – Greenpoint on the boat.

One of the failings of the political establishment here in Queens is a general disinterest in Newtown Creek, probably because they really don’t want to open up the whole “post industrial environmental issue” can of worms.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

September 9, 2016 at 12:30 pm

Posted in Astoria, Broadway

Tagged with , , , ,

hung about

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More experimentation with my new lens, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My pal, Jiminy the Parrot, is a ham. He’s also a great and cooperative subject when I’m trying to crack out some shots. Jiminy also hosts a wealth of fine detail in the green suit he always seems to be wearing, which makes him an excellent subject as far as testing out how a lens might perform as as far as rendering detail and color. It seems every piece of glass that you stick on your camera sees the world in its own way, and learning the way that my new Sigma 50-100 thinks and visualizes things is integral to the decision about whether or not it is a permanent addition to my kit.

At the moment, I’m loving the thing although it is damned heavy and there has been a bit of a learning curve as to how to best employ it. The lens itself weighs nearly four pounds, which is the equivalent of at least a couple of parrots. Add in the camera, and I’m waving about 5-6 pounds of gear around for hours at a pop. Doesn’t sound like much, but over the course of an average day – it adds up.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned last week, the Sigma “art” series lenses have a real predilection towards rendering colors in a hyper saturated manner which can be somewhat reminiscent of the four color world of comic books. This fits my visual sensibility, but for those of you out there who prefer muted color and heavy saturated blacks in your shots, this might be a deal breaker. That’s Astoria’s Broadway in the shot above, just east of Steinway Street, if you’re curious. The lens isn’t “all the way” open, instead it’s at f2.8. I could have doubled the ISO and narrowed the lens down to f5.6 to create a bit more of an “infinite” hyper focal range, but wanted to see what a shallower depth of field would do.

Going back to the “heavy” issue, I had been carrying the thing around all day and noticed that a slight fatigue tremor was present in my right arm. The good news, of course, is that I can use the extra exercise. The bad news is that my right arm is going to tone up to accommodate the extra carry while my left hangs there uselessly and will end up looking like a little tyrannosaur limb in comparison. Guess I’ll have to just carry around a gallon of milk or something with the left as I wander about.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The virtue of this device, of course, is in the wide open side of it for usage in low light situations. The shot above is handheld and captured at ISO 800 at f1.8. It’s also Broadway in Astoria, and depicts the corner that HQ is found on. Since the night shots are what I’m interesting in pursuing this fall and winter, rather than brightly lit daytime shots of Jiminy the Parrot, the shot above is pretty promising as far as what this piece of glass is capable of.

Weather permitting, I’m planning on making a late night pot of coffee pretty soon and putting on one of my orange safety vests in preparation for an “all nighter” wandering around the industrial zones and concrete devastations surrounding that legendary exemplar of Municpal neglect known as the Newtown Creek.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

September 7, 2016 at 11:05 am

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