The Newtown Pentacle

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subaqueous civilization 

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It’s National Taffy Day, in these United States.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The camera was desperate for an adventure last week, so a humble narrator acquiesced and took it out on the water for the Working Harbor Committee‘s Education tour. The Education tour is a private event, a boat trip which is conducted for school groups that culminates a program of classroom instruction on the subject of the harbor of New York and New Jersey. There’s a lot of great jobs at the Port, and for some reason most New Yorkers don’t consider it an option when they’re looking for work.

It ain’t just longshoremen or sailor type stuff either, as Ed Kelly from the Maritime Association and Andrew Genn from the NYC EDC explained to the hundred or so high school students who were onboard.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Unfortunately, one had to cross through the cursed earth of Manhattan to get to the WHC boat at Pier 11, which is roughly in line with Governeur Lane down in the financial district. This was in the midst of that sudden three day heat wave last week, so rather than walk in to town from Astoria or take the Ferry from LIC (my preference for such excursions) I just jumped on the subway. Why it takes so long to get from “a to b” these days is a complete mystery to me, as the trip ultimately resolves down to around 8 miles.

The good news is that on the way home, I used the Citywide ferry service to return to the blessed and heavy metals rich soil of Queens. I’m planning on hitting the new Rockaway Route soon, btw, as soon as my schedule allows it. It has been a very, very busy month of May for a humble narrator.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Speaking of the new Citywide Ferry service, I still haven’t ridden on one of the new Hornblower model ferries. The one that met me for the trip home was an older but super reliable NY Waterways version, the model which has been servicing the East River route for several years now. While the boat was making its regular stops, I spotted this little push boat tug towing a barge which had a crane set upon it. Couldn’t resist popping out a few shots of the thing.

The camera slept well that night, after having gotten some exercise and a bit of a workout on the water.


Upcoming Tours and events

Newtown Creek Alliance and Riverkeeper Visioning, June 3rd, 1-4 p.m..

Imagine the future of Newtown Creek with Riverkeeper and NCA at the Kingsland Wildfowers Green Roof (520 Kingsland Avenue in Greenpoint) details here.

Newtown Creek Alliance History lecture with NCA historian Mitch Waxman, June 3rd, 7 p.m.

An hour long lecture and slideshow about Newtown Creek’s incredible history at the gorgeous Kingsland Wildfowers Green Roof (520 Kingsland Avenue in Greenpoint).


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modern matters

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It’s Street Children’s Day, in the Republic of Austria.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dutch Kills, a tributary of Newtown Creek which abruptly turns north off the main channel three quarters of a mile east of the East River, is entirely contained within Long Island City. It’s crossed by five bridges – the LIRR bridges DB Cabin and Cabin M, the Borden Avenue Bridge, the Queens Midtown Expressway truss, and the Hunters Point Avenue Bridge. Dutch Kills, like all of Newtown Creek’s tributaries and the main channel itself, is lined with a toxic sediment referred to as “Black Mayonnaise.” This sediment is composed of coal tar, petroleum and refining byproducts, industrial waste of various provence and typology, as well as human excrement deposited by NYC’s open sewers.

At its northern terminus, Dutch Kills is across the street from a CUNY college and several charter schools serving high school and junior high school aged kids. One of the most significant build outs in recent real estate history is happening less than a quarter mile from that spot, along LIC’s Jackson Avenue in an area referred to as “Court Square.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Due to a non functioning railroad swing bridge at Dutch Kill’s junction with Newtown Creek’s main channel, there is absolutely zero maritime industrial activity along the tributary. The bulkheads along its reach generally date back about a century, to a massive “improvement” conducted around the time of the First World War which saw the marshes and swamps it fed drained and both the Sunnyside Yards and the Degnon Industrial Terminal constructed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The streets surrounding Dutch Kills offer fleeting glimpses of the waterway, and many of them are not City streets at all but “railroad access roads” owned by the MTA. You can almost always smell the waterway before you can see it, and whereas I can tell you a few spots to access the water, none of these are “legal” and all involve trespass of private or government property. You can legally observe it from the Borden Avenue or Hunters Point Avenue bridges, however.

At it’s terminus – or “turning basin,” there are two abandoned oil barges rusting and rotting away into the water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Illegal dumping, the native art form of the Borough of Queens, is practiced hereabouts with relish and abandon. The DSNY garbage bin in the shot above appeared on 29th street back in November, and I’ve been watching it steadily fill up and overflow. DSNY doesn’t seem to remember where they put it, as I haven’t seen it empty since the day it arrived.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Amidst the sheens of oil and grease you’ll observe on Dutch Kills, which are both historic and newly spawned, there are what the NYC DEP would describe as “floatables.” That’s government code for garbage that’s either been flushed or has been swept into the sewer grates on every street corner in NYC. In the case of Dutch Kills, the “sewer shed” that feeds these floatables into it extends all the way to East Elmhurst and Woodside to the east, Sunnyside and Astoria to the north, and the rapidly growing Long Island City which Dutch Kills is a part of.

The sewer plant that handles this burgeoning area was opened in 1931, and Fiorello LaGuardia cut the ribbon to open it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There is going to be a meeting tomorrow, the latest of many, of the Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group (CAG) on the first of February. If the shot above looks good to you, and you’d like to see more of the same – don’t come. If you care about not having a billion and a half gallons of raw sewage a year spilling onto mounds of poisonous and century old industrial waste, do come. Pipe up, we need voices and perspectives from outside the echo chamber.

Details on the meeting – time, place, etc. – can be accessed at this link. We could really use some Queensican bodies and voices in the room.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As evinced by the corpse pictured above, life has actually begun to recolonize this waterway in recent years. The presence of higher mammals hereabouts speaks to an ecosystem that is beginning to recover from centuries of industrial and municipal abuse. Of course, nothing is going to save a raccoon from getting ground into hamburger by the wheels of a semi truck.

At Newtown Creek Alliance, we’ve been cataloging and observing for a while now. There’s more than seventy individual species of birds for instance – including Great Blue Herons and Ospreys – living along the lugubrious Newtown Creek. Their presence speaks to a growing population of prey animals (fish) present in the water column, and to a broader environmental recovery happening along this industrial waterway at the literal center of NYC.


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hidden laboratory

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It’s International Cheese Day, for the industrialized and lactose tolerant nations of this planet.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

3.4 miles from the East River is a spot which one refers to as DUMABO – or Down Under the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge Onramp. The first bridge over the flowing waters of English Kills was erected here (slightly to the west, actually) in 1814 and was privately owned by the Masters brothers, so it was accordingly referred to as the “Masters Bridge.” Historic sources indicate this spot as being, during the colonial to civil war period, the demarcation point between salt and fresh water on the English Kills tributary of the fabulous Newtown Creek. Shellfish were described as being found in “great abundance.” It was once known as White’s Dock, for the vulgarly curious. The precursor of the modern day Metropolitan Avenue Bridge was built in the 1870’s, and the modern bridge (much altered) was erected in 1931.

The fresh water was being fed into English Kills by upland springs and streams in nearby Bushwick that flowed downhill into it, and by ground water entering it from the bottom. Back in 1814, Metropolitan Avenue was just a wooden plank toll road rising up from the swamps, and it was called the “Williamsburgh and Jamaica Turnpike road.” The springs and streams of Bushwick are what attracted beer breweries like the Ulmer people to a then German speaking rural neighborhood to ply their trade, but I digress. The fat renderers and acid factories began to show up in the 1830’s and 40’s around these parts, and notably – Peter Cooper’s “pestilential” glue factory, where Jello was invented, was just a few blocks away. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

NYC DOT has been doing a bunch of work at this spot recently, some sort of construction that they attached to the bridge itself. Unfortunately, they didn’t do anything about the loose soil on the shoreline, nor the decaying wooden bulkheads holding that shoreline in place. Of course, not many people come back here, but it would have been fairly easy to fall into English Kills given the rotting shoreline when the shot above was captured.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s the Mary H. tug, tied up to the Bayside Fuel Depot bulkheads, just east of the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge. This is pretty much the extent of serious maritime access to English Kills given the black mayonnaise/sediment mound situation that gobbles up operational draught and depth. The green wall with all the kit on top is Waste Management’s Varick Street Waste Transfer Station. The Waste Management facility handles predominantly “putrescent” or black bag garbage for the NYC Department of Sanitation, which is processed on site and then loaded onto the so called “garbage train” which travels on the tracks of LIRR’s Bushwick Branch to Fresh Pond and then over the Hell Gate Bridge to points unknown.

Seriously, unknown. I’ve asked and was told “homeland security” precluded the dissemination of where NYC’s garbage is dumped.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One headed up Varick Street towards industrial Bushwick from Metropolitan Avenue, where this spectacular salt dome structure was encountered. Seriously, no sarcasm is offered, this was a visually interesting and somewhat elegant solution to the problem. The rest of the neighborhood is dull, weathered, depressing. It’s nice to see a bit of color and style on display for something so pedestrian. It’s right next door to the Waste Management facility on Varick Avenue.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The streets in this section, just south and east of Newtown Creek, are industrial in the extreme. Heavy trucking, the garbage industrial complex… suffice to say that the roadways aren’t exactly bike or pedestrian friendly, and that they are in a sorry state of repair. Watch your step hereabouts, and never cross in front of a driveway without first taking a look. This part of the Newtown Creek watershed is what the band Metallica was likely describing with their “death magnetic” album. There’s “ghost bikes” everywhere you look, the air is a poisonous fume…

Yep, it’s pretty much Tolkien’s Mordor back here.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Turning off of Varick, I found myself wandering down Stewart Avenue and onto Randolph Street towards the undefended border of Brooklyn and Queens and that hazy industrial borderland which can either be called Ridgewood, East Williamsburg, or Bushwick – depending on whom you ask. Saying that, move quickly through this area, don’t talk to anyone, and certainly do not ask them questions if they speak to you. I would expand on why, but I’d again be told that I’ve seen too many movies, by some rich guy that moved to Hipster Bushwick from Connecticut less than six months ago who is trying to connect with a local art or club scene that they heard about on Instagram.

Of course, I couldn’t have more inconspicuous – the only person for about a square mile not wearing a safety vest and hard hat, and instead clad in a filthy black raincoat flapping about in the poison wind while waving a camera about.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Speaking of the Bushwick Branch of the LIRR, which carries the garbage train from Bushwick into Queens and its mysterious destination on the continent, it’s just beyond that fence in the shot above. It’s been a while since I wandered through here, and those corrugated fences you see are fairly new, as evinced by a near total lack of graffiti. Back to the implied presence of criminally inclined individuals who are organized into a structure which one might define as a “crew” or a “family,” I’d point out the total lack of graffiti on a visible fence line in North Brooklyn – the high end graffiti capital of these United States.

Go ask someone who grew up in Brooklyn or Queens what that means.

Nevertheless, as is always the case when wandering through the industrial zones surrounding the fabled Newtown Creek, that horrible inhuman thing with the three loved burning eye that cannot possibly exist in the sapphire megalith of Long Island City was watching. It sees all, owns all, knows all.

More to come, next week, at this – your Newtown Pentacle.


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glittering pinnacles

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Nothing I like better than a bleak post industrial landscape.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Behind the scenes on this whole environmental cleanup thing, there’s a lot of arguing and derision. As you’d imagine, the Government people operate according to a series of byzantine rules and exceptions, as do the so called “PRP” or “Potentially Responsible Parties” who have admitted culpability, and responsibility for, cleaning up the historical mess they’ve created in Newtown Creek. The PRP’s are divided into two camps – one is a consortium of energy companies (National Grid, ExxonMobil, BP etc.) and the former copper refinery Phelps Dodge which have styled themselves as the “Newtown Creek Group” or NCG. The other is the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, which despite its name and municipal mission is actually the biggest modern polluter of the waterway itself. The DEP’s sewer plant in Greenpoint is the largest source of greenhouse gases which you’ll find in Brooklyn, accounting for more climate changing emissions than the Battery Tunnel, believe it or not.

NCG and DEP are both on the hook for paying to clean things up on the Newtown Creek, as the agreement they signed with the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that defined them as PRP’s was essentially the environmental law equivalent of a plea bargain agreement. As you’d imagine, both sides are trying to point a finger at the other and trying to force them into paying a larger share of the cleanup bill.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The difference between DEP and NCG, of course, is that the latter are publicly traded corporate entities who can simply pass the cleanup costs on to their customer base. National Grid recently announced a rate hike to its customers in pursuance of this goal. DEP is funded by and is an agency of the City of New York, and is funded by water taxes. No elected official, especially the current Mayor of NYC, wants to announce that taxes are going up so DEP is fighting tooth and nail to appear as an innocent and aggrieved party despite the fact that they signed that “plea bargain” alongside the NCG admitting their culpability. DEP allows in excess of a billion gallons of untreated sewage, per annum, to enter the waterway. I wish I could give you an exact number, but that’s one of the things that everyone is arguing about. If it’s raining, at all, in NYC you’ve got (according to DEP) a 63% chance that their “CSO’s” or “combined sewer outfalls” are belching raw sewage directly into the water.

DEP has argued to the various community organizations that since “chemicals of concern,” as defined in the Superfund “CERCLA” regulations, aren’t being transported in this sewage flow that they’re not even sure why they’re part of the Superfund process. Notably, they don’t do this when EPA is in the room. Speaking as a member of a few of these community organizations, I’ve queried EPA about this, and pointed out that the sewage flow is carrying a literal shit ton of solute and floatable garbage along with it. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

2016 was a pretty disappointing year on the Newtown Creek.

The City DEP is doing everything it can to wiggle out of fixing their mess. Their solution to the billion plus gallons of sewage which carry oxygen eating bacteria into the water is to spend hundreds of millions on an aeration system, which will – in essence – act as an aquarium bubble wand for the sewage. If they get the level of dissolved oxygen in the sewage high enough, they can tell the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation that they’ve solved the problem. The fact that the aeration system will be driven by electric air pumps, which will consume energy and produce greenhouse gases? Well, they’re under an order to increase the dissolved oxygen content of the water. The NYC Department of Environmental Protection is the largest modern source of ongoing water pollution on the Newtown Creek

On the historical pollution side, NCG is talking about using different “solutions” for the various regions of the Creek, which boil down to “dredge” versus “dredge and cap” versus “cap only” scenarios for removing the sediment bed of “Black Mayonnaise” which sits 20-30 feet deep along the waterway. The Black Mayonnaise is a witches brew of petroleum byproducts, coal tar, and everything else that’s ever been deposited in the water. The top layers, which represent about the last fifty years or so, were deposited by the DEP’s sewers, but the stuff at the bottom is industrial waste and spilt products which were manufactured by and belonged to Standard Oil’s refineries, Brooklyn Union Gas’s Manufactured Gas Plant, and Phelps Dodge’s acid factory and copper refinery. ExxonMobil, BP, National Grid etc. are the modern incarnations or inheritors of the energy companies mentioned above. Phelps Dodge acts a bit like a monster hiding under some kid’s bed in a dark room, and maintains a low profile. The oil and gas people are very much present in the conversation, however.

“Dredge and cap” means that the black mayonnaise will be entirely scraped away all the way down to the actual bottom of Newtown Creek, and that a layer of clay and “rip rap” (rocks) will be laid down to seal the bottom off from the water column.” “Cap only” means that the clay and rip rap will be installed OVER the sediment bed, which is a far cheaper scenario. NCG seems to be leaning towards the latter scenario for the extant tributaries like LIC’s Dutch Kills (pictured above), Maspeth Creek, and the East Branch in Ridgewood. This solution is quite a bit cheaper and easier to enact than the dredging one, which is why they’re pushing it, while dressing the plan up as “shoreline reconstruction” and “environmental restoration” in the name of palatability to people like me and my pals at Newtown Creek Alliance.

As mentioned, not a great year on the Newtown Creek.

All sides are offering carrots. I’m fashioning sticks, for use in 2017.


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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

inclement forecast

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A labor day tradition, postponed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The 24th annual Great North River Tugboat Race and Competition has been postponed from September 4th to Sunday, October 9th, 2016 due to the likely appearance of Hurricane Hermine in NY Harbor on Sunday.

Click here for the Working Harbor Blog which will be your best source of information on the storm and the rescheduled Tug Race.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

September 2, 2016 at 11:00 am

unequal heating

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Creek Week concludes, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s the Kosciuszcko Bridge replacement project pictured above, with the 1939 Robert Moses model bridge providing a backdrop to the under construction cable stay model. That’s the Brooklyn side, for the curious. This is a $1.2 billion replacement effort, “fast tracked” by Governor Cuomo, which is intended to replace what’s considered to be the most dangerous bridge in New York State – which happens to carry hundreds of thousands of vehicle trips a day as the Brooklyn Queens Expressway runs across its 2.1 mile long structure (along with its approaches).

– photo by Mitch Waxman

These shots were captured while onboard a NY Water Taxi hired for the evening by the Open House NY organization, and my colleague T. Willis Elkins and I were onboard to represent Newtown Creek Alliance and narrate to two sold out crowds. The second trip was heading back out from the Newtown Creek towards the East River just as sunset was occurring, and as always – Newtown Creek was and is a visual spectacular.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One has been trying to capture as many angles and shots as possible of the old Kosciuszcko Bridge for a couple of years now, simply because within the next 24-36 months it will have been eradicated from common memory.

This whole “Newtown Creek Historian” business isn’t just about revealing the past, it’s about leaving behind a visual record for those who haven’t been born yet about what the place looked like during its superfund and early 21st century transformational period.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I’ve mentioned it before, but the plan which the State DOT has put forward is that once the eastern side of the new bridge is complete, they are going to reroute the BQE onto it. Then, they’re going to demolish the 1939 model, and in its footprint, build the western section of the new cable stay bridge. The great news about that is that there is going to be a pedestrian and bicycle path on the western side of the bridge.

One looks forward to walking the camera across, and getting aerial shots from up there.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The burning thermonuclear eye of God itself was setting in the west as our NY Water Taxi navigated back towards the East River. That’s Blissville in Queens on the right hand side of the shot above, and the former location of not just Charles Pratt’s “Queens County Oil Works” but just about the very spot where the first large scale oil refinery in the United States – Abraham Gesner’s “North American Kerosene Gas Light Company” was founded.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On the Brooklyn or Greenpoint side of Newtown Creek, the former home of the Standard Oil Company of New York and birthplace of what would be one day known as Mobil Oil is closest to the camera, which are now the ExxonMobil Greenpoint Remediation Project properties at 400 Kingsland Avenue.

Sitting on part of the former oil company properties in Greenpoint is the NYC DEP’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, largest and newest of NYC’s 14 sewer plants.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

DUGABO – or Down Under the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge Onramp – is the heart of petroleum country on Newtown Creek. Greenpoint Avenue heads west into Brooklyn, terminating at the East River at Transmitter Park, whereas it continues into Queens and once having crossed Queens Blvd. – it transmogrifies into Roosevelt Avenue and continues all the way out into Flushing.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

From a maritime industrial point of view, the DUGABO area surrounding the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge is probably one of the busiest sections of Newtown Creek in the 21st century. SimsMetal and Allocco Recycling host regular tug and barge traffic, as does Metro fuel.

In the distance is the Pualski Bridge and the towers of the Shining City of Manhattan.

Upcoming Events and Tours

Saturday, August 6th, 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. –
Insalubrious Valley Walking Tour,
with NY Adventure Club. Click here for more details.

Sunday, August 14th, 11:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. –
Calvary Cemetery Walking Tour,
with Atlas Obscura. Click here for more details.

Sunday, August 21, 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. –
Poison Cauldron Walking Tour,
with Atlas Obscura. Click here for more details.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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