The Newtown Pentacle

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Nana nana nana, Batboat!

– photo by Mitch Waxman

So, Sunday last, my pals at Newtown Creek Alliance and NYC Audubon set up an event which would see a group of three dozen Brooklyn bat enthusiasts climb into canoes at dusk and ply the lugubrious waters of the Newtown Creek in search of urban bats. How, I ask, could a humble narrator not want to come along?

Bat Boat!

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I was in one the two gigantic canoes maintained by the North Brooklyn Boat Club for such endeavors, and since I make great ballast, was sitting up front in the bow of the thing. All told, we had seven canoes out on the water.

Bat Boat!

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Audubon people were all geared up with electronic bat detectors (ultrasonic microphone doohickeys) and other frammistats. Bat experts were on hand to answer questions, and copies of “Bat International” magazines offered.

Bat Boat!

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Now, I know what you’re thinking here, but at the 520 Kingsland Avenue Green Roof nearby the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge, they’ve got bat detecting equipment installed and have – in fact – detected bats.

Bat Boat!

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A humble narrator was onboard mainly for the opportunity to shoot some shots from the water at night. Our original plan was to head into Dutch Kills and bat hunt there, but an unusually high tide precluded that option so we headed down the main channel for a couple of miles. No need to go to the gym on Monday for the bat crowd, as rowing is great cardio.

Bat Boat!

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In the end we didn’t see or ultrasonically detect any bats, for which the bat experts offered several reasons. It’s my belief that, just like everybody else in NYC during the last week of August, the bats were probably on vacation and taking advantage of the coming Labor Day weekend to extend their time off.

Bat Boat!


Tours and Events


Canal to Coast: Reuniting the Waters Boat Tour. Only $5!
Thurs, August 30, 2018, 6:30 PM – 8:30 PM with Waterfront Alliance

Learn about the origins of Brooklyn’s Erie Basin as the Erie Canal’s ultimate destination, and its current role as a vital resource for maritime industry on this guided tour of Red Hook’s Erie Basin and the Brooklyn working waterfront, departing from and returning to New York Water Taxi’s Red Hook Dock. Tickets here.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

August 29, 2018 at 11:00 am

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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

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One of those days, man, one of those days.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On this day – July 18th – in 1290 A.D., Edward the 1st of England signed an Edict of Expulsion for the 16,000 or so Jews who lived in England at the time. In 1870, the Vatican Council introduced the concept of Papal Infallibility to a gullible public. In 1925, Adolph Hitler saw his “Mein Kampf” first published to a similarly gullible public. In 1937, Hunter S. Thompson was born (to tell the public how reliably gullible they actually are) and then in 1954, gangster Machine Gun Kelly died of natural causes at Leavenworth Penitentiary after 21 years in prison.

On July 18th in 1984, the so called and notable McDonalds Massacre occurred in San Ysidro, California, during which 21 people were shot and killed (mass shootings were still fairly uncommon then).

– photo by Mitch Waxman

If everything went to plan this morning, as you’re reading this I’m returning from a mid morning photo project. I’m attempting to catch a certain angle of light, at a certain place which I’m not 100% familiar with, so it might have been a frustrating morning but hopefully I made the best of it. An educated guess is being made, I’ll show y’all what I got later in the week.

Luckily, after having a killer schedule to get through last week, a bit of time to pop my headphones in and wander about seems to be coinciding with a period of tolerable temperatures and humidity this week. Looking forward to getting a bit of work done, and getting out of the Astoria/LIC/Greenpoint/Newtown Creek neighborhood for a few day trips. Hoping to be able to maintain an early schedule for this, seeking out propitious atmospheric lighting.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The most important thing at the moment, for one such as myself, is solitude. I really cannot stomach the thought of having to explain either myself or my actions to one more person than I actually have to at the moment, and have grown quite unwelcoming towards advice emanating from friend and foe alike. The idea of losing myself into the bowels of the City for a little while, looking at it through the isolated safety and emotional distance offered by a camera lens… is both nirvana and nepenthe. 

Look for me, scuttling along the side of the road on the eastern side of the Newtown Pentacle. I’ll be the weird looking guy with a camera.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 18, 2018 at 11:00 am

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Scenes from a summertime Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There is only one safe harborage for one such as myself, a single place on this planet where a humble narrator has any sort of worth. Luckily, over the weekend, I got to share this place – the Newtown Creek – with literally a couple of boat loads of people for the City of Water Day festival. When conducting Newtown Creek Boat tours, the program involves me narrating humbly about the East River specifically and NY Harbor in general from the point of embarkation – in this case Pier 11 in Manhattan – until the boat navigates into Newtown Creek. One continues with descriptions of the waterway’s long and intricate history and the environmental problems found in the present day due to its heavy industrial past and present. When we reach the spot where we have to turn around and head back for the pier, the mike gets handed to my colleague Will Elkins from Newtown Creek Alliance and he discusses the various plans for remediation of the waterway’s woes. In short, I talk past, he talks future.

Since I effectively have no future, I get busy taking photos while Will’s on the mike.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The NJ based NY Waterways outfit generously donated the usage of their Henry Hudson ferry boat to City of Water Day, and the Waterfront Alliance organization handled the nitty gritty of getting us onboard. Luckier still, when the boat arrived, the Captain was a fellow named Chris Costa whom I’ve worked with before and have managed to strike up a friendship with. Capt. Costa managed to get us all the way back to Maspeth before we had to reverse course and head back to Lower Manhattan. The first shot in today’s post depicts Allocco Recycling hard at work in Greenpoint, the shot above shows the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant from a spot on the water found between Meeker Avenue and Apollo Street in the Brooklyn side.

The brightest part of my life involves sewage and garbage.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s the “Green Asphalt” operation at work on the Queens side in Blissville. Their role in our commonly held municipal “thing” is to recycle excavated road surface asphalt and prepare it to be reapplied to to NYC streets. Can you believe that – prior to the 2010 Solid Waste Management Plan – they used to just bury this stuff in landfills? 

This is where I belong, which is about as far away from other people as I possibly can get without leaving NYC.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 16, 2018 at 11:00 am

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4th of July fireworks from the Kingsland Wildflower Green Roof in Greenpoint.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A humble narrator was lucky enough to have gotten himself invited up onto the green roof at 520 Kingsland Avenue on the 4th of July, and accordingly I showed up with my holsters loaded up. I brought two distinct camera rigs, spent a bit of setup time encoding my “fireworks recipe” into them, and got busy.

The fireworks recipe is anywhere from f.8-11, ISO 200, and 3-5 seconds exposure. You’ll want to preset focus and set your lens to manual focus (remember to turn any lens stabilization off), use a tripod and a cable shutter release, and ensure that the white balance is set to something consistent (I used “daylight” for these during capture, and adjusted the temperature a bit in camera raw during developing). 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Kingsland Wildfower green roof is a co production of Newtown Creek Alliance, Alive Structures, the Audubon Society, and the Broadway Stages company which owns the structure. The green roof is 22,000 square feet, found at 520 Kingsland Avenue in Greenpoint alongside the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge, and is roughly 1.3 miles from the East River where – of course – the annual 4th of July fireworks display plays out.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A few of the government facilities, like the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, decided to get in on the whole Fourth of July thing. They normally light the digester eggs up with a purplish blue light, this time around it was sequencing through red, white, and blue. I used my iPhone to gather video of it, if you’re interested in checking that out – click here.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My main camera, the trusty Canon 7D, was loaded with a lens I refer to as “old reliable.” This is the one I left on autofocus, as I was constantly moving the point of view around and zooming in and out. Normally, the fireworks recipe involves locking in an infinity focus manually achieved, but “old reliable” is a trooper.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The lesser secondary camera I brought is a consumer level Canon Rebel. It’s nowhere near as “smart” as the 7d, but it was set up with my second best lens – a Sigma 18-35 wide angle which was prefocused and set to manual so that it didn’t go hunting for focus in between shots. The camera was set up, and the cable release lock button engaged.

It sat on top of its tripod and just clicked away.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

To the east, roughly 3/4 of a mile distant from 520 Kingsland and 2.1 miles from the East River, the new Kosciuszcko Bridge also got in on the light show act. Lit up all red, white, and blue.


Upcoming Tours and Events

Saturday, July 14th – Exploring Long Island City – with NY Adventure Club.

Long Island City is a tale of two cities; one filled with glittering water-front skyscrapers and manicured parks, and the other, a highly active ground transportation & distribution zone vital to the New York economy — which will prevail?

Tickets and more details
here.

Sunday, July 15th – Penny2Plank – with Newtown Creek Alliance.

There are eleven bridges crossing the modern day Newtown Creek and its tributaries, nine of which are moveable bridges of one kind or another. Other bridges, forgotten and demolished, used to cross the Creek. The approaches to these bridges are still present on the street grids of Brooklyn and Queens as “street ends.” Newtown Creek Alliance and a small army of volunteers have been working to transform these “street ends” from weed choked dumping grounds into inviting public spaces. This walk with NCA historian Mitch Waxman will take you there and back again, discussing the history and current status of these street ends and the territory in between.

The tour will start in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint, and end in Queens’ Maspeth nearby the Grand Street Bridge.

Tickets and more details
here.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 9, 2018 at 11:00 am

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The view, man, the view.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Newtown Creek Alliance, along with the Broadway Stages Company, the Audubon Society, and Alive Structures, applied for and received a grant from the GCEF fund (an environmental settlement which arose out of the Greenpoint Oil Spill litigation) a few years ago in pursuance of creating a 22,000 square foot green roof at 520 Kingsland Avenue in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint section. The 520 Kingsland property is an active TV production studio owned by Broadway Stages, but the flowering roof on top of is all about the environment. For me, it’s a wonderland of photogenic views.

The shot above looks westwards, just after sunset and towards the Shining City of Manhattan, with the Newtown Creek industrial zone in the foreground.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

When mentioning 520 Kingsland to newcomers, I always use the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge as the nearest recognizable landmark for them to aim themselves at. The industrial zones on both sides of the Newtown Creek, former petroleum facilities mostly, have been acquired by and repurposed as television and movie production facilities in recent years. Broadway Stages owns large properties on both sides, and in Queens the Silvercup East studios are found just off Van Dam Street in the Blissville section of Long Island City. While I was on the roof at 520 Kingsland the other night, a crew at Silvercup was setting up to do some sort of “shoot” and they deployed theatrical lighting rigs.

Normally, I just make do with ambient light. It was great having the movie folks provide me with “proper” sculptural light.  The shot above looks eastwards towards the Kosciuszcko Bridge.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The industrial property pictured above is Metro Oil, a biofuel company founded by a friend of mind named Paul Pullo and his brothers. The Pullo brothers sold their business to John Catsimitidis (of Gristedes, FreshDirect, and Mayoral candidate fame) a few years ago. It sits right alongside the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge, and those are the oil tanks you see on your passenger side when driving from Queens to Brooklyn along the span.

These shots were gathered post facto after a walking tour of the area I conducted for Newtown Creek Alliance, with my colleague T. Willis Elkins, last Friday night.


Upcoming Tours and Events

June 30th – The Skillman Avenue Corridor
– with Access Queens.

Starting at the 7 train on Roosevelt Avenue, we will explore this thriving residential and busy commercial thoroughfare, discussing the issues affecting its present and future. Access Queens, 7 Train Blues, Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, and Newtown Creek Alliance members will be your guides for this roughly two mile walk.
Skillman Avenue begins at the border of residential Sunnyside and Woodside, and ends in Long Island City at 49th avenue, following the southern border of the Sunnyside Yards for much of its path. Once known as Meadow Street, this colonial era thoroughfare transitions from the community of Sunnyside to the post industrial devastations of LIC and the Dutch Kills tributary of Newtown Creek.

Tickets and more details
here.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

June 26, 2018 at 11:00 am

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Deadman’s curve and the Pratt Oil Works, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Normally, one would not be seen marching along the LIRR tracks in Blissville, but I had my reasons. It was a Sunday afternoon, anyway, meaning that the chances of there being any rail traffic at all on the Lower Montauk would be slim to none so I decided that it would be a good time to throw the dice and hope that I wouldn’t get squished by a passing locomotive. There’s plenty of places to dive out of the way, if I were able to discern an approaching train, but that’s kind of the issue – trains move pretty quickly and the physics of how sound moves around the air dam created by the engine as it’s moving seriously reduce the “early warning” time. Saying all that, I didn’t get squished, but do not recommend you chance it yourself. It is illegal trespass, after all.

Me, I was scoping out the latest wrinkle in the environmental story around the fabled Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I went to a meeting a couple of weeks ago at the NYS DEC offices in Long Island City, which discussed the “Pratt Oil Works Site” or as I’ve been referring to it for several years – “The Queens County Oil Works of Charles Pratt” or alternatively “The Blissville Seep.” ExxonMobil has taken responsibility for the site, which ultimately used to belong to its corporate parent Standard Oil, and has (under DEC guidance) begun the process of siphoning “product” out of the ground. Said product, the ExxonMobil folks said, is distinct from the liquid product which has been oozing from the Creek side bulkheads into the water. The modern day owner of the site is largely the Waste Management company, which operates a waste transfer station along Railroad Avenue that handles DSNY collections and loads up the Garbage Train. Said garbage train provides framing in the shot above. The Queens County Oil Works was in operation from 1842-1949, whereupon the property was subdivided and sold off. ExxonMobil representatives described the materials their contractor Roux will siphoning out of the ground as “Lube Oil and wax” and the petroleum product oozing into the Creek as “LNAPL” or Light Non-Aqueous Phase Liquid. LNAPL is lighter than water and floats on top of ground water.

ExxonMobil’s contractors, Roux Associates, who handle the Greenpoint Oil Spill for them directly across the Newtown Creek in Greenpoint, has been activated to handle the Blissville situation. Roux has installed 62 wells on the property, 42 of which are recovery wells and the other 20 are monitoring wells. Waste Management, separately, has several issues they’re dealing with on the site, including a high level of acidity in the soil and the presence of toxic chemicals – specifically Toluene and Chlorinated Volatile Organic Compounds. Waste Management will be aerosolizing these chemicals, meaning that they will be using a process called “SPARGing” which will release them into the open air.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

ExxonMobil representatives were cagey about the quantity of “product” in the ground, even after I confronted them about specifics. Saying that, I’m certain they know exactly what’s down there, as engineers who have installed 62 wells don’t just do so randomly and hope for the best. Waste Management claimed that their timeline for remediation of both the soil ph conditions and the presence of “chemicals of concern” would be four to eight years, whereas the ExxonMobil folks said it’s an open process and wouldn’t commit to a timeline.

Oddly enough, a review of the combined project’s boundaries corresponds neatly to the property lines of the former Queens County Oil works. Luckily for Blissville, here in Queens, subterranean oil deposits respect above ground political and property lines. If you are technically minded, or just curious enough to “get it straight from the horse’s mouth,” follow this link for the NYS DEC fact sheet.


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