The Newtown Pentacle

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strange corridors

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Staying current on the story of Newtown Creek involves attending a lot of meetings. Some are private, most public. Often, they came rapid fire and it feels as if every other evening is consumed. One of the many community groups which hold such gatherings is the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee. I’m a guest at this particular gathering, and as such an attempt is made to remain silent and observe the proceedings.

The group engages in a dialogue with representatives of the NYC DEP, who are offered input from community representatives regarding issues that might arise from the presence of the Newtown Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant.

One of these issues, as you would imagine, is the spread of odors emanating from the vast facility.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The DEP contract with a company, called “Odor Science and Engineering”, who specialize in the detection and discovery as well as elimination of point sources for malodorous gases. Luckily, an inspection of the plant by the company was scheduled for the following week and Christine Holowacz (DEP community liaison) arranged for a few of us to accompany the effort.

Pictured above is Kate Zidar (Newtown Creek Alliance Executive Director) and Laura Hoffman (Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee), who with myself, showed up bright and early to be fitted with hard hats and vests.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We were introduced to Dr. Ned Ostojic Ph.D and P.E., Odor Science & Engineering’s Vice President & Director of Engineering.

A tall and dignified fellow, Dr. Ostojic spoke with a barely detectable yet pleasant European accent and was extremely hospitable to us as he described his function at the plant. An engineer, he was tasked with not only finding the sources of odor but describing practical solutions to eliminate them.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dr. Ostojic produced a device whose purpose was to combat a human perception bias called environmental adaptation. To describe it simply, the human mind filters out environmental stimuli to create a sense of “normalcy”. If you live on a noisy street, your brain filters out most of that noise and you become inured to the environmental background level. The brain functions in the same way with smell, something I know to be accurate. When I encounter the smell of the Newtown Creek, or of any sewer plant, no reaction is displayed while others openly gag.

My brain has become adapted to Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

He asked us not to make fun of the devices name, which was a “Nasal Ranger”.

It allows calibrated measurement of smell based on a concentrating chamber which lies behind an aperture dial. The dial allows ever smaller samples to be inhaled into the device, which can then be graded on a subjective and numerical scale. Good science, don’t forget, is all about measurement and objective recording. The Nasal Ranger removes personal interpretation from data records, as its operators are trained according to an empirical standard.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We three accompanied Dr. Ostojic on his walk through of the plant, and his duty this day was the inspection of the settling tanks which allow sewer borne debris to drop out, or be be skimmed from, the wastewater flow before it enters those famous digester eggs which distinguish this plant and betray its location on the skyline of New York City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Several times has your humble narrator been allowed to enter and record the grounds of this facility, found along the Newtown Creek, but this side of things has always been off limits because of extreme danger.

One of the curious facts related to me that day was that , were one of us to slip and fall into the highly aerated water and sewage in the tanks surrounding us, the liquid would not display much buoyancy. Because of all the dissolved gas in the liquid, neither would it slow your fall much and you would plummet- as if through air- some two stories to a hard cement floor.

In no uncertain terms, I was told, you would die. This was confirmed by one of my union buddies, who works at another plant in the DEP system.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This is somewhere around midway through the sewage treatment process, after the larger bits of solute and debris carried in the flow have been removed. When the raw flow hits the plant, it carries wood and boxes and all sorts of garbage and debris with it. This gross matter is removed mechanically at another part of the plant. Next up is grit, which can be sand, soil, or just plain old coffee grounds. The rate of speed at which the wastewater races through the system makes even such innocuous contaminants hazardous to the works, and is removed by more specialized machines housed in separate “grit buildings”.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Of course, nothing is perfect, and the job of these settling tanks is to skim off any floatable material which has evaded prior filtration. Fats, oils, and a surprising number of cigarette butts, tampon applicators, condoms, and other floatable material is seen at the collection side of the tanks. As they are open to the air, this is one of the spots which Dr. Ostojic regularly inspects and pays a great deal of attention to. He was constantly checking his readings and observations against the prevailing winds.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dr. Ostojic wasn’t alone for the inspection and was working with the fellow pictured above, who introduced himself as Gary Grumley. Mr. Grumley was working with a different detection device than Dr. Ostojic, a hydrogen sulfide detector.

Hydrogen sulfide, of course, is a colorless gas which is infamous for the fecund smell of decay commonly referred to as “rotten eggs”. Such emissions are responsible for a lot of community complaints, and are unfortunately part of the complex chemistry which accompanies the disposition of sewage.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The device itself seemed sturdy, and Mr. Grumley arranged it neatly for photographing. He had begun work several hours prior to our arrival and began transmitting his findings and observations to Dr. Ostojic.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A graphic map of the plant with its multitude of buildings, service areas, and zones was on Dr. Ostojic’s clipboard.

A running tally of various areas where an unexpected or intense odor was encountered had been kept, and each occurrence was registered with a numerical value or rating. We didn’t encounter anything truly horrible btw.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

An example was offered later in the day by the DEP’s Superintendent of the Plant, Jim Pynn, of Dr. Ostojic’s contributions.

It seems that a problem had developed around the hatches leading to an underground tank, cylindrical in shape, which had been located in a rectangular shaped shaft. An onerous odor was regularly emerging from the shaft, and Dr. Ostojic was called in. He determined that as wind passed over it, a venturi was forming in the space between the cylinder and the right angled walls which suctioned the tainted air from it’s enclosure and into the open air.

Dr. Ostojic’s simple solution, adding chevrons to the sides of the tank which would abort the formation of a vortex, saved the plant a costly redesign of the affected area. The smell stayed where it was meant to, as well.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dr. Ostojic was gracious and quite patient with us. A loving nickname for him, which is offered with wide smiles and a wink by those who work at the plant, is “Ned the Nose”.

Usually, when one is invited to attend a meeting at an industrial site in Greenpoint, Brooklyn- with someone named Ned the Nose- the encounter seldom turns out to be as pleasant as this was.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Newtown Pentacle, we go these places so you don’t have to.


Your humble narrator will be narrating humbly at this year’s Obscura Day event on April 28th, leading a walking tour of Dutch Kills. The tour is already a third booked up, and as I’m just announcing it, grab your tickets while you can.

“Found less than one mile from the East River, Dutch Kills is home to four movable (and one fixed span) bridges, including one of only two retractible bridges remaining in New York City. Dutch Kills is considered to be the central artery of industrial Long Island City and is ringed with enormous factory buildings, titan rail yards — it’s where the industrial revolution actually happened. Bring your camera, as the tour will be revealing an incredible landscape along this section of the troubled Newtown Creek Watershed.”

For tickets and full details, click here :

June 6th, Magic Lantern Show at Greater Astoria Historical Society

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Metropolitan Avenue Bridge, English Kills – photo by Mitch Waxman

I’ve neglected to inform you all of the Magic Lantern Show which this, your Newtown Pentacle, is staging at the Greater Astoria Historical Society on Monday, June 6th at 7pm. There won’t be any archaic museum pieces in use, of course- my magic lantern is all digital and uses a standard and quite modern projector- but the concept is much the same. A photographer captures some hellish reality from the wild and shadowed corners of the world, and presents them with the intention of revealing hidden truths to a comfortable and otherwise wholesome audience who would never encounter this reality otherwise.

from a Newtown Pentacle post of April 13th, 2011

Just under an hour long, this Magic Lantern Show about Newtown Creek is personally narrated, and transports the viewer to every corner of the Newtown Creek- every tributary and street end, on the water and above it, and is presented in the idiosyncratic and off beat manner which has become familiar to regular readers of this- your Newtown Pentacle. It attempts to explain certain core questions in under an hour which have been repeatedly presented to me over the last couple of years, and the entire talk is illustrated with both my own photography and the product of my historical research:

  • What exactly do you mean by the “Newtown Pentacle”?
  • When did the Newtown Creek begin to matter?
  • Why should I care, how does the Newtown Creek affect me, as I live in Manhattan?
  • Where exactly is this place?
  • Who is responsible for this mess, and exactly who is it that’s going to clean it up?
  • How can I get involved and help my community revitalize and or restore the Newtown Creek?

Empire State Building rising over industrial Brooklyn and Newtown Creek – photo by Mitch Waxman

It would probably be “politique” to mention that this is not a Newtown Creek Alliance event, which is one of the many organizations which I’ve become affiliated and identified with. Instead this is purely a Newtown Pentacle show, which the studied philosophs who inhabit the upper echelons of the Greater Astoria Historical Society are allowing me to present in their convenient location on Astoria’s Broadway- stumbling distance from the R,M, and N trains. The efficacy of gambling their precious time and effort upon such a poor specimen as myself would be proven by the event being well attended, and the negligible $5 fee at the door should prove an easy burden for most to bear. Therefore, a narrator humbly invites and requests your support and attendance.


Mon Jun 6, 7:00 pm

Travel the length and breadth of Americas most polluted waterway, the Newtown Creek, with‘s Mitch Waxman.

Breathtaking photography illustrates the journey, exploring the various tributaries and discussing the industrial history of New York City‘s least known waterway.

Witty and irreverent, the narration describes Waxman‘s own discovery of this place and the fantastic journey it has taken him on.

Question and Answer period follows.

DUKBO, Down Under the Kosciuszko Bridge Onramp – photo by Mitch Waxman

The actual presentation is just over a hour long, and during it, you’ll travel the length and breadth of the Newtown Creek- every tributary and bridge, each keystone of historical import will be illustrated with both personal experience and historical meaning. For those of you new to the story of the Newtown Creek (or the neighborhood) this will make a fine primer. Attempts will be made by your humble narrator to reveal this willfully hidden place, and introduce the uninitiated to the hellish flames of revelation which only the Newtown Creek can offer.

Greenpoint Avenue Bridge over Newtown Creek – photo by Mitch Waxman

The places I go, the things I see… often strain credulity. This is not the world you know, this 3.8 mile long waterway located directly across the East River from Manhattan’s Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital which provides the currently undefended border of Brooklyn and Queens. If it can happen, it has happened here, and if it happened here it happened worse and grander than anywhere else it ever happened. Come visit the night soil and offal dock, hear the stories of the great men- Bliss and Kingsland and Flowers and Degnon and Cooper. This is the place where the Industrial Revolution actually happened, where the death of nature itself was accomplished, and our modern world was born.

Welcome to the Newtown Creek, poison heart of the Newtown Pentacle…

the frail door

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

A poor specimen at best, your humble narrator feels stretched in the manner of leather over a drumhead, and both the physical and psychic repercussions of recent activities are being profoundly felt. Our Lady of the Pentacle grows increasingly anxious, watching as I spin about like a dervish and attempt to fill shoes which are many sizes larger than my own. To wit, hot on the heels of Kevin Walsh’s fiendish 2nd Saturday tour of Staten Island (the next one is coming up… Click here for more on forgotten-ny’s ambitious calendar of summer walking tours of New York City), I had to immediately switch gears and concretize my own event- the Newtown Creek Boat Tour of May 21.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It might be disingenuous to declare this “my” event, as it is being produced by the far flung Working Harbor Committee and the clandestine Newtown Creek Alliance. My role in the latter organization is shifting, and the Creek tour is just the beginning of several NCA events in the Long Island City area in which I am planning to be involved with.

Don’t worry though, your Newtown Pentacle will continue fomenting dissent, looking under rocks, and making wild accusations that a witch cult is at large and operating in western Queens. I am literally dying though, to resume my lonely wanders across the concrete desolation. After all I am, ultimately, searching for Gilman.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My role with Working Harbor Committee is still being defined as well, but they’re a swell bunch and I genuinely support what they’re trying to do by exhibiting New York City’s crown jewel – the Harbor- to a public which is normally isolated from the waterfront by an architectural shield wall. Your humble narrator is a grating annoyance of a person, of course, and sooner or later everybody gets sick of me…

Then there’s that Magic Lantern Show at Greater Astoria Historical Society on June 6 to worry about as well.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A fully packed few weeks, don’t you think? Add in freelance ad work, a couple of photo gigs, and the 64 pages of historic booklets I’ve set up for 2nd Saturdays and WHC in the last month… As mentioned in the first line of this post, too little butter scraped over too much bread.

Oh yeah, last week I also spoke at a college and today I was interviewed by a group of kids as part of a class project they’re working on about the creek.

Strangest life I’ve ever known…


It is critical for you to purchase tickets for the Newtown Creek Cruise soon. We’re filling up rapidly and seating is limited. Your humble narrator is acting as chairman for this journey, and spectacular guest speakers are enlisted to be onboard. Click here to order tickets. Something I can promise you, given the heavy rain we’re having at the beginning of this week, is that the Newtown Creek will be especially photogenic on Saturday. Current forecasts call for light fog, possible early morning showers (we leave the dock at 10- late morning) and clouds clearing around noon! Photographers in Greenpoint, Long Island City, and beyond- this is going to be hyperfocal MAGIC.


he May 21st, Newtown Creek Cruise:

Explore Newtown Creek by Boat

Saturday, 21 May, 2011

Pier 17, South Street Seaport.

Departs 10 am sharp

Returns 1 pm

Price: $60

Join us for a special water tour with expert narration from historical and environmental guest speakers.

There are limited tickets available on the MV American Princess for a very rare tour of Newtown Creek. Guest narrators will cover points of industrial and historical interest as well as environmental and conservation issues during your three-hour exploration. New York’s forgotten history will be revealed – as well as bright plans for the creeks future.

MV American Princess is a large, comfortable vessel with indoor and outdoor seating. Complimentary soft drinks and a tour brochure are included.

Cruise runs rain or shine

Queries? Contact Tour Chairman Mitch Waxman:

Hosted by Hidden Harbor Tours ® in association with the Newtown Creek Alliance.

Click here to order tickets

ruthless conquest

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Terrible in its grandeur, the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant dominates the landscape around Greenpoint’s border with Long Island City. The Nature Walk which skirts part of its shoreline with Newtown Creek affords rare and untrammeled access to the industrial waterway, and provides an interesting vantage point to the traveling photographer.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

All sorts of artistic flourishes adorn the Nature Walk, one of which is pictured above that purports to show the primeval Newtown Creek and the vast meanderings of it’s course. The bottom of the frame represents the East River, and the coiling shape to the left is Dutch Kills. Note that the original course of the waterway was far reaching, and extended far beyond the modern bulkheads. In olden times, this area was referred to as “waste lands” while in modern times we call such territory “coastal wet lands”.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Still under construction, the section of Whale Creek hidden from view is where the sludge handling docks will be. One can expect the enormous sludge tank at the East River on Commercial Street to be demolished when these are done, and opportunities to photograph the City’s fleet of Sludge Boats up close and personal are sure to abound.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Without a hint of irony, this section of the Nature Walk is called the Scent Garden, and it is well stocked with (often indigenous) aromatic plantings. It extends back a few hundred yards, and seems to be the spot where workers at the plant go to on breaks as evinced by cigarette butts and garbage pails full of fast food packaging. Interesting spot, but not so much visually.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Across the Newtown Creek on the Queens side is the “big show”. The mouth of Dutch Kills is occluded by a non functioning swing bridge and a static truss bridge. I’ve been told that should the swing bridge need to be opened, it is accomplished by using Tow Trucks of the sort used for heavy vehicles which winch stout steel cables temporarily attached to the structure. Your humble narrator hasn’t observed this himself, so it is hearsay- albeit from a quite reliable source.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Newtown Creek Dock, once the Night Soil and Offal Dock and later the LIRR Manure dock, is currently under a century long lease to SimsMetal. A global player in the recycling trade, Sims is contracted by the DSNY to receive several of the materials they collect for processing and disposal. They shred paper and plastic, shatter glass, and sunder metal.

I can sit and watch this operation go for hours at a time.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I would be keen to actually visit Sims, but I’ve been told that this is another one of the VERY dangerous places to be on Newtown Creek. That giant pile of metal that is being sorted used to be automobiles, and the tiny toy dump trucks in the background are actually oversized wreckers. Enormous machines moving at industrial speed, with vast tonnages of metal being shredded? Not a place for a civilian, or so I’m told.


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