The Newtown Pentacle

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Posts Tagged ‘Long Island Railroad

these views

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Welcome to the Montauk Cutoff, Long Island City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Recently, one found himself hitting the tracks just before sunrise. I was there with sanction, accompanied by an MTA employee and entirely “legal.” It should be mentioned, again, that illegal trespass is against a humble narrator’s code, and like a vampire – I need to be invited in to do my thing. You also really, really, don’t want to get caught trespassing up here by the railroad cops, by the way. You also really, really, don’t want to meet the sort of person who camps out along railroad tracks in LIC when you’re all alone in the wee hours.

The Montauk Cutoff in Long Island City was designed to connect the North Shore line with the Montauk Line. The Montauk Line uses the tracks which follow the shoreline of Newtown Creek through Queens, eventually intersecting with the Bushwick Branch and both head for the rail yard at Fresh Pond. The elevated trackway of the Montauk Cutoff crosses Skillman, 49th, 50th, 51st, and Borden Avenues, whereupon it meets a rail bridge called Cabin M which spans Newtown Creek’s tributary Dutch Kills.

The North Shore line used what are approximately the modern LIRR passenger tracks, give or take a few yards, which transverse the Sunnyside Yards and head through Woodside on their way east. The Montauk Cutoff was built for freight, as were the North Shore and Montauk Lines. Passenger service was always a loser for the LIRR. Modern day freight on the LIRR is handled by the New York & Atlantic company.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The first discussion, which I’ve been able to find at least, about building LIC’s Montauk Cutoff was in 1906 – as part of a series of railroad projects either proposed or already under construction at the start of the 20th century by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company – projects which included Penn Station and Sunnyside Yard. Other documents I’ve examined state that the LIRR was paying taxes to New York State as early as 1912 on the Montauk Cutoff, which suggests that it came into service around the same time that the Sunnyside Yards came online. The surrounding Degnon Terminal wasn’t far behind the rail complex, either, with the Loose Wiles factory and other mega factories opening in the 1920’s.

As is always mentioned, old Mitch ain’t no authority on the whole railroad thing. If there’s something wrong in my little summary, please let me know in the comments and corrections or an errata will be incorporated. I can speak pretty intelligently about the maritime/locomotive complex around Newtown Creek, but I’ll admit to having vast gaps on the particular subject of the iron road. That was my pal Bernie Ente’s area of expertise.

For a historic series of shots, maps, and technical descriptions of anything involving the LIRR, you are going to have to visit the fairly excellent trainsarefun.com. Here’s their Montauk Cutoff Page.

Another set of maps and historic shots can be accessed at an equally fantastic site called arrts-arrchives.com. Here’s their Montauk Cutoff page.

I’ve written about the Smiling Hogshead Ranch before, which sits on the interchange between the Degnon Terminal Railway and the Montauk Cutoff, over at my old Brownstoner Queens column.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The view from up on the Montauk Cutoff is unique. That big parking lot at the bottom of the shot above is a UPS shipping center, the one on 49th avenue. Rearing above and behind it is the Queens Midtown Expressway section of the Long Island Expressway, which arches up and over Dutch Kills some 106 feet from its beginning at the Queens Midtown Tunnel – which is around a half mile away.

My MTA companion and I met up at the Smiling Hogshead Ranch at 5:30 in the morning to get these shots, which gave me a solid hour to work in absolute pitch darkness up on the tracks. The shots in today’s post are obviously tripod shots, and long exposures. Leaving the shutter open for 20-30 seconds at a pop, you can gather a tremendous amount of light and color, but the hot spots of electric street lighting always cause certain problems. Compensation for this is to move the aperture into “hyperfocal” range, f11 and narrower, which is counterintuitive for night shots but nevertheless effective. It also produces those neat little star bursts around the lights.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

So, why was I out on a chilly November morning with an MTA property manger, walking on a century old rail spur in Long Island City?

The MTA has decided to “abandon” this line. Abandon doesn’t mean the same thing in “railroad” as in does in english. It means that the agency has no current plans for the line and wishes to free itself of the duties necessitated in maintaining it as functional track. It means that the MTA will retain ownership of the Montauk Cutoff, and can at any time reactivate the pathway should “future use” require it. Given the speed with which rail projects generally move, however, that means a window of at least a couple of decades of inactivity awaits the property no matter what happens.

Accordingly, MTA has issued a “Request for Expressions of Interest,” or RFEI, regarding the Montauk Cutoff and is seeking potential lessees for the space.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As defined in the RFEI document, the MTA is seeking out creative uses of the land with an eye towards community improvement. The agency has set down a few ground rules for any potential lessee of the site, many of which are quite expensive – such as insurance, utility service – those sorts of things. The property, as defined in the RFEI, includes the Smiling Hogshead Ranch – who currently lease and pay insurance on the parcel in which the community garden is operated.

Before certain web masters start pointing their fingers and shouting “j’accuse” at me while spinning a conspiratorial tale, Smiling Hogshead is indeed associated with Newtown Creek Alliance, as am I. You can absolutely bet that I’m a fan of SHHR’s operations and programming, and friends with a lot of their members. Long Island City needs every bit of green space it can get, which is how I finally get around to explaining why me and the MTA guy were here on the day before Thanksgiving and just before sunrise.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A “Request for an Expression of Interest”? You can say that I’m interested. I’m interested in seeing this trackway converted over to green space, in much the same way that the Degnon Spur on Pearson and Skillman – a weedy dumping ground and homeless camp – was turned into a lush garden by a group of dedicated volunteers.

Can you imagine what a group like Smiling Hogshead’s could do up here?

If you want to get in on the conversation, or contribute some time and knowledge to the project – shape the future, as it were – whatcha doing on the 2nd of December? A bunch of us are going to attend a “visioning meeting” at Nomad Cycle (47-10 Austell Pl, Queens, NY 11101) which is set to happen between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My companion and I had discussed the possibility of getting up here in the pre dawn hours, and a couple of previous appointments had to be cancelled on account of weather. We had met on a walk through of the site which MTA had conducted back in October for parties interested in acquiring the land, an excursion which occurred just before solar noon – which is not the most efficacious time to photograph LIC. I made the case to him that a “proper” set of photos would be needed for this project and quite handy to boot, which my new friend at the agency agreed with. Hence, where we were, when we were, and why we met up in the dark on Skillman Avenue on the day before Thanksgiving.

The wrinkle in this potential project is this – it doesn’t necessarily have to become a green space. Anyone can “express interest” in the Montauk Cutoff, and as long as their proposed project meets the requirements set aside by the MTA, it will be considered a viable option.

I see this as being a frankly huge opportunity to create an enormous acreage of green space in an otherwise completely barren industrial area which can be best described as a “devastation of concrete.” My interest in this thing is simple – this property touches Dutch Kills, where the borders of the “abandoned” section ends, which is “my house.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Montauk Cutoff begins at Sunnyside Yard, and at its southeastern edge connects to the M Cabin truss bridge over Dutch Kills which connects to the Blissville Yard, which in turn feeds the tracks that travel under the Greenpoint and Kosciuszko Bridges to Maspeth, Ridgwood, and all points east. The RFEI states that the M Cabin bridge will be opened, and secured in that position, and that a barrier of some sort will be erected at the edge of the Montauk Cutoff’s lot.

Additionally, I cannot begin to, nor have I ever believed that this is the original bridge on this site. I’ve got some Intel that suggests the early 1940’s for its origins, but nothing solid enough to to stick a pin into. The original early 20th century bridge is long gone at any rate.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I can tell you with some certainty that the nearby DB Cabin rail bridge is from 1919, and is a swing bridge that hasn’t opened since 2002. My pal Bernie, mentioned above as having been THE authoritative source on all things rail around LIC, told me once or twice that two industrial wreckers are required to tow it from either side to open the bridge. The swing bridges motors are non functional, something that has caused no small amount of grief for the EPA’s Superfund investigators. DB Cabin allows access from the Wheelspur Yard to the Blissville Yard and the Montauk Line.

Like I said, Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking northwards along Dutch Kills, at a scene familiar and loved by long time readers of this – your Newtown Pentacle. That’s the Borden Avenue Bridge, with the LIE above, spanning Dutch Kills. I’ve been writing about this neighborhood for years, it’s one of my favorite locations in New York City. The Montauk Cutoff leads directly to this spot, which in my mind directly connects it to the environmental problems of the Newtown Creek watershed.

Know how I’ve been rattling on for years about “combined sewer outfalls” and the problems presented to the ancient sewer system during rain events? Montauk Cutoff represents an opportunity to create a nearly four acre long green sponge that can drink up a significant amount of the storm water that carries garbage, grease, and poop into this water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Montauk Cutoff. This is a once in a generation opportunity to do something right for the environment in the ruined biome of Long Island City. Every elected official I’ve spoken to about this idea is “into it” although they haven’t made any public declarations yet (too early in the process to bring them in) and recently – Community Board 2’s environmental committee voted to support the use of these tracks as “green infrastructure.”

Want to get involved in the future of the Montauk Cutoff? As mentioned above, a “visioning meeting” which be taking place at LIC’s Nomad Cycle (47-10 Austell Pl, Queens, NY 11101) on December 2nd, between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.

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continuous system

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Holiday pretty pictures, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s the Long Island Railroad crossing Borden Avenue in LIC in the shot above, which was captured around ten years ago. I take a lot of pictures of trains, mind you, but the one above remains one of my favorites. It’s number 401, btw.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Number 420 was observed at the Sunnyside Yards’s Harold Interlocking not too long ago, and funnily enough it was smoking up. If you don’t get the joke, just google 420 for what it means to our inebriated friends.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

411 doesn’t just provide directory assistance, it also transits from the Hunters Point yard in LIC to the Hunters Point stop at the southern end of the Sunnsyide Yards – the only place in the entire 183 square acre rail yard where you can actually board a train.

Back Monday with some slightly more substantive content, and may all your Friday’s be black.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

November 27, 2015 at 11:00 am

viewless aura

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Blissville, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Blissville, for those of you not in the know, is the section of Long Island City which the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge connects to. One refers to this area as DUGABO – Down Under the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge Onramp – as I like to stay ahead of the Real Estate Guys on this sort of thing. DUGABO is an M1 zone, meaning that it is zoned for heavy industry. A couple of blocks to the north, it becomes a “mixed use” zone, and there’s a scattered series of homes and commercial storefronts in the area – a lot of the building stock actually dates back to the 19th century.

The LIRR trackways run along the coast of Newtown Creek, and you’ll find several bits of railroad infrastructure along the shoreline. In focus today, the Blissville Yard, which has found new occupation.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Blissville Yard is a series of trackways designed for storage of rolling stock. It connects to the Hunters Point tracks via a rail bridge that crosses Dutch Kills, and there used to be a connection to the Sunnyside Yards and the Degnon terminal railway spurs via the Montauk Cutoff which is no longer an active track. The modern use of the Blissville Yard is governed by the New York and Atlantic company, which is a private corporation that handles freight services for the Long Island Railroad. If you see a black and emerald colored engine operating along the LIRR tracks, that’s them.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Not too long ago, the Waste Management company, which enjoys a profitable relationship with NYC’s Department of Sanitation, opened a new facility on the Queens side of the Newtown Creek. Waste Management handles the exit from our municipality of the putrescent or “black bag” garbage collected by the municipal DSNY. The company has been operating for several years out of an enormous facility on Varick Street in what should be called Bushwick, but is referred to in modernity as East Williamsburg.

At Varick Street, Waste Management and New York and Atlantic operate the so called “garbage train” along the Bushwick Branch of the LIRR. Now, in Queens, they are operating another garbage train out of the Blissville Yard and the newish Review Avenue Waste Transfer Station – which is across the street from Calvary Cemetery. Those green box cars in the shot above?

That’s the Garbage Train.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

DUGABO proper, the street where you’ll find the at grade crossings for the garbage train is appropriately called Railroad Avenue. To the west, you’ll find the Blissville Yard and the SimsMetal company. SimsMetal handles the recyclable materials collected by DSNY and others. To the east, you’ll find other new arrivals (new as in the last decade, which isn’t even yesterday to “historian me”) like Waste Managements “Green Asphalt” facility.

This little roadway alongside the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge has become a locus point for heavy trucks, literally thousands of heavy trucks loaded down with garbage, on a daily basis.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The putrescent waste is processed at Waste Management, and loaded into these green boxes, which are then positioned onto rail cars. The garbage train(s) proceed eastward to the Fresh Pond yard. From Fresh Pond, they begin a long and circuitous journey which sees them leave Long Island via the Hell Gate Bridge and head north through the the Bronx via the Owls Head yard. Leaving NYC, they head most of the way to Albany, where another rail bridge allows them to cross the Hudson and enter the continent. Where they go after that seems to be a state secret, although I’ve been told that there are a series of tapped out coal mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia which are gradually being filled back up.

Future archaeologists are going to love us, I tell you.

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all signs

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All we have to fear is fear itself, and I’m pissing my pants.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Like many Queensicans, when it was announced that this year’s July 4th fireworks would be taking place in the East River just off the coast of LIC, a humble narrator grew excited. Then one began to read about frozen zones (pretty much from 11th street to the East River) and homeland security. My enthusiasm for the event began to wane as the Terror Warriors descended from their Manhattan aeries, discussed throwing down cordons, announcing entry checkpoints, and throwing a cage over the entire neighborhood. One “gets it” of course, as our enemies from “east austral Asia” specifically target public events that draw media attention, which is the very definition of what the July 4th fireworks show is.

The thing is, and I’ve been pointing this out for years, is that there is very little actual “homeland security” going on the rest of the year around these parts, and the Terror Warriors spend most of their time in Manhattan offices dreaming up scenarios which could only be accomplished by Nation/States with vast combined weapon system resources and functionally unlimited budgets. If we were at war with the United States or the People’s Republic of China, for instance, I’d be pooping my pants.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One is not so irresponsible to point the actual vulnerabilities out in any detail, as some moron out there might decide to exploit them (do your own research), but if you see graffiti along a train track or in a subway tunnel – that’s called time and opportunity. It should be impossible, literally, to sneak into a train yard or even get close to a moving train nearly two decades into the Terror Wars.

Problem is that our security personnel tend to focus on the outlandish notion that non state actors, who are basically mafiosos, can not only maintain but deploy complicated weapons systems that most nation states cannot even hope to possess. Jackass sappers like the Boston Marathon bombers, whose presence and intentions are THE real threat, just don’t fire the imagination or finger the purse strings of Congress.

It’s all a show, ultimately, designed to assuage the nagging truth that some jerk pulling the pin on a dud hand grenade while riding on the 7 train would be sufficient to shut the entire Subway system down for weeks while the Terror Warriors installed metal detectors and biometric sensors on every turnstile.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I think I’m just going to go up on my roof this year on the 4th of July, photographing the fireworks at a distance from almond eyed Astoria. One is not interested in being part of a compacted herd of spectators, who are all potential suspects, in LIC. I’ll be out and about on the 5th of July, and will wager that I won’t see a single cop or security contractor protecting the vital infrastructure found hereabouts. To me, that’s terrifying.

The big show will be over by then, and the Terror Warriors will be worrying about space based laser systems at BBQ’s on Long Island and in Westchester County. They’ll muse whether or not ISIL has perfected a tractor beam that can pull asteroids down on targets (that’s called a mass driver, btw.) or developed a neutron bomb.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Tours –

July 12th, 2015
Glittering Realms Walking Tour
with Newtown Creek Alliance, click here for details and tickets.

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 1, 2015 at 11:05 am

public building

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Sunnyside Yard, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Everybody always asks me how I get these shots, or about certain qualities in them. Simple answer is that I’m always experimenting with the camera, and when I come up with some protocol for “how to get this or that” my next move is usually to reverse it and see what happens.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, my friend, practice.

The setting: Recently, an evening meeting carried one up the hill from the elluvial flatlands of Southern Astoria to the heights of the ridge which Sunnyside was built into. Between these two neighborhoods, there’s a former tidal swamp into which the Sunnyside Yard was embedded back in the first decade of the 20th century. Once the largest rail coach yard on earth, the Yard still hosts the busiest rail junction found on the continent, the so called Harold Interlocking. The busy part is due to the frequent passage of Long Island Railroad commuter rail trains, which share the switches and rails with Amtrak.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The conditions: Sunset to the west, which I was going to be shooting right into. The weather was humid, and a bit misty. The point of view is surrounded by steel plated chain link fencing whose purpose is to deny observation of vulnerable infrastructure (I’m told that this fencing was installed during the first decade of the Terror Wars). One such as myself has a vast catalog of fence holes and gaps which are dearly held, and since my meeting in Sunnyside would carry one past an entire series of these occluded viewpoints, a point was made to pocket one of my lenses small enough to fit into while leaving HQ. I also brought some chewing gum, but that’s not important.

My “good lenses,” which are used in particularly high rotation, have a circumference too large for these cracks in the walls around the Sunnyside Yard – so a “decent” lens which has a decidedly smaller diameter was employed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The “decent lens” mentioned is the so called “nifty fifty” offered by Canon. It’s far and away my most inexpensive tool, and allows wide open apertures which would make it handy for night time shots but for its persnickety focusing mechanics. The term for what it does, autofocus wise, is called “hunting.” What that means is that it noisily rolls through the range of focus and never quite settles itself into a lock. My usual habit with this sort of thing is to use autofocus to “get it close” and then switch the thing over to manual focus for final adjustment.

The optic formula of the lens also renders things a bit less “contrasty” than I’d like, but you can’t really complain about camera equipment which retails for around a hundred bucks – especially when it fits through fence holes.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The methodology: For those of you not in the know, as to how cameras and lenses work – a “bright lens” will allow you to operate it at wide apertures (f1.8 in the instance of the nifty fifty). Wide apertures create a tremendous “depth of field” effect, which means that the area which is in focus will appear sharply delineated and everything else will be blurred. Higher aperture settings – the “f-stops” as it were – will create a hyperfocal range in which everything in frame will be sharply defined. The lower the “f-stop” the more light enters the camera, and the higher ones allow less light to get to the sensor. You balance the shot using shutter speed and ISO settings. Night shots and interior spaces require you to use the lens “wide open,” with slow shutter speeds, and higher ISO settings – all of which introduce certain quality issues to the captured image.

The shots in today’s post were consciously captured with the desire to have “everything” in focus, with a minimum of motion blur as well, and to record a full range of color and tone. Difficult to do with the sun behind the scene, and in a setting where everything is made of contrasting reflective surfaces.

My formula was to actually reverse my night shooting protocol on 2/3rds of the exposure triangle, using a very narrow f-stop and fairly fast shutter speed, but with a high ISO setting for tone and color sensitivity (f10, 1/1250th of a second, ISO 800). Sometimes, particularly during the summer, the problem isn’t that there enough light – there’s actually too much of it and some methodology needs to be employed to control it. Experimentation and failure often emanate from screwing around with your normal shooting habits, but sometimes it pays to mix things up a bit.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Tours –

July 12th, 2015
Glittering Realms Walking Tour
with Newtown Creek Alliance, click here for details and tickets.

many galleries

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A short one today.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A humble narrator is anxious to get outside and “into the field” today, so a single image greets you this morning, depicting the Long Island Railroad entering Woodside via its ancient path. Back tomorrow with something a bit more substantial at this – your Newtown Pentacle.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Tours –

May 3, 2015 –
DUBPO, Down Under the Pulaski Bridge Onramp
with Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman, a free tour offered as part of Janeswalk 2015, click here for tickets.

May 31, 2015 –
Newtown Creek Boat Tour
with Working Harbor Committee and Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman, click here for tickets.

Written by Mitch Waxman

April 15, 2015 at 11:00 am

directly upward

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Whence goeth I?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Despite my vulnerability to cold – hey, Superman’s got Kryptonite but he still gets out – last week I found myself wandering around Long Island City in what felt like a negative a thousand degrees air mass. Owing to my particular weakness, rather than walking from place to place, mass transit has been utilized. Of late, I’ve found myself on a staggering number of buses and Subway lines, which is a sobering reality for the inveterate pedestrian. Don’t forget, during warmer climes I routinely walk back and forth from Astoria to Red Hook. Funnily enough however, Long Island City – which is the concentrating point of rail and subway on Long Island – often forces you to walk great distances in search of conveyances. It’s virtually impossible to find a cab here as well, despite it being the de facto home of the Taxi industry.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Walking is my preferred methodology for getting around, of course. I detest using mass transit as it’s an admission of defeat. Problem is the derelict condition of the sidewalks – isn’t there a law about shoveling snow and clearing the pavement? There is such a law, but as in many other cases, the rules which the City of Greater New York enforces upon the citizenry does not apply to itself. I can actually spot city owned property by its unkempt state during the winter, and can report that when you’re in a municipal building things are not exactly “up to code.” There ain’t no water saving toilets or CO2 detectors readily visible on Chambers Street, in my limited observations of the municipal lairs. There are hundred year old marble stand up urinals, however, which are framed in black mold.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

At Queens Plaza, the old CN building complex has been obliterated. The Real Estate Industrial complex has seized control of the site, and construction crews are busily preparing the ground for yet another residential tower. I know what you’re thinking – “Wow, I’ve always wanted to live in Queens Plaza.” “Thank goodness that the “market” has finally responded to this desire, and I can have the 7 train and thousands of motor vehicles rolling right past my window 24/7.”

I hope that this new building will be one of the transformers – apartment towers which can autonomously turn into giant robots that defend the City – which are called “the CondoBots.” At the CN site, another one of the smaller transformers was sighted, that yellow earth mover in the shot above. It calls itself Diggity Dig Dig Dig. Nice enough cyber guy, but a bit single minded.

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