The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Posts Tagged ‘Lower Manhattan

understand dimly

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Shabbos… a haaa… shabbos

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Last Saturday, one had a lunch date with a few friends on Manhattan’s Lower East Side… well, actually the extremely Lower East Side. The only part of residential Manhattan that’s still remotely interesting is found between the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges, East of Bowery. That’s where you find architectural variation in the building stock, weird counterpoints, and an actual working class neighborhood. Don’t worry, the City and the EDC will likely declare the entire area a slum soon and knock it down in favor of glassine towers. They’re in the early stages of doing to Manhattan what they did to Brooklyn and Queens over the last few decades. Ugh.

What’s so interesting, you ask?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Going back to the Civil War, when this section of Lower Manhattan was the center of NYC and Manhattan was still quite industrial, groups of do-gooders and reformers have shown up in every generation who had the answer to “how you help the poor.” You had Jakob Riis and his reformers – and there’s still “Old Law” and “New Law” tenement buildings extant from their solution. A generation later, the Settlement House people showed up, then came the (actual) Progressives like FDR with an enhanced education system, then Robert Moses with his urban renewal money brought highways and Section 8 housing, and then Moses and the NYCHA people built the Rutgers and Al Smith Houses and the rest. These days the do-gooder’s hustle involves “affordable housing” for the well off and screw the poor. The fossil skeletons of these behemoth movements and trends litter the streets here. A history book in brick and mortar and steel.

All of these brilliant and connected people who have tried to solve the intractable problem of urban poverty over the centuries, here in Lower Manhattan, and never did it occur any of them to just give some of the cash they were spending to the actual poor people. The core issue of poverty is that you don’t have any money, which means your babies are hungry. When you have hungry babies, you do desperate and often violent things as that makes sense in the circumstance. America’s overlords have always felt threatened by poor people, and worry that actual cash in their pockets will be drank, smoked, or gambled away. There’s a puritanical side to charitable impulses in our country. God forbid somebody on Welfare might use the money to buy their kids an ice cream cone.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I wish that you could see through time like I can. A fire escape bolted to the front of a New Law Tenement on East Broadway? Well, that’s symptomatic of Jakob Riis and Teddy Roosevelt, as well as the formation of the FDNY after NYC consolidation in 1898 and the creation of a uniform fire code. The East Side of Manhattan’s “Chinatown” occupies a space that has long housed ethnic populations who regularly spoke languages other than English at home. German, Gaelic, Yiddish, Italian, Spanish. I wonder who made that fire escape, where was the foundry, and who got handed the license by the Tammany appointed Fire Inspectors to design and install it. Love it down here, I do, as it’s thought provoking in a way that a glass walled condo tower ain’t.

Speaking of seeing through time… what are you doing on August 7th? I’ll be conducting a WALKING TOUR OF LONG ISLAND CITY with my pal Geoff Cobb. Details and ticketing available here. Come with?


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Buy a book!

In the Shadows at Newtown Creek,” an 88 page softcover 8.5×11 magazine format photo book by Mitch Waxman, is now on sale at blurb.com for $30.

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 30, 2021 at 11:00 am

gleaming dome

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The “A” in MTA is for “Adventure.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Inhuman and hideous, claustrophobic and filth ridden, the nest of Mammon and Asmodeus, home sweet hell. To say that one bears a certain disdain for Manhattan in his old age would indicate that an understatement is being offered. Manhattan? That’s not where you’ll find the solution, instead Manhattan is the problem. Vainglorious pride blinds.

These days, nobody you ask would say they “want to go” to the island of Manhattan from the other four boroughs, instead they’ll say “I HAVE TO go to Manhattan.” That’s usually when the MTA comes up.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One such as myself gets around a lot. There isn’t a standard commute these days, rather it’s a series of odd destinations which are often set against a patchwork of neighborhoods and places unfamiliar. How do you get from Maspeth to Red Hook, or Richmond Terrace to Elmhurst? Broadway Junction connects to which trains, and are there any that near Astoria? Best transit route from Rockaway to Greenpoint, or the Bronx Zoo?

These are the sort of questions which one asks himself regularly, but last Saturday morning my problem was a simple one – get from HQ in Astoria to Lower Manhattan to do a tour on a NYC Ferry for the NY Transit Museum. As mentioned, the “A” in MTA is for “adventure,” particularly on the weekends.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

An obvious path to Pier 11 would be taking the Astoria Ferry from Hallets Cove. Unfortunately, they were operating on a winter and weekend schedule, and I would have arrived at the pier for the tour nearly an hour earlier than my customary arrival (a half hour in advance of a tour) time. I also would have to have to factor in the mile long walk to the waterfront, meaning that my journey would entail me leaving HQ something like three hours in advance of arrival if I also wanted to get breakfast, and I did want breakfast.

I decided on chancing it with the MTA, and taking the train. Realization that the Subway is now the daily gamble set in.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I boarded an R at Steinway Street, which became an F in the tunnel. It let me off at the 63rd street station, where I had to leave the system and execute a walking transfer to get to the Lexington Avenue line’s 4/5/6 platform. There, I discovered that I had to take a 6 to 42nd street to then transfer to a 5. Luckily, the 5 got me to Fulton Street where the unpleasant miasmas of the Financial District were pulsing about in a bit of fog.

What the hell is it about Lower Manhattan with the garbage and the rats and the stink and those puddles of yellow/green bubbling water everywhere. What’s that greasy black stuff all over the sidewalks, or that liquid which just dripped on me from high above, and… blech… if you say the Newtown Creek is bad… try Fulton Street and lower Manhattan in general.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

If ever there was an area in which I’d like to set the Real Estate Industrial Complex absolutely loose, it’s a peninsular section of the Shining City just south of City Hall and north of Battery Park. Imagine it, all that filthy lucre to be made, and the developers could take turns bulldozing landmarks. The bike people could drive protected bicycling lanes right through the lobbies of buildings… What a time they’d have.

Thing is, whatever feeding frenzy might happen here will be limited evermore. Without reliable and predictable transit to carry people into Manhattan, the folks in outer boroughs might have to find other places to work that aren’t so disgusting.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

March 5, 2018 at 11:00 am

creaking or thumping

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The old part of town, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Recent endeavor, specifically the Open House NY weekend event, resulted in one getting invited to a “site hosts” reception over in lower Manhattan last week. I’ll show you where that took place tomorrow, but as always, half the fun of going anywhere is the trip itself. The event invitation was for six in the evening, but since I didn’t have much else to do that afternoon it was decided to “make a day of it” and go wandering with the camera. After laying out food and water for the dog, I left Astoria and began my meandering path, one which ultimately found me in LIC boarding an East River Ferry bound for Pier 11/Wall Street that deposited me in the financial district. That’s the “House of Moses” flying around the Brooklyn Bidge, right at the corner of Dover and South Street, in the shot above.

My destination was on the east side of Chinatown, a section of Manhattan which offers a series of particularly interesting artifacts dating back to the early 19th century that somehow survived the “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” era of the middle 20th century. You can spot all three historic types of tenements in this neighborhood “pre,” “old,” and “new” law structures. It’s also a bustling section – crowded, messy, and full of different cultures bumping up against each other.

from wikipedia

Originally named East River Drive, FDR Drive was later renamed after Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The roadway was designed by Robert Moses. He faced the difficulties of building a parkway/boulevard combination along the East River while minimizing disruptions to residents. The section from 125th Street to 92nd Street is the original 1934 construction, while sections from 92nd Street down to Battery Park (with the exception of a section from 42nd to 49th streets) were built as a boulevard, an arterial highway running at street level. Future reconstruction designs from 1948 to 1966 converted FDR Drive into the full parkway that is in use today.

The section of highway from 23rd Street to 34th Street was built on wartime rubble dumped by cargo ships returning from Bristol, England, during World War II. The German Luftwaffe bombed Bristol heavily. After delivering war supplies to the British, the ships’ crews loaded rubble onto the ships for ballast, then sailed back to New York, where construction crews made use of it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

You can take the boy away from his beloved Newtown Creek, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still fascinated by sewers. This non standard drain was spotted just to the southeast of the footings of the Manhattan Bridge. It was maybe 16 inches across, and clearly an artifact of the early city. My moles inside the modern day DEP tell me that the sewers in Chinatown are amongst the worst ones for them to maintain. Partially this is due to the density of the local population and their particular propensity for dumping greasy materials into the street drains, but it’s mainly due to the age of the local system and the limitations of 19th century engineering. I seem to recall that this was shot along Monroe Street, possibly at the corner of Market, but I didn’t jot down where I found it at the time.

Supposedly, there’s a few sewers down in these parts that are lined with lumber rather than concrete. Famously, the DEP was doing repairs on a water main at Beekman Street (and on Chambers) a few years back and they happened on colonial era water pipes that were constructed of hollowed out wooden logs.

from nyc.gov

Log water pipe discoveries are not without precedent. Archaeologists expect to find historical infrastructure such as water and sewer pipes, wells, cisterns and foundations in locations where early New Yorkers lived and worked. In fact, reports of wood water pipe discoveries south of Chambers Street date back at least 100 years. The unique thing about the Beekman Street discovery is that the wood pipes were discovered nearly intact – one pipe is missing its tapered end. What’s even more remarkable is that the pipes were still connected when they were found and form a contiguous section of New York City’s first water distribution infrastructure.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

86 Madison Street caught my eye while I was wandering about. Luckily, it also drew the scholarly attention of a person from the University of Delaware named Zachary J. Violette back in 2012, who produced an interesting dissertation comparing the tenements of NYC and Boston – check it out here.

from sites.udel.edu

Alexander Stake tenement, 86 Madison Street, New York, 1889. Alexander Finkle, architect. A heavily-ornamented New York tenement, this immigrant-built and designed building shows the use of belt courses, pilasters and window support elaboration. The ornate stamped-metal cornice bears the name “Lincoln”, a reference to the president and a typical invocation of power through the use of ornament.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Given the facade work, the date of its manufacture, and a hundred other little details obvious to those of us who have learned how to “read” the City, the Lincoln building and its neighbors are “Old Law” tenements. As to the demographics of these parts, this neighborhood was predominantly Catholic (German and Irish, mainly) and a little bit Jewish (according to Jakob Riis – “Jewtown,” or the “Ghetto,” or as my grandmother called it – “The Shtetl”) was mainly on the east side of Delancey Street back in 1889 when these tenement buildings went up. The Chinese began to arrive in NYC in great numbers during the 1870’s, but their original “zone” of occupation was closer to Doyers Street, near Chatham Square, on the west side of the Bowery. When the Germans and Irish began to evacuate this area east of Bowery, the Chinese moved in.

from wikipedia

Old Law Tenements are tenements built in New York City after the Tenement House Act of 1879 and before the New York State Tenement House Act (“New Law”) of 1901. The 1879 law required that every inhabitable room have a window opening to plain air, a requirement that was met by including air shafts between adjacent buildings. Old Law Tenements are commonly called “dumbbell tenements” after the shape of the building footprint: the air shaft gives each tenement the narrow-waisted shape of a dumbbell, wide facing the street and backyard, narrowed in between to create the air corridor. They were built in great numbers to accommodate waves of immigrating Europeans. The early 21st century side streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side are still lined with numerous dumbbell structures.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My intended destination still awaited me, but I was having a pretty nice time wandering around Chinatown. Hungry, there was a particular meal, available in these parts, which I sought out.

Now, this is one of those stories… When my Dad used to force me to work with him on one of his Saturday jobs – he was a house painter who would pick up extra cash on the weekends – it would often be in Manhattan. We’d stop off at a Chinese bakery on the west side of Chinatown at the corner of Walker and Mulberry to get a box of “pork buns” and a couple of those ultra strong and ultra hot cups of black coffee commonly offered by such establishments. Whenever I eat this particular meal, I always think of the old man.

The “pork buns” are called “Bao” and whereas Chinese bakeries do indeed produce sweet cakes like the more familiar western ones do, they also manufacture incredibly flavorful and savory fare as well. There’s all sorts of variants on these, some are steamed, some filled with custard or dried pork, but a personal preference for the baked ones with the savory roast pork inside is offered. I procured a couple of the baked Roast Pork “Bao” and a cup of that super hot coffee, and then proceeded to sit down on a tenement stoop for a quick dinner before heading off to my eventual destination – which will be described in tomorrow’s post at this – your Newtown Pentacle.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

November 3, 2016 at 11:00 am

must each dwarf

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“They rob, kill and plunder all under the deceiving name of Roman Rule. They make a desert and call it peace” – Tacitus

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Moving through lower Manhattan, the long time New Yorker cannot help but notice the changes to the area beneath the FDR drive. One remembers a day when this area was used for parking, and also served as a camp for homeless folks. My mental picture of this spot – a dank, dark, dripping waterfront mess infested with dangerous, and often addled or demented, primates – was forged in the 1980’s, so admittedly – it’s thirty years out of date. I also remember a day when Carvel Ice Cream shops were ubiquitous.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

What you’ve got down here in modernity is a very well used “sort of” park or public space. There’s “model chicks” jogging around in yoga pants, “stock broker” guys leading tiny dogs around on leads, and lots of people lounging about. Pier 11 has become a sort of commuter hub these days, and there are hot dog carts and other vendors set up under the highway who charge $4 or more for a bottle of Snapple Iced Tea. CitiBike has one of its bike share racks in the area, and South Street has accordingly had bike lanes deducted from it. Al Smith would hardly recognize the street he grew up on.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In contrast, there’s Queens. This is the 7 elevated subway pictured above, as it leaves Court Square toward Hunters Point in LIC. Now, this is the same block which 5ptz once occupied, and one wonders if – when the luxury condos which will replace the art institution open – some future version of myself will say that they remember an earlier iteration of reality. Of course, many have told me that I watch too many movies, but I’d really love to be able to see the future as well as the past.

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Upcoming Walking Tours-

Saturday, October 25th, Glittering Realms
Walking Tour with Atlas Obscura, click here for tickets and more info.

Written by Mitch Waxman

October 24, 2014 at 11:00 am

dusk comes

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The Union guys hate it when I start shooting.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Apologies offered to all the hapless workers I’ve photographed over the years, but damn it all, they do cool things. To wit, I spotted this crew over at South Street Seaport attacking the street with esoteric machinery the other day and one could just not resist the temptation. I mean… a giant saw? Yes, please.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The saw operator noticed me, but didn’t really give a crap about being photographed as he went around his business. His colleagues on the other hand, were staring me down as if I was pointing a rifle at him. I guess that they’re hassled by cameras as they move about the city. Fair enough, who likes having a stranger show up at your job and start waving a camera about?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The sound that this machinery created was tooth shatteringly loud, a screaming and high pitched tone which sounded somewhat demonic. In the war of spinning steel versus masonry, the Belgian blocks which composed the so called “cobble stone” pavement were no match for the spinning blades.

There are three public Newtown Creek walking tours coming up, one in Queens and one in Brooklyn and two that walk the currently undefended border of the two boroughs.

Poison Cauldron, with Atlas Obscura, on April 26th.
Click here for more info and ticketing.

DUPBO, with Newtown Creek Alliance and MAS Janeswalk, on May 3rd.
Click here for more info and ticketing.

Modern Corridor, with Brooklyn Brainery, on May 18th.
Click here for more info and ticketing.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

April 23, 2014 at 11:00 am

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