The Newtown Pentacle

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Posts Tagged ‘newtown creek

was nightlocking

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Who can guess, all there is, that might be lurking down there?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In industrial Maspeth, where I spent last Sunday afternoon, are the relict maritime industrial bulkheads of a corporate outfit called Phelps Dodge, which has long since “left the building.” The Phelps Dodge property has been divided up, sold off, and developed separately. The company, which was in the copper refining trade along Newtown Creek, is one of the “PRP” or “potentially responsible parties” originally named in the EPA’s 2010 Superfund declaration for the waterway. Although there isn’t even a sign indicating they were once here, Phelps was one of the largest employers on the Queens side of the Creek for more than a century. The first incarnation of what would become the Phelps Dodge plant on the LIC/Maspeth border planted heir stakes here in 1872 as “G.H. Nichols and Co.,” later becoming “Nichols Chemical Co.” in 1891 and then “General Chemical Company” in 1899. In 1930, the so called Laurel Hill plant was purchased by the Phelps Dodge corporation. At it’s height, the plant directly employed 17,000 people.

They manufactured several chemicals here, but their main product line centered around sulfuric acid. The Phelps Dodge people were copper refiners, ultimately, and used the acid to free metal ore from the rock it was embedded in.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Laurel Hill Plant declined, and in 1984 it was shuttered. The United States Postal Service purchased the site from Phelps Dodge in 1986, hoping to use it as a truck storage yard, but it was soon determined that the property was too contaminated for use as a parking lot and a judge ordered Phelps Dodge to buy back the property in 1996. In 2001, the old factory and acid mill buildings were torn down, and the property was subdivided into lots. At one of these lots, the Restaurant Depot wholesale chain erected a location. On another, the Koscisuzcko Bridge replacement project is playing out, and on yet another a brand new Federal Express shipping hub has been created.

The shots in today’s post depict the last vestiges of Phelps’s long occupancy, the remains of heavy piers which carried terminal railway trackage on them, allowing for barge to rail operations at the acid factory and copper refinery.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Phelps Dodge property is found just to the south of the LIRR’s Lower Montauk tracks, along a section known as “deadmans curve.” The nickname for this section of the tracks is due to the Berlinville Rail Disaster in 1893 (two LIRR passenger trains collided at speed, engine to engine) and the habits of Phelps Dodge workers who would routinely attempt to run in front of and outpace the trains when crossing the railroad tracks, resulting in a lot of squished employees.

Modern day 43rd street used to be a colonial era pathway that crossed modern day Queens from the forbidden northern coast of Queens’ Berrian and Riker properties at Bowery Bay in Astoria, then ran south and across the swamps at modern day Northern Blvd. and then over the hills of Middleburgh (Sunnyside) and then down to Newtown Creek through Maspeth. This path was paved with crushed oyster shells, and hence was called “The Shell Road.” It’s a little hard to visualize this in modernity, because y’know… Robert Moses. The Long Island Expressway, BQE, Queens Blvd., Northern Blvd., and the Grand Central Parkway all conclude this ancient pathway.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There’s a couple of other businesses on the former Phelps properties, but none of them look towards the water. I can’t speak intelligently about who owns what, but from observation it seems that since Superfund when a property changes hands on the creek the original owner holds on to the sections that directly touch the water. My presumption is that this insulates the new owners against liability for the cleanup costs, but that’s an assumption and you know what “they” say when you “assume” something. It makes an “ass” out of “you” and “me.”

What I can tell you for certain is that these collapsing and rotting heavy piers look pretty cool and make for good lens fodder.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That water pouring out of the pipe you see is a permitted “SPDES” outfall, and connected to the Kosciuszcko Bridge project. It was a late afternoon low tide period when these shots were captured. With all the rain we’ve been getting, the “eau de Creek” was particularly strong and inescapable, amplified as it was by a dew point humidity up in the 75% range.

A humble narrator was also cooking in the early August emanations of the burning thermonuclear eye of God itself, and there were a few times when touching the camera that I was concerned about how hot it was getting.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Before any of you accuse me of heavily retouching or manipulating these shots to make things look surreal and weird – here’s how I got them:

These are deep focus, narrow aperture tripod shots accomplished via the usage of a ten stop ND filter. This allows for exposure times of (in the case of today’s images) twenty to thirty seconds. This smooths out the water, and renders the specular highlights of sun and wave invisible. It also allows the camera to peer into the shallows and depths alike, offering a chance to observe and answer the oft asked question of “Who can guess, all there is, that might be buried down there?”


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Written by Mitch Waxman

August 14, 2018 at 11:00 am

alternate demands

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It’s just Grand, ain’t it?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One is fascinated by certain pathways around Brooklyn and Queens. The combined pathway of Greenpoint and Roosevelt Avenue (Greenpoint’s East River face to Flushing) is an example. Grand Avenue/Street is another, which ultimately connects Williamsburg’s east river coastline with Astoria’s east river coast via a circuitous route that visits Bushwick, Maspeth, Elmhurst, and the north side of Jackson Heights along the way. Robert Moses introduced a few interruptions to Grand when he was widening and creating modern day Queens Blvd., but I’ve often made the case for Grand as being an immigrant superhighway leading out of Manhattan’s Lower East Side via first Fulton’s ferries and later the Williamburg Bridge.

Mr. Steinway used to operate a trolley on this route, which crossed the Newtown Creek at the 1903 iteration of the Grand Street Bridge pictured above, found some 3.1 miles from the East River. The modern day Q59 bus more or less follows this old trolley route, for the morbidly curious.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On the eastern side of the Grand Street Bridge is found a wholly canalized tributary of Newtown Creek called the East Branch. The East Branch receives a lion’s share of the combined sewage flow that stains the reputation of the waterbody, due to a massive outfall found about a block away at Metropolitan Avenue. In the early days of European civilization hereabouts, this area was renowned for shellfish and game birds, and the water flowed nearly all the way to the Onderdonk House over on Flushing Avenue.

You can see the aeration system installed by the NYC DEP to oxygenate the water which they pollute with raw sewage  operating in the shot above.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Politics are politics, and depending on what point in history you’re describing, that concrete plant has either been a part of Brooklyn or Queens. Today, it straddles the currently undefended border of Brooklyn and Queens. 

The county lines, as well as the election districts, are controlled by an innocuous official named Gerry. Gerry Mander is the latest member of the Mander family to hold this position, and his relatives have found similar occupation all over the country. Gerry Mander is ultimately the reason things are the way they are.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Shot from the Brooklyn side, this shot depicts the southern side of the crane district of industrial Maspeth. That little building at the left side of the shot? That’s the DEP’s 14.5 million dollar aeration pump house, which uses electrically driven motors to expensively and constantly puff 8,100 cubic feet of pressurized air into pipes which were expensively installed in pursuance of oxygenating the water. This expense was required, because DEP has other pipes which are releasing untreated sewage into the water every time it rains, and it would be too expensive to stop doing that.

As a note, $14.5 million is what they said it would cost, I have no idea what the final number was, nor what it costs to operate the thing.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s the new Koscisuzcko Bridge in the shot above, or at least the first half of it. The entire project, involving the demolition of the 1939 model K-Bridge and the creation of two new cable stay spans under the management of the NYS DOT, while keeping traffic flowing on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway is meant to cost $1.2 billion when all is said and done. This is a fairly major project, however you see it. It’s a BIG bridge, found roughly one mile west of the tiny Grand Street bridge.

The K-Bridge, with its approaches and onramps, involves about 1.1 miles of active highway. Actual construction started in 2014, and the project is on schedule for completion in 2020. Six years.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Alternatively, the NYC DOT has just announced that they will be replacing the 1903 vintage Grand Street Bridge. God only knows what this one’s going to cost. It’s 227 feet long, roughly 19 feet wide, and NYC DOT has just released an “RFP” for replacing it that anticipates demolition and construction taking seven years.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

August 10, 2018 at 11:00 am

hedged in

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The preservative powers of the Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned yesterday, one headed over to industrial Maspeth the other night to do some shooting. Those wooden piles you see in the shot above are the last mortal remains of the Maspeth Avenue Plank Road which have somehow survived the 143 years since they supported a bridge across the water here. It sounds impossible, I know, but these same piles are depicted in lithographic illustrations offered by the Harper’s Weekly publication in the 1880’s. They also turn up in historic photos of the Newtown Creek I’ve seen that were captured in the 1930’s.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The hot weather tends to starve water bodies of oxygen saturation as a rule, and in the sewage choked Newtown Creek it’s a serious issue. Fish who find their way into the back channels of this tepid waterway are known to suffocate. Untreated sewage is released into the water via NYC’s combined sewer system, which sees sanitary and storm water flow through the same pipes. During rainy weather, the outfalls from the combined system belch out millions of gallons of waste water. This outfall water is teeming with bacteria which greedily consume all the oxygen they can. To address this problem, the NYC DEP has installed an aeration system (essentially a gigantic aquarium bubble wand) into the water column.

This is problematic, as it aerosolizes sewage bacteria onto the breeze, and carries bottom sediments up to the surface. The bottom sediments, referred to as “black mayonnaise,” are why the Federal Environmental Protection Agency added Newtown Creek to the Superfund list in 2010.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Across the water from the Maspeth Plank Road, you’ll notice the enormous 115 square acre National Grid LNG facility. It used to be a manufactured gas plant, opened in 1929 by the Brooklyn Union Gas company after they closed up similar facilities which were once found along the Gowanus Canal. The BUG plant at Newtown Creek manufactured 200 million cubic feet of gas a day, supplying the energy needs of Brooklyn and parts of Queens. The waste products produced by the process included a witch’s brew of chemicals referred to as an “ammoniacal liquor,” concentrated cyanide compounds which were called “blue betty,” and coal tar. Lots and lots of coal tar.

Prior to the passage of the Federal Clean Water act, there was absolutely no reason for BUG not to dispose of these waste products directly into the water. The Black Mayonnaise sediment bed mentioned above contains significant amounts of coal tar, and according to some of the scientists studying the Creek as part of the Superfund process, there’s an 18 foot high ridge of the stuff piled up along National Grid’s bulkheads.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

August 9, 2018 at 11:00 am

curious delvings

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Slowing it down at the Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Last Sunday night, after waiting through an interminably hot afternoon for the light to get right, a humble narrator packed up “the bag” and headed over to my happy place in industrial Maspeth. Given the ridiculous heat and humidity, I took a cab rather than walk from Astoria, and the Maspeth Plank Road was a fairly novel spot to be dropped off according to the driver. The look on his face when I headed into the bushes towards the waters of Newtown Creek… I tell ya.

This was a fairly demanding bit of shooting due to the “hot” and sun exposure. The “Maspeth Heat Island Effect” was in effect, and whereas the rest of NYC was in the low ninety degree range, it was closer to one hundred where I was. Nevertheless, the tripod was set up, camera arranged, and busy I got.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

These are long exposure shots, if you’re wondering about the dreamy “look and feel” of them. I had a ten stop ND filter attached to my lens, which was set to a ridiculously narrow f22 aperture. The burning thermonuclear eye of God itself was heading down towards the horizon, but it looked (and felt) as if it was located literally in Greenpoint just across the water.

The Maspeth Avenue Plank Road site has been mentioned time and again at this – your Newtown Pentacle. It’s a former crossing of the Newtown Creek, which was opened in 1836, and last spanned the water during the Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant in 1875. It connected Furman’s Island with the Greenpoint Bushwick industrial borderlands. Notable industrial facilities once found on the Brooklyn side include Martin Kalbfleisch’s Chemical Works, Conrad Wissell’s Dead Animal and Night Soil Wharf, and Peter Cooper’s “pestilential” glue factory. The Queens side included fertilizer mills and other lovely 19th century industries like bone blackers, acid factories, and fat renderers.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The shoreline surrounding the Maspeth Avenue Plank Road site on the Queens side is fairly feral. There’s all manner of critters I’ve spotted ambling along the self seeded vegetation here; rodents and cats, raccoon and opossum, birds of all stripes. My colleagues at Newtown Creek Alliance have expended no small amount of effort in making the Plank Road publicly accessible, and we’ve even erected some signage there. Saying that, the NYC DEP has a bit of sewer infrastructure here which has seen recent maintenance and construction activity, and they’ve really torn the ground up something fierce. 

If you make a mess, isn’t it incumbent upon you to clean up after yourself? Manners maketh man, and all that?


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Written by Mitch Waxman

August 8, 2018 at 11:00 am

curling tighter

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You won’t need a sweater today, as today is a sweater.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Uncharacteristically, one doesn’t have too much to say today. It was a fairly busy weekend, which included doing a well attended tour for Newtown Creek Alliance on Friday night (this one is called Infrastructure Creek), drinking about thirty gallons of water on Saturday and then hanging out with my friends and neighbors in Astoria on Saturday night, and then waiting for the burning thermonuclear eye of God itself to attain the right position in the sky about six o’clock for a photo expedition to industrial Maspeth and Newtown Creek on Sunday.

You’ll see those Sunday night shots later on this week, incidentally.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As a note, with all of the rain during the last couple of weeks, Newtown Creek is positively boiling with bacteria. Additionally, it’s boiling from the heat wave. This kind of heat reduces the amount of oxygen in the water, allowing anaerobic bacterial specie their season. The rainy weather means that the combined sewer system is carrying a lot of the fecund foodstuff that these anaerobic bacteria feed on into the tepid water. Their digestive exhalations are rich in hydrogen sulfide compounds, which means that “Eau de Creek” is staining the air column for blocks and blocks around the waterway.

There’s also a lot of floatables (plastics, garbage etc.) and sheens of various oils and greases visible in the waters of Newtown Creek. I hate you all, accordingly, but it makes for good photos.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One has been contracted to conduct a boat tour at the end of the month commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Erie Canal, which will involve the Gowanus area in South Brooklyn. I’ll post ticketing links next week, but August 30th is the date for the thing, which will leave from Lower Manhattan. Most of what I’m going to be narrating about is already in my quiver, but I’m going to be heading over to South Brooklyn a few times this month to “get granular” about the grain terminals and former NYS Barge Canal properties around Erie Basin and Gowanus Bay which will be part of the “speechifying.” 

Additionally, I’m looking forward to the opening of the new NYC Ferry route to Sound View in the Bronx. Of all five theme parks in NYC, the Bronx (or Frontierland) is the one I’m least acquainted with.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

August 6, 2018 at 11:00 am

imaginary conversation

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A public service announcement from the Newtown Pentacle.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The City of Greater New York, like many of the other older North American East Coast cities, uses a combined sewer system. What that means is that sanitary waste water pipes, leading from the sort of domestic tackle pictured above, enters into an underground sewer pipe which also handles storm water. When the weather is dry, the municipal agency tasked by NYC with handling the flow (the Department of Environmental Protection or DEP) does a fairly passable job. When the weather is wet, however, things start getting ugly. A quarter inch of rain, citywide, translates into a billion gallons of storm water entering the network of pipes, junctions, and weirs hidden below the streets. This additional volume of storm water surges into the shared pipes, and the mixed up storm and sanitary water ends up having to be purged out into area waterways via open pipes. There are about 400 of these “Combined Sewer Outfalls” in NYC.

As you’d imagine, the DEP is fairly careful about handling this, and to their credit – working diligently to correct this situation. Not always willingly, of course, but they are in fact “doing something.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Massive “gray infrastructure” investments like the Newtown Creek Waste Water Treatment plant in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint section are part of the story. Designed to handle in excess of 800 million gallons a day of what the DEP staff refers to as “honey,” this particular plant is the newest and largest of the 14 sewer plants the agency maintains. If you flush a toilet anywhere in Manhattan below 79th street (and in small sections of Brooklyn and Queens), your “honey” is headed here via a pump house found on the corner of East 13th street and Avenue D on the Lower East Side. A technolological marvel, the NCWWTP is unfortunately unique in DEP’s property portfolio. The Bowery Bay plant in Astoria opened during the Great Depression in 1939 for instance, and the oldest operating plant in DEP’s system is in Jamaica, Queens which opened in 1903 (and last received an upgrade in 1943).

The stratospheric costs of upgrading their plants has caused DEP to embrace a bit of lateral thinking in recent years, which is where conservation and “green infrastructure” come in.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Green infrastructure takes several forms. There’s what the DEP used to call “bio swales” which a clever Deputy Commissioner has recently rebranded as “rain gardens.” This program will, when you put together all of the rain gardens citywide, have opened up a fairly large acreage of open soil for storm water to enter the ground via, rather than dancing along the concrete until finding a storm drain. The emerging technology and policy that they’re still figuring out are “green roofs.” The problem with retrofitting old structures for green roofs is that more often than not, the roof is structurally the weakest section of a building. The other problem is convincing building owners that there’s a benefit in spending time and treasure on them. 

A humble narrator is a back room conversation kind of fellow, and the ears I’ve been whispering in for the last few years have been filled with this crazy idea of creating a municipal code requirement – in the same way NYC requires fire stairs and suppression systems, lights on the front of your house, sidewalks of a certain size and specification and so on – for storm water neutrality in new construction. I’ve been told it’s up to DEP to request codifying it, as it’s not up to City Planning or anybody on that side of City Hall. The Real Estate Industrial Complex people I’ve mentioned this to are generally into it, as a green roof would be a saleable amenity which would enhance their offerings and wouldn’t increase their construction costs noticeably.


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 details here.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

August 3, 2018 at 11:00 am

was sane

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Odds and ends from LIC, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The other day, a photographer friend of mine came out to LIC, and I introduced her to a few interesting points of view along Skillman Avenue and the Degnon Terminal section of Long Island City. Whereas I’m nowhere near as jaded as those who grew up in the area are, it was still fun hearing her gasp in wonder at the marvel of it all. I see this when I do tours as well, when ordinary people find themselves in this extraordinary place found along the loathsome Newtown Creek. Often, I analogize it to the time that I visited a friend who was working as an animator for Disney in Florida. He instructed, as we were moving through one of the parks, to step over towards what appeared to be a solid white wall. When you were within a couple of feet of the structure, a hidden aperture appeared, and with a side step or two you suddenly found yourself backstage where the guy who plays Goofy had his head off and was smoking a cigarette.

Is the rest of NYC actually the customer facing part of Disneyworld, with industrial LIC the back lot where they store the compressed gas cylinders for the soda machines? Maybe.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Welcome to the Magic Kingdom? We do have rides and attractions hereabouts. There’s a lot of rules, you’re almost always on camera, and there’s lots of people either pretending to be or acting like fictional characters they saw in some old movie. There’s underground networks of tunnels used by a secretive workforce, long suffering municipal employees involved in an elaborate kabuki show put on for the tourists and real estate customers… the only thing that really distinguishes modern day NYC from one of the Disney parks would be the lack of political “cosplayers.”

Hi kids, I’m Progressive Pigeon, meet Diversity Doggo and Equity Eagle. Watch out for that nasty old Conservative Kitty Cat and Counter Revolutionary Rat, they’re on the wrong side of that protected bike lane over there.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned hundreds of times at this point, I really need a vacation. Literal “recreation” as in re-create. Unfortunately, I’ve arrived at that stage of life in which it is impossible to enjoy anything, and even going to sleep is a pain in the ass. Anhedonia is the medical term for this, a total physical and emotional numbness which I fear even a visit to the Magic Kingdom cannot cure. Nothing’s easy, and even if I cured Cancer, the result would be everybody telling me I’m an asshole for doing so. I have become an assassin of joy in my old age.

At least I can bring others to the back stage at NYC’s 5 theme parks, and talk about things which are – in fact – amazing. It seemed to make my photographer friend happy the other day, so at least there’s that. Bah.


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.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

August 2, 2018 at 11:00 am

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