The Newtown Pentacle

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healing balm

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Cry havoc, and let slip the dog of Blissville…

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On my way to a recent Poison Cauldron tour, wherein a group of overtly curious New Yorkers were guided around neighborhood found in Brooklyn’s DUKBO, a rather large canine was spotted. It is my belief that I have met this dog before, and if I’m correct in my assumption of its identity, all one hundred pounds of slavering canine flesh contained in its skinvelope are overtly friendly and desirous of a good scratch. One way or another, he caught my eye whilst a humble narrator was scuttling toward the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Stinging critique is omnipresent in my mind, as always. A novel one has been added to the list over at my Brownstoner Queens column, where someone has characterized a recent post as “classist.” That’s a new one. I’ve been called a lot of things over the last five years or so, but classist ain’t one of them. Just so that you understand where I come from, my Dad called the commode “a terlet” and the conventional wisdom in my family was that the best you could do in life was to pass a civil service exam which would vouchsafe “security” in the form of a job working for the City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dogs are generally good, to me at least. Here in Astoria, where a significant number of the neighbors hail from the near east and adhere to the mores of a Muslim upbringing – they’re not so good. There’s a whole other cultural imperative at work with these folks, and they view dogs as “unclean.” Canines aren’t as “haram” as pigs, of course, and I’ve noticed that there seems to be a coefficient to how unclean they are based on geography. Conversation with the neighbors has revealed that folks from the western side of the near east – Lebanon, Egypt etc. – are fairly tolerant of dogs although they are a bit wary about them (much like the Greeks who hail from the Cyclades). When you meet folks from further east – Bangladesh, India etc. – the sudden appearance of a dog amongst them is tantamount to pulling the pin on a grenade. The dividing line between the two points of view seems to be somewhere around the Arabian peninsula. This is entirely unscientific, of course, and based strictly on conversation with the neighbors.

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maddeningly untransmissible

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

A curious thing happens when one exits the former Celtic Park at 43rd street in Queens, and crosses beneath a titan viaduct carrying the Long Island Expressway near its singular junction with the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. First, one realizes the enormity of having entered DUKBO (Down Under the Kosciuszko Bridge Onramp), and secondarily the realization that this is not the safest path for a pedestrian to have chosen becomes readily apparent.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This is a “back door” to the massive truss bridge, thrice damned, which spans the Newtown Creek and has done so since 1939. Any driver with NY plates on their vehicle, ones worth their salt at least, has several of these short cuts etched into their mind. Taking Hunters Point Avenue to Skillman Avenue when exiting the Pulaski Bridge in order to avoid the traffic at Queens Plaza is another one of the Creek specific ones, but there are hundreds of similar opportunities to shave a few minutes off of a drive found all over the megalopolis.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Recent announcements by the elites of Albany have made it clear that the Kosciuszko Bridge replacement project has had its timeline amplified, and work will begin on the endeavor in 2013 rather than the following year. Accordingly, your humble narrator has been attempting to spend a whole lot of time in the neighborhood of late, with the goal of recording everything in the place during its final days.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One of the features here that I will sorely miss is this lovely little footbridge which carries pedestrian traffic from the 43rd street sidewalk over to the head of Laurel Hill Blvd., which runs alongside Calvary Cemetery’s eastern wall. As far as I’ve been able to discern, this structure is unnamed, here is where it might be found on a google map. If anyone reading this post works for an “official” agency and has information on the structure which you can share, please email me here, and let me know if you’d like to stay anonymous.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As you can see, the foot bridge spirals over the onramp of the Kosciuszko fed by the Long Island Expressway’s “Queens Midtown Expressway” section, and said road channels Brooklyn bound traffic onto the truss bridge. In my estimation, the foot bridge is just wide enough to accommodate an automobile, although the turns would be tricky to negotiate in anything larger than a compact. Perhaps this is what it was originally intended to do, or it might just be a feature designed to allow emergency access to police.

Unlikely, but long have I wondered why the foot bridge is so over built. Look at all that steel.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

An access hatch is visible beneath the brick and mortar abutment which is freestanding from the LIE ramps, and evidence of some regular habitation is readily apparent. Someone is indeed living under, or actually within, this little footbridge.

One can imagine few places less peaceful to exist, at the locus point of the BQE and LIE at the foot of the Kosciuszko, within a masonry cairn.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Habit and expectations demand that this person be labelled a “troll”, after the mythical creatures which European folklore describe as living beneath bridges. Odds are that this would be a cruel description for whomever it might be that calls this his or her “little hole in the wall”. Of course, this somewhat circular apartment offers one of the finest city views in all of Queens, and easy access to the B24 bus.

What tales might this individual describe, living across the way from Calvary Cemetery?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

All around the Newtown Creek, hidden amongst the bridges and rails tracks and amongst weed choked lots and abandoned industrial buildings, live an undocumented population. The odd thing is that they have jobs, or seem to, and just don’t mind a little discomfort if it means not paying rent. Once, it would have made sense to me to try and help out somehow, but age and experience have taught me to be afraid of people who brave such hardships.

Whoever this troll is, it is probably best to leave them alone, as the NY State DOT will be evicting them before long in any case.

You may think this is callow, or callous, or claim it to be madness.

This is not madness, this is DUKBO.

Project Firebox 30

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

It lives on the corner of Van Dam and Review, and clearly remembers when the self storage place across the street was a pickle factory. Like all long time residents of Queens, it can barely recognize the place these days, but carries on and sallies forth on the daily round. It’s not old enough to remember the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge burning down, twice. Neither does it remember Gleason’s trolleys nor the vast funeral cortèges that emptied the Five Points as they proceeded to Calvary. Memory is not a strong point for its kind, for as a watchman, the sole function it must serve is to raise the alarum.

Written by Mitch Waxman

February 4, 2012 at 10:53 am

pitiably inferior

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

In the last posting describing this “Grand Walk” from Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral to Astoria in Queens, the section of modern day Maspeth which lies between the Grand Street and Kosciuszko Bridges was offered to you as “a gateway to hell”.

Allow me to explain, and describe what happened to the towns of Berlin and Blissville.

from Annual report, Issue 4 By New York (State), 1884, courtesy google books

On the line of the Long Island city division, known as the Manhattan Beach railway, pig-styes and cow stables are numerous, and in an offensive and filthy condition.

The nuisances herein before described and found chiefly upon the Montauk division (south shore) of the Long Island railroad and upon the Long Island city division of the New York and Manhattan Beach railway.

George Aekerman’s fat boiling establishment on the flats of Newtown creek, Queens county side of it and near Metropolitan avenue, uses open kettles, presses oil from fish and renders fat from butchers’ scrap.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Prior to the Civil War, there were two communities remote from Manhattan by the standards of the time, which earned their living agriculturally and benefitted from the vernal wonders offered by access to the Newtown Creek.

A sparkling wetland, Newtown Creek and its various tributaries spread many miles beyond their modern boundaries. Dutch Kills once extended to the foot of the Queensboro Bridge, and Maspeth Creek stretched halfway to modern day Flushing. Newtown Creek’s main body was known in the hinterlands of Bushwick, and English Kills was reported to share headwaters with the Cripplebush and Wallabout Creeks as well as its well known parent.

also from Annual report, Issue 4 By New York (State), 1884, courtesy google books

Pig-styes and cow-stables — The inspectors describe six of these nuisances as being near and a little west of the Woodside railroad station. In the first one were found sixty pigs, thirty-two cows and six goats, besides many other domestic animals.

The stables and the filthy condition of keeping manure must, if possible, be corrected. The animals are mostly kept upon “hotel swill,” which is boiled on the premises in open kettles and fed to the animals.

Grease is boiled and treated by Peter McArdles, whose premises and their contents are described as exceedingly offensive. The gases escaping from the agitators or boiler render the atmosphere of the locality offensive.

The establishment of Walter Bownes, in the woods, between the old Astoria road and Greenpoint avenue, is found to be exceedingly offensive, a reeking nuisance, where horses are killed and their remains utilized.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

When the iron road came, however, along with the great polyandrion of the Catholics- Blissville contracted toward Greenpoint Avenue, and Berlin was all but swallowed into the earth. First Mills, then Distilleries, and finally Industrial Factory complexes followed the rail and took root here. The stories of the Night Soil and Offal docks and the bone boilers and the acid manufacturers are passed down, but there are tidbits- enigmatic mentions in century old press pieces which hint at the commonplace terminology and “way that things are” that defined that world.

I read a lot of very old newspapers.

That’s how I discovered the term “Swill Milk”, and found another of those horrible facets for which the jewel called Newtown Creek is known worldwide.

from Archives of pediatrics, Volume 11, 1894 courtesy google books

The first series of experiments began August 25th, 1876, with milk obtained by several agents early in the morning from the following sources:

  1. Park milk, i.e.,- combined milk from a number of cows at Prospect Park. These cows were healthy, had good pasturage, and were well cared for. The milk obtained was taken from the cows in the presence of the purchaser and may be considered as equal to the best country milk.
  2. Rushmore’s milk, i.e., milk obtained from the Rushmore depot for milk in Brooklyn. Mr. Rushmore was one of the largest milk dealers and of good reputation. The milk furnished by him came from Queens County, L. I., and was obtained from the cows in the afternoon of the day preceding the morning of the one in which it was bought by my agent. Such milk represented very well the milk sold in cities at that time by the most reliable dealers. In 1876, little, if any, milk was shipped from dairies in bottles and with the care that is now exerted in certain quarters to keep it sweet and pure.
  3. Grocery milk, i.e., milk obtained from an ordinary grocery in the tenement-house district of the city. Where the milk came from and how long it had been in the grocery was not ascertained.
  4. Grain milk, i.e., milk obtained direct from cows through a dealer in milk living in the outskirts of the city, owning a few cows, fed almost entirely on brewers’ grains, with no pasturage except what a poor vacant lot afforded. They were poorly cared for.
  5. Garbage milk, i.e., milk obtained direct from cows fed on house refuse, much of which was decomposed. Cows were in the outskirts of the city and poorly cared for.
  6. Distillery milk, i.e., milk obtained direct from cows fed almost entirely on hot distillery slops or refuse obtained from a distillery at Blissville. These cows were in very poor condition.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Just the other night, while regaling our Lady of the Pentacle with tales of grisly import and putrefaction over dinner, your humble narrator let slip about the so called Sludge Acid trade.

Before I go off on a Sludge Acid trip, I’d just like to note the part of Rust Street/56th Drive/Review Avenue this photo represents would have been right in the natural course of Maspeth Creek and I would be standing in about eight feet of water if this was 1811.

Remember, the ground anywhere within a mile or two of Newtown Creek in Queens was swamp and marshland, a tidal zone. The surface we walk and drive on is actually pilings and fill, and the ground water mixes freely with Creek water.

from Annual report, Volume 1 By New York. State Engineer and Surveyor, 1913

The topography of the region between Newtown creek and Flushing river shows the valley of Maspeth creek extending inland nearly to the present main line of the Long Island railroad at Winfield, and the marshes of Flushing river and its tributary Horse brook extending from Flushing bay to Grand street, Elmhurst, the valley of the latter continuing nearly to tho railroad. Another area of low marsh land, known as Train’s meadows, extends from a point in Flushing bay just south of Sanford Point and North Beach to Woodsidc. Separating tho eastern and western valleys is the ridge of glacial drift about three-quarters of a mile wide and from 40 to 50 feet high.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

OK, in the 19th century it was standard industrial practice to boil the organic or putrescent waste of Cities (dead animals, kitchen waste, rotted meat of all kinds, and human feces or “Night Soil”) in sulphuric acid in order to free valuable chemicals from the material. The waste product was called Sludge Acid, which contained all sorts of fatty residues and undigestible bits of connective tissue and filth. At Newtown Creek, where one might do whatever one’s conscience allowed one to do, it was dumped directly and untreated into the water. Most reports describe the exhaust pipes as being below the surface, so as to cause lethal gases to percolate and dissipate. Further, wherever one of these outlets might lie, an accompanying pool of the bubbling mess could be observed.

On the Brooklyn side of the Creek, back at the confluence of Metropolitan and Grand, there was a business who sent crews out to collect this free bounty and return it to their mill. They had a way to filter the stuff and concentrate the acid back into a commercial product which they would then resell or repurpose, what we’d call recycle. The fats, oils, and other nasties went back into the Creek by a delivery method of open ditches and spillways.


New York & Atlantic Railway began operation in May 1997 of the privatized concession to operate freight trains on the lines owned by Long Island Rail Road. The railway serves a diverse customer base and shares track with the densest passenger system in the United States.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

What happened to Berlin was first called Nichols Chemical, later Phelps Dodge. The copper refinery had a long history of troubles in the area, including being forced to build the tallest chimney in the Untied States to waft emanations away from surrounding neighborhoods. Phelps even went so far as to establish a “Potemkin Village” vegetable garden at the top of Berlin hill to demonstrate that their factory posed no risk to life and limb.

What happened to Blissville, however, had nothing to do with life.

from Historical records and studies, Volume 1 By United States. Catholic Historical Society, 1899, courtesy google books

In the meeting of trustees, Sept. 19, 1845, it was announced that the Alsop Farm, consisting of about 115 acres, in Newtown Township, Long Island, had been secured for a cemetery. The deeds are dated Oct. 29, 1845. On July 31, 1848, at a special meeting of the board, it was resolved that “the cemetery at Newtown Creek, recently consecrated in part, should be called Calvary, and placed at the disposal of the public; that after August 2d the 11th Street burial-ground, as well as the free vault at 50th Street, should be permanently closed.”

Calvary Cemetery began to be used August 4, 1848. The first interment was that of Esther Ennis. Sections 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 had been previously blessed. No record is preserved, however, of the ceremony.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Legendary are the tales of the industries which lined the shorelines of the Creek itself. Van Iderstines and Cord Meyer’s, and a dozen smaller operations which all were in the rendering or fertilizer business. An unbroken line of rotting filth, oil refineries, and distilleries extended from the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge all the way to Furman Island (at modern day Maspeth Avenue) where the greatest and worst of them all- Peter Cooper’s Glue Factory-  could be found.

A third rail topic of the environmental crowd which is never discussed or mentioned is exactly what the toll of siting a cemetery might entail. Calvary Cemetery in particular went to great pains to isolate their grounds hydrologically, installing a vast system of subterrene drains, catch basins, and sewers upon the high ground of Laurel Hill. The first interment in Calvary was 1848, but the place didn’t start to fill in any great numbers before the late 1850’s. One of the least commented upon and surely grandest civil works projects of the early 19th century went on here, removing some 300 million tons of soil from the hill in the name of conquering the land.

Often, I ponder what effect the pure tonnage of decaying human meat- suffused with formaldehyde and other preservatives- means for the water table.

from The Index, Volume 5 By Free Religious Association (Boston, Mass.), 1874, courtesy google books

A single cemetery of Brooklyn,—Calvary,—the principal cemetery of the Roman Catholic Church,—there were, in a single year, nine thousand interments,—about forty per cent, of the whole city dead. The procession of hearses thither is incessant. The ground is not a large one, and the dead He there in layers three or four deep in places, the upper ones being so near the surface that the effluvium taints the air. Yet the medical inspector who gives the numbers contents himself with remarking: “The records of this city of the dead exhibit singularly instructive records of the nationalities and ages of the decedents belonging to that religious denomination!” That here is a pressing danger who will deny?

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