Blissville

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12th Street near 27th Avenue, Astoria Village

Queens has been a county since 1683. Just as the USA originally had 13 states, the state of New York has 12 original counties: Albany, Cornwall, Dukes, Dutchess, Kings, New York (Manhattan), Orange, Queens, Richmond, Suffolk, Ulster and Westchester.

Nassau County, you say? It’s a Johnny come lately. In 1898, when four counties voted to become part of New York City, becoming Greater New York, half the county of Queens — the eastern towns of North Hempstead, Hempstead and Oyster Bay — chose to become independent, and in 1899 they created a county of their own, Nassau.

Had these towns not separated from Queens, our present task — examining the origins of the names of the borough’s neighborhoods — would call for entries on Lynbrook, Long Beach, Port Washington, Oyster Bay, Massapequa… and I’d be writing till Christmas. As is, Queens is large enough.

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The Doherty monument in First Calvary is one beautiful bit of carving, in my opinion.

Art school faculty, turtlenecked and smoking french cigarettes, would probably describe the thing as “Sophia, goddess of wisdom – in the form of a christian angel, sitting within a Roman structure, crowned by a cross – representing an agglutination of civilized democratic-christian progress advancing since the time of the Greeks and the Roman Republic which ultimately and inevitably (and logically) manifested as The United States. The angel casts her eye skyward, vigilant, with sword in hand. A pacific and expectant expression suggests the nearness of the second coming and resurrection of the dead.”

Such imperious and hyperbolic thinking was very much in vogue in the years between 1900 and the first World War.

More after the jump…

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On Friday, the 11th of July, I found myself at the very edge of Queens in a very special place. At the end of Vernon Boulevard in LIC, where the old Vernon Avenue Bridge and the Newtown Creek Towing Company were found, is a facility which is engaged in the hands-on work of the Superfund process. The Anchor QEA company operates out of here, carrying out the collection of samples and scientific tests which will determine the exact nature of what’s wrong with Newtown Creek. These samples and tests are overseen and directed by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, and is an effort conducted by the so-called “Potentially Responsible Parties” (PRPs).

These “Potentially Responsible Parties” have organized themselves together as the Newtown Creek Group, and they invited a small group of community members and representatives to their LIC facility to describe what they actually do at the Vernon street end and discuss the future of Newtown Creek.

More after the jump…

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Kosciuszko Bridge rendering courtesy NYS DOT

Last night, over on 39th Street in Sunnyside, the NYS DOT held a meeting to discuss the forthcoming Kosciuszko Bridge project. This is a BIG deal for anybody who lives in North Brooklyn, Western Queens, or who drives on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. It’s also a HUGE deal for us as taxpayers. The first phase of this project, which will build half of the replacement span and demolish the existing bridge is $555 million – the largest contract in NYS DOT history. The contractors as chosen and announced by Governor Cuomo are Skanska, a construction firm based in NYC, which will be managing partner; Ecco III of Yonkers; Kiewit of Nebraska; and HNTB of Kansas.

The “New Meeker Avenue Bridge” opened back on August 23rd of 1939, and was a pet project of Robert Moses. It was the first link in the chain which would eventually become the BQE. This post at my Newtown Pentacle blog displays a series of historic shots from that long ago time, and this one here at Q’stoner discusses what’s found in DUKBO – Down Under the Kosciuszko Bridge Onramp.

Read more after the jump…

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Kerosene was “invented” by a Canadian named Abraham Gesner, who built the first large scale refinery in North America along the Newtown Creek in 1854. 

He received the patents for the process, and coined the name “Kerosene” for a distillation of coal oil (like a lot of 19th century industrial product names, we moderns inherited the trademarked nomen as the descriptor for an entire category. It’s the same shorthand we use for facial tissue as being “Kleenex,” or photocopying as “Xerox,” or cotton swabs as “Q-tips”). Gesner was looking for a way to get an angle on the lucrative lamp oil trade.

In 1854, lamp oil was produced from animal fats. Ocean going fish, and especially whales, were basically boiled down to make the stuff. The collection of the raw material was hazardous and expensive, and the refined product was dangerously volatile – there had to be a better way. Chemist Abraham Gesner invented a method by which a combustible oil could be distilled from coal. In doing so, he pretty much founded what would become the American oil industry.

When the time came to set up shop and build a factory to produce his coal oil or “Kerosene,” it was along the Newtown Creek that Abraham Gesner built the first large scale refinery in North America – in the Blissville neighborhood of what we would call Queens.

More, lots more, after the jump…

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Woe to that New Yorker who achieves our common societal goal, which is being always at the head of a long queue – the first in line.

There isn’t much I can tell you about Esther Ennis, an Irish immigrant, other than she was the very first person buried in Calvary Cemetery in 1848.

Intonations and rumors of a broken heart followed her to the grave, which allude to a love affair gone wrong and conjure lurid fantasies of the port city of New York in the 1840′s. Unfortunately, no primary sources have emerged that discuss the young (for our modern era, back in 1848 – 29 was “getting up there”) woman.

From nytimes.com, an article from 1884 about Calvary’s first grave digger, John McCann:

“Thirty-six years ago yesterday the first body was interred in Calvary Cemetery,” said John McCann, gatekeeper at the main entrance to the cemetery yesterday afternoon. “Yes, Sir, I remember it well. It was the body of Esther Ennis, a handsome looking Irish girl, who …

Quite obviously, this isn’t the original grave marker, its style and typography betray a 20th century vintage, and I would wager that it was carved sometime in the 20th century based on style and material.

A half remembered and impossible to locate report from some forgotten publication once revealed that an Irish organization like the Hibernians (or was it a Catholic Charity of some stripe?) made it their business to place this marker on the presumed gravesite in Section 1 in First Calvary, but it doesn’t seem to have made it online so I cannot supply a link to you.

Regardless, this is one of Calvary Cemetery’s proverbial “needle in a haystack locations,“ and it is one easily bypassed by casual visitors to the great polyandrion.

The Manhattan address demarcated on the stone is 139 Clinton Street, which, presuming that the addresses on Clinton Street conform to the same logic as they did in 1848, should be here.

Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.

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Blissville, once a thriving bucolic community, is one of the darkest sections of the fabled Newtown Creek. Named for Greenpoint’s Neziah Bliss who – with Eliaphet Nott – founded the community in Newtown during the early 19th century, Blissville was once what we would call “affordable housing” for the industrial laborers of Bliss’ operations on the Brooklyn shore. Europeans have lived here since the 1600s – in Maspeth and Hunters Point in particular – but it wasn’t until the period right around the 1860s that things really kicked into gear around these parts, when the whole place began its descent into a sort of 19th century industrial hell.

This post gets kind of gross, I’m warning you now, but that’s Newtown Creek for you.

From Wikipedia:

Blissville is a neighborhood within Long Island City, in the New York City borough of Queens. It is bordered by Calvary Cemetery to the east; the Long Island Expressway to the north; Newtown Creek to the south; and Dutch Kills, a tributary of Newtown Creek, to the west. Blissville was named after Neziah Bliss, who owned most of the land in the 1830s and 1840s.


Map courtesy Wikipedia

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You never know what you might find at First Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

Here lies Tammany, gazing eternally upon their work. The city. That great city. The greatest and last of their projects is promontory above the shield wall of Manhattan, and the familiar vista of Calvary Cemetery is offered as an iconic representation by most. It’s immediately recognizable, because of that singular tower.

The tower – called the Empire State building – was built in just over single year, under the supervision of a former Newsboy, from South Street in Manhattan, who watched the Brooklyn Bridge being built from his bedroom window.

From Wikipedia:

The Empire State Building is a 102-story landmark Art Deco skyscraper in New York City at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street. Its name is derived from the nickname for the state of New York. It stood as the world’s tallest building for more than forty years, from its completion in 1931 until construction of the World Trade Center’s North Tower was completed in 1972. Following the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, the Empire State Building once again became the tallest building in New York City and New York State.

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Review Avenue starts underneath the Long Island Expressway in LIC and snakes past Calvary Cemetery, eventually transmogrifying into Laurel Hill Boulevard, 56th Road, and then Rust Street as it proceeds east into Maspeth. At Review’s intersection with Greenpoint Avenue at the literal and littoral edge of Queens is a modern day Self Storage Warehouse which also hosts a U-Haul franchise which are housed in the same structure. That’s it, on the left, in the shot above.

It seems, however, that this is where a lifetime of my favorite BBQ relishes and pickles came from, as this used to be the home of Bloch and Guggenheimer Inc. – or B&G Pickles.

Image from bgpickles.com

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As mentioned, I spend an atrocious amount of time studying century-old publications and journals found on Google Books. These periodicals, both trade and municipal in nature, often discuss the origins of the Newtown Creek as it exists today.

At the beginning of the 20th century, when the Creek was at its arguable worst (environmentally speaking), there was a popular sentiment that engineering could fix all of its problems.

Hindsight suggests that they just made things worse, of course, but there’s the human condition for you. Pictured above is the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge in modernity, while below is a shot of the 1910 version. In both shots, Brooklyn is on the left and Queens on the right.

– photo from Engineering magazine, Volume 38, 1910 — courtesy Google Books

This is the bridge that burned away in the 1919 Locust Hill Oil Refinery disaster, a swing bridge which is not altogether dissimilar to the relict Grand Street Bridge found further up the Creek.

I’ve done a few Q’stoner posts on the environs around the modern structure – the Tidewater Building, the nearby SimsMetal Yard, a former Standard Oil gas station, even the old Van Iderstine properties.

Whenever such “Now and Then” shots come into my hands, especially images which are considered to be in the public domain, they will be eagerly shared.

Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.