Down Under the Borden Avenue Bridge


    Welcome to DUBABO, Down Under the Borden Avenue Bridge Onramp, which spans the Dutch Kills tributary of the Newtown Creek. Dutch Kills is an ancestral waterway, one which once suffused into the swampy tidal flats which we call Long Island City, but which was given over to industrial usage. European colonists stumbled in to it, during the 1640s, and they described the area surrounding Dutch Kills as having been “malarial, and mosquito ridden.” The water once ran as far inland as modern day Queens Plaza, but the entire coastline of western Long Island was riddled with shallow waterways back then, which fed a thriving wetland.

    The Sunswick and Newtown Creeks macerated the Long Island shoreline of Queens and allowed tidal nutrients to suffuse into the swampy soil via a vast upland network of tributary streams and coastal salt marshes. Around the time of the American Revolution, Dutch Kills and all of Newtown Creek was described as a hunters paradise, full of fish and fowl and deer.

    By the late 19th century however, after industry arrived and the sewers began to dead end here- folks from Blissville, Maspeth, and Hunters Point all referred to this area as the waste meadows.


    This is a cowboy era pathway in Queens, as the street was built and designated as Borden Avenue in the year 1868. Originally a plank road made of creosoted blocks – designed for donkeys and set roughly into the swampy lowlands which adjoined the Newtown Creek – Borden Avenue eventually progressed to the point of regular horse drawn street car service by the late 19th century, and to electric trolleys by the 20th. Landfill and reclamation during this period drained the wetlands, and the Borden Avenue corridor became a natural place for heavy industries to gather. By the time of the first World War, the land was flat and dry.

    The Long Island Railroad terminal at Hunters Point is and was located on Borden Avenue, and their rail tracks run parallel to Borden Avenue’s path, along what would have once been known as Creek Street. Critically, these were both freight and passenger tracks, back in the heyday of industry. The Long Island Expressway follows the path of Borden Avenue as well.


    As mentioned, Borden Avenue was constructed in 1868, and there were a succession of inadequate wooden swing bridges installed at this spot between then and 1906. Keen to satisfy its new outer borough constituents, the newly consolidated City of Greater New York elected to construct the current bridge, whereupon it was unceremoniously opened to traffic on March 25 of 1908, a Wednesday. It cost the taxpayers some $157,606 to fabricate, and originally had two sets of trolley tracks set into its deck. The Borden Avenue Bridge is a retractile structure found between 27th street and Review Avenue in Queens, and is one of only two such bridges found in all of New York City. (The other is found at Carroll Street spanning the Gowanus. Small world, huh?)


    No secret, Borden Avenue Bridge is my second favorite of the many movable spans around the Newtown Creek watershed (Grand Street is tops.) The entire surface of the structure is designed to physically roll away from its piers, on rails, and retract into a pocket — ostensibly allowing maritime traffic egress to commercial docks. Dutch Kills used to be a well used and quite busy thoroughfare for shipping, although lately, not so much.


    The water quality at Dutch Kills is fairly nightmarish, with “floatables” and wind blown trash collecting along the bulkheads. The water betrays itself with the odd colors (and colour) it displays, ranging from a reddish brown after rain events to a cadmium green during the heights of summer and depths of winter. Unnaturally still, the only flow of water here is driven by the tepid tidal flow of the larger Newtown Creek or by the expulsion of waste water and storm runoff from the Combined Sewer Outfalls found along its banks.


    The Borden Avenue Bridge recently underwent a radical series of repairs, which closed the span off to pedestrian and vehicle alike. It was closed for nearly two years, from December 31st, 2008 to December 24th, 2010 (open to traffic, mind you, they still had to finish the sidewalks). The reason for the unexpected duration of the bridge closure was always described as some sort of structural issue. I remember “the southern pier is subsiding” was offered to an exasperated community, and that the repairs to this pier had been unduly retarded by the discovery of a pocket of contaminated sediment that needed to be dealt with. Can’t be easy working for the DOT Bridge Division, especially on projects like that one.

    A now broken link from back in 2010 described the construction delays as follows:

    “The Department of Transportation has identified a pocket of contaminated soil which has been classified as “contaminated non-hazardous”. As such, it poses no significant health risk to workers or the surrounding community. However, precautionary measures will be taken and every effort is being made to remove and dispose of the contamination quickly, yet safely, within all New York City and State guidelines. A Corrective Action Plan (CAP) for the removal and disposal of the contamination has been submitted to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) for review and approval. Upon receipt of the NYSDEC approval, the contractor will prepare a new construction schedule and commence work under the terms of the permits. At this time, a date for the resumption of work is unknown which precludes an accurate prediction of a new anticipated completion date, although every effort will be made to complete the project in the late Fall of 2010. All posted detours will remain in effect until further notice.”

    The now 106-year-old structure seems to be in fine fettle post repair, so may she enjoy another hundred years here with us in Queens – cent’anni.

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

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