A confession first: I’m likely the only person on earth who calls this spot DUKBO — short for “down under the Kosciuszko Bridge onramp.”
Laurel Hill Boulevard slouches roughly as it descends toward Review Avenue, where the Penny Bridge once stood and the Long Island Railroad once maintained a station and the Roman Catholic funeral ferries docked. The Kosciuszko Bridge occupies the shallow valley between two land forms which the colonial settlers of Newtown called “Laurel Hill” to the west and an easterly elevation once known as “Berlin Hill.” Berlin was a village which was absorbed into Maspeth during the First World War when living or doing business in a place called Berlin was a sticky situation.
Lonely and desolate, DUKBO is a hinterland not too far from the geographic center of the megalopolis called New York City, and this must be one of the least walked stretches of pavement in the entire metropolitan zone. It’s where the Alsops, Brutnells, and Wandells chose to locate their farming operations in the Colonial era and just up the hill from where a few hundred British soldiers were garrisoned during the Revolutionary War.
To the west lies Calvary, First Calvary, where Archbishop Dagger John Hughes consecrated the soil of Protestant Newtown for the use of the Roman Catholic Church as a cemetery. The elevation of Laurel Hill is quite apparent here: The nine-story General Electric Vehicle Company factory’s roofline is at eye level, and it is found at Borden Avenue and Starr, only a few blocks away.
The hill was once a bit higher, but the construction of the cemetery in the 19th century removed a few hundred million tons of topsoil from it (this was the subject of a lawsuit in state court, wherein the farmers of Newtown sued the Catholic Church, as the topsoil was shipped to Jamaica, Queens, for use on the Catholic plantations there).
Sidewalks are either nonexistent, shattered, or impassable on Laurel Hill Boulevard, so a turn onto 54th Avenue carries you under the bridge. This decaying structure is scheduled to be replaced with a modern bridge, designed to overcome many of the flaws exhibited by this 1939 era Meeker Avenue Bridge – renamed the Kosciuszko Bridge in 1940.
There are plenty of holes in the fence lines big enough to squeeze a camera lens through as you pass under the structure, but one should never trespass around properties that adjoin the Newtown Creek lest your reality get a bit grittier than you might be comfortable with. Especially do not trespass around transportation infrastructure, as the NYPD is rather touchy about this. In the shot above, you can actually see the dramatic corrosion which has compelled the Governor to “fast track” the replacement of the bridge, which is on the State’s list of deficient bridges.
Were you to turn left off of 54th Avenue, you’d encounter the cloverleaf onramps which form the intersection of the Long Island Expressway and the Brooklyn Queens Expressway; 43rd Street heads south toward Newtown Creek at a considerably angled declination. This stretch of 43rd Street will someday be the new DUKBO, and easement purchases for the new bridge have already caused nearby homes and business buildings to shutter and be demolished. The State DOT has announced that the replacement bridge will sit a bit to the east of the 1939 model.
The Maespetche who lived here were mostly wiped out by smallpox by the 1700s, and by that time the Dutch had already established an agricultural community. The English arrived, often overland from Eastern Long Island, and mocked the Dutch whom they saw as old fashioned and bound by odd customs and religious practices. The English had plenty of controversies themselves, with the “Friends” cult showing up time and again from New England via the Long Island Sound, witch panics, and all sorts of odd religious experimentation by commoner and courtier alike going on.
All that sort of nonsense and jumping about ended in the early 1800′s, when an industrial boom got started here in DUKBO. General Chemical came in the 1840s, and joined with the distilleries and fat renderers and acid factories already present to participate in what we would call “the second industrial revolution.” Things really kicked into gear when the Long Island Railroad laid down track in the 1860s and 70s. Pictured above is the former home of Phelps Dodge at the corner of 43rd and 56th Road; General Chemical became Phelps Dodge over the course of a century. At its apex, this industrial site employed 17,500 people and squatted along some 36 square acres of the creeklands. The tallest chimneys in the United State (at the time) stabbed up from here, painting the sky with poison effluvium whose pH content was sufficient to cause the marble and granite monuments at Calvary Cemetery to melt like ice cream — the subject of yet another lawsuit.
The Kosciuszko Bridge leaves DUKBO in Queens and swings out over Newtown Creek toward DUKBO in Greenpoint. It carries something like 200,000 vehicle crossings a day between Brooklyn and Queens, it’s 1.1 miles long (including its approaches), and looms some 150 feet over Newtown Creek. The reason it’s so high is that oceangoing ships used to come all the way back here, some 2.1 miles from the East River.
In 1939, during the Great Depression, one of the most powerful men in New York City was Robert Moses. Moses had a project he was keen on, which he called the Brooklyn Queens Connecting Highway.
The New Meeker Avenue Bridge opened on August 23, 1939. It was the first link in a chain that eventually became the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. It promised easy egress to the 1939 World’s Fair in what we now call Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and was a showpiece project for the Great Builder.
American Bridge Company and Bethlehem Steel worked on it, along with dozens of other contractors. The Big K was part of what was known as the Regional Plan, which also provided the pretext for the erection of the Triborough, Whitestone, Marine Parkway and a slew of other bridges across the archipelago.
For more on the $517,000,000 New York State DOT Kosciuszko Bridge project, click here, or just wait a couple of months until construction begins.
Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman blogs at Newtown Pentacle.