Located at the junction of Newtown Creek with one of its Queens tributaries, Dutch Kills, a particular industrial site has long called to me. Several years of stalking the place have provided for a series of extraordinary images, and whether onboard a vessel or on foot, visitors to the watershed are seldom disappointed by this singular location with its frenetic activity, maritime splendor, and constantly moving heavy equipment.
It’s Sims Metal Management’s Newtown Creek facility, at the edge of Queens, in Blissville.
Procedurally speaking, Sims is a recycling facility which welcomes private and public (DSNY) recyclable material, within certain guidelines. Trucks carrying said material are weighed on an enormous scale at the gate, and the attendant creates a manifest describing what is being delivered and dispatches the vehicle to an appropriate spot to tilt and discharge its cargo. Said cargo can be anything from copper and aluminum to iron girders or automobiles, which will be processed and resold as commodities. They also take in and process some of the clear and blue bag recyclable materials which DSNY collects at curbside.
It isn’t a terribly large facility, by Newtown Creek standards.
The Creek hosts massive properties like the DEP’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment plant and the former Standard Oil properties in Greenpoint, Calvary Cemetery and the former Phelps Dodge location in Queens, and the enormous National Grid parcel in Brooklyn.
Newtown Creek is fortuitously located close to the dead bang center of New York City, and is outfitted with maritime bulkheads and surrounded by railroad infrastructure. As late as the WW2, this was the industrial heart of NYC. In many ways, it still is.
The Sims sites history is storied — a city-owned structure leased to Sims for 99 years, this was once the home of the LIRR Manure dock. The rail company’s freight operations collected all that which the age of horse and carriage produced along the line, and they accepted contributions from municipal sources as well.
Infamous in the historical record, this was where, in the open air, a 30 foot high and three football field long mound of human and animal manure would have been found. There were also quite a few dead pack animals which found their way here, causing an odiferous condition that caused complaint from the riders of the Long Island Railroad’s passenger trains during the 19th century.
The collected material was largely destined for use as fertilizer on the Catholic estates in Jamaica, Queens, and some was shipped to points further east and the farms of Long Island. There was also a market for the stuff, along the creek, as a raw material for the acid and fertilizer factories which lined the Queens or northern bank after the Civil War.
Today, it’s all about the metal.
Often remarked upon by those of us who puzzle over the Newtown Creek’s unique history — during the hypercapitalist 19th century era — recycling and repurposing waste materials was referred to with the aphorism “waste not, want not.” Great profits could be realized by “using every part of the pig but the squeal” to paraphrase Chicago’s Philip Armour.
Modernity strives to achieve profitable utility in the handling and “recycling” of our waste materials, something that seems to have been forgotten during the decades of excess following the Second World War which is painfully and expensively being reimagined by the engineers of today.
Like many other industrial sites found along the Newtown Creek, Sims is off limits to the public. There is very good reason for this, as there are enormous machines which dwarf tractor trailer rigs whizzing about, and literally tons and tons of material being sorted and processed. It’s actually quite a dangerous profession, recycling.
Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.