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…
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…
Jack Eichenbaum grew up in Bayside in the 1950s. He left for academic and vocational reasons in 1963, and when he returned from completing his doctorate in urban geography in 1976, he found a completely different borough. The mostly white, working class neighborhoods of his youth had transformed into multi-ethnic enclaves, creating the world’s most diverse county. Fascinated, he started giving walking tours of his beloved hometown in the 1980s, and in 2010, Eichenbaum was designated the official historian of Queens, as per the borough president’s office. The former city assessor has five upcoming tours, which are famous for the amount of local trivia he shares and the great restaurants he hits afterwards with participants. For more information, please see below.
- Willets Point, Sunday, May 25th, 4 pm: East of Citi Field is a sewerless, hardscrabble area of auto junkyards and related businesses that has twice beaten back recent attempts at redevelopment. But since it’s located between the world famous baseball stadium and booming Flushing, public and private interests are again trying to transform Willets Point. Eichenbaum will walk from central Flushing to the area, while discussing political, economic and ecological issues and explaining why “Willets Point” is a misnomer. $20.
- The World of the 7 Train, Saturday, May 31st, 10 am: Eichenbaum calls this full-day program his “signature tour,” although it’s actually a series of six walks (Long Island City, Sunnyside, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Corona and Flushing) and connecting rides. He focuses on the 7 train’s influence on surrounding neighborhoods. Lunch is in Flushing. Pre-register via email@example.com.
- On and Off Jamaica Avenue, Sunday, June 8th, 10 am: After decades of dedication, redesign, and redevelopment, Downtown Jamaica is undergoing a renaissance as the borough’s major transportation center. Eichenbaum promises historic buildings, commercial activity, culture, and a surprise ending. $20.
- Crossing Newtown Creek: Contrasting Industrial Brooklyn & Queens, Sunday, July 27th, 10 am: See remnants of the intense and largely unregulated industrial development that thrived along Newtown Creek during the late 19th century. See elegant Greenpoint highlights and East River shoreline redevelopment ending with shoreline views from Gantry Park and Hunter’s Point.
- More Space and New Arrangements in Western Queens, Sunday, August 3rd, 10 am: During the first third of the 20th century, Western Queens nurtured developments where traditional open space/building area relationships were altered to create new urban architecture. Sunnyside Gardens and the Jackson Heights Historic District anchor this tour, which includes Phipps Garden Apartments, various Matthews Flats, the Metropolitan Life houses, and early truck-oriented industrial buildings.
Photo: Alex Engel
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
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.
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.
A big part of being involved with the Newtown Creek story is attending an endless series of meetings.
There’s a Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee over in Greenpoint that provides community input and problems to DEP about the sewer plant, the Newtown Creek Alliance which spans and advocates for both sides of the Creek, and a Kosciuszko Bridge Stakeholders Committee as well. There’s a bunch of other groups and organizations, but these are the three which I always pay attention to and publicly identify myself with. The good thing about these meetings is that I get to know what’s happening, and get my camera pointed in the right direction at the right times.
Today’s big news is that a dredging project, which is anticipated to last around six weeks, is beginning on Newtown Creek. I’m afraid that I was unable to locate a live link to the pdf hosted at nyc.gov, but this is the official story as received. Here’s the text of the NYC DEP announcement.
From NYC Department of Environmental Protection:
OFFICE OF COMMUNITY AFFAIRS, BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
NEWTOWN CREEK DREDGING UPDATE MARCH, 2014
Beginning the week of March 17, 2014 and continuing for approximately 6 weeks, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will be dredging Newtown Creek. The following is a brief overview of the work scheduled and potential community impacts and mitigation measures.
WHY IS THIS WORK NECESSARY? The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is the largest in the City and operates, like most plants, through an activated sludge process. In order for this treatment process to work, waste sludge must be removed every day. Presently, waste sludge is piped to a storage tank near the East River in Greenpoint and then transferred to a sludge vessel (boat) for delivery to Wards Island for further processing. DEP needs to demolish the sludge storage tank to make way for new affordable housing. A new sludge dock has been built at Whale Creek, adjacent to the Newtown Creek plant, and sludge vessels will soon receive waste sludge there instead of the existing East River tank and dock. However, to navigate to the new dock, maintenance dredging must be done along Newtown Creek to remove sediment and debris which accumulates in the waterway.
HOW WILL THE WORK BE PERFORMED? Dredge operations are expected to start in Whale Creek and then move west along Newtown Creek towards the Pulaski Bridge to the mouth of Newtown Creek. Operations will be performed initially in 12-hour shifts, 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. As operations move into Newtown Creek, work will run 24 hours per day in order to minimize impacts to marine traffic. All work will be performed from barges located on the water with all required Coast Guard lighting and signage for safe boating.
COMMUNITY IMPACTS During the dredging operations, hydrogen sulfide gas trapped in the sediment may be released. This gas has a strong odor of rotten eggs. DEP will monitor for odor and take preventive measures to control the releases.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Please contact Shane Ojar, Director of Community Affairs at 718-595-4148 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a shot of dredging equipment at work over on Staten Island’s Kill Van Kull, another industrial waterway found across the harbor, just to give you an idea what to expect. I can tell you that sound and smell are going to be a common complaint over the next six weeks, based on personal experience. The NYC DEP told us that anyone experiencing discomfort due to this necessary activity should report it to 311, so that they can take steps to alleviate the odors.
If you smell something, say something, and call 311.
Word has also reached me that a tree removal process will shortly be starting up in West Maspeth and Blissville, as well as parts of Brooklyn, in anticipation of the forthcoming reconstruction of the Kosciuszko Bridge.
Like Thoreau, I occasionally need to escape it all and commune with the beasts of the field on their own terms, and experience the freedom of natural situ. Especially at the end of long and difficult winter season.
Journey toward nature and you will become as one with it, all that stuff.
Accordingly, a recent perambulation was embarked upon whose destination would reward me with the presence of creatures for whom such freedom is no abstract notion nor temporary distraction, rather it is their daily experience.
Walden (first published as Walden; or, Life in the Woods) is an American book written by noted Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for self reliance.
Published in 1854, it details Thoreau’s experiences over the course of two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, near Concord, Massachusetts.
By immersing himself in nature, Thoreau hoped to gain a more objective understanding of society through personal introspection. Simple living and self-sufficiency were Thoreau’s other goals, and the whole project was inspired by transcendentalist philosophy, a central theme of the American Romantic Period. As Thoreau made clear in his book, his cabin was not in wilderness but at the edge of town, about two miles (3 km) from his family home.
My mandate in Newtown Creek Alliance is to act as historian, as well as a photographer, and the building pictured above is known to modernity as the “Lukoil Getty Terminal.” Its waterfront is categorized by Dock Code 616, with a 300 foot frontage on Newtown Creek, and it sits in plain view of the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge on the north side of the waterway, in Queens.
To me, it’ll always just be the Tidewater building.
Tidewater Oil Company (also rendered as Tide Water Oil Company) was a major petroleum refining and marketing concern in the United States for more than 80 years. Tidewater was best known for its Flying A–branded products and gas stations, and for Veedol motor oil, which was known throughout the world.
Tidewater was founded in New York City in 1887. The company entered the gasoline market just before World War I, and by 1920 was selling gasoline, oil and other products on the East Coast under its Tydol brand. In 1931, Tidewater expanded its reach into the midwestern U.S. by purchasing Northwestern Oil Company of Superior, Wisconsin.
Soon thereafter, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (now ExxonMobil) gained control of Tidewater, and set up the subsidiary Mission Corporation to operate it. J. Paul Getty’s purchase of Mission in 1937 set the stage for the birth of Tidewater as a major national player in the oil industry.
Learn about the polluted waterway that helped form the backbone of Brooklyn’s industrial economy next month at Brooklyn Brainery with a photographic journey and lecture on Newtown Creek. Brownstoner Queens blogger and Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman will present his slideshow and lecture on the history of the creek, which was named a federal Superfund site in 2010. Just after the feds declared it a Superfund site, Exxon Mobil agreed to a $25,000,000 settlement to clean up decades of oil spills, most of which went into a community fund to benefit Greenpoint and its surrounding environment.
“The presentation will photographically carry viewers from the Newtown Creek’s junction with the East River all the way back to the heart of darkness found at its end in East Williamsburg,” says the description on the Brainery website. The lecture will take place on Thursday, February 27 from 8 to 10 pm at Brooklyn Brainery’s Prospect Heights storefront, which is 190 Underhill Avenue. Tickets cost $12, and the sign-up page is here.
Photo by Mitch Waxman
Community advocates and environmental experts want to map disease and toxic sites in Greenpoint. They are seeking nearly $1 million from a $19.5 million environmental fund set aside in a 2010 settlement of the massive ExxonMobil oil spill in Greenpoint’s Newtown Creek to search out clusters of asthma, cancer, heart disease and birth defects in the 11222 ZIP code, the New York Post reported.
Lifelong Greenpoint resident Laura Hofmann told the Post she has an autoimmune disease that she thinks was triggered by pollution, and her family has suffered from several different diseases.
Greenpoint’s industrial past includes somewhere between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil spilled into Newtown Creek (pictured above), toxic vapors concentrated underground from former dry cleaners and metal companies, and toxic chemicals that have seeped from underground tanks at the Nuhart Plastics Factory.
Photo by Pixonomy