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.
Once upon a time, this wasn’t the proverbial “wrong side of the tracks,” rather this was the center of town. 18th century residents would ask “What on earth could have happened to Maspeth Creek?” were they able, and “Where is the Town Dock which DeWitt Clinton himself used — where is it?”
A shot acquired in 2010, when I happened to be standing in a south facing room within the Degnon Terminal’s former Loose Wiles building (LaGuardia Community College’s Building C, in modernity)… which overlooks the waters of the Dutch Kills tributary of Newtown Creek.
Dutch Kills is LIC’s ancestral waterway, which once flowed all the way to Queens Plaza, and is just a few blocks from Court Square and Thomson Avenue. Beyond the Long Island Expressway is the infinity of Brooklyn, and you are looking roughly south.
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.
Gaze in wonder upon the fabled Newtown Creek of the 21st century, as a tug of the Poling and Cutler towing organization wrestles a fuel barge in a westerly course toward the East River past the Vernon Blvd. Street end in Queens (right) and the Manhattan Avenue Street end in Brooklyn (left).
A phrase I routinely offer boldly states that “in the late 19th and early 20th century, Newtown Creek carried more commercial traffic than the entire Mississippi River.” This statement often causes listeners to roll their eyes.
It is inconceivable, given the modern appearance of the Creek and its banks, to believe this statement. Some ask me whether or not tugs and barges can even be observed operating along the Newtown Creek in this dystopian future we have all found ourselves living in.
Long have I been intrigued by this little “fix a flat” building which sits at the cross roads of Greenpoint Avenue, Van Dam Street and Review Avenue on the Queens side of the infamous Newtown Creek in Blissville, Queens.
A lot of this Newtown Creek historian thing I do involves going to community meetings in Greenpoint, a “monitoring committee” or “alliance” or just some “friends of” gathering at which an elected official or designated regulator will speak. This consumes quite a bit of time, which is amplified in my case as I walk to the meeting from Astoria (I walk everywhere). Not a long stroll by any stretch — it’s roughly three miles — but sometimes it feels as if I spend most of my life walking to and from the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge. Accordingly, I spend a lot of my time moving through Blissville.
Run down, the little fix a flat building seems to be held together with tape and tacks, but there has always been something about the structure which caught my eye. “Something” seems significant about it, given its prominent location. Despite efforts at finding that something, it has always remained an enigma.
Until now, that is, thanks to the magnificent NYC Municipal Archives LUNA website.
The father of modern Greenpoint was a Yankee engineer named Neziah Bliss. In addition to his efforts in Brooklyn, he set about the creation of a somewhat utopian laborers community in Queens with his partner, Eliaphet Nott of Union College. Eponymous, the village of Blissville didn’t quite end up being a utopia, instead it ended up hosting fat renderers, rail yards, and after 1848 — Calvary Cemetery.
Irish laborers followed the jobs here, and the reputation of Blissville suffered from the anti-Catholic and anti-Hibernian prejudices typically found in the society of 19th century New York City. This was before Tammany took over, when NYC was still very much an anglophile, Protestant town which did not subscribe to our modern notions of diversity and racial equality.
Maspeth Creek is a tributary of the larger Newtown Creek; its street facing terminus can be accessed on 49th Street between Galasso Place and Maspeth Avenue. Once, the waterway stretched out toward Flushing for a considerable distance, but that was back when the Europeans first showed back in the 1640s. These Dutchmen from New Amsterdam established a colony nearby in 1642, one named for and then wiped out by a group of Native Americans whom they called the Mespaetche in 1643.
They’re where we get the place name “Maspeth,” by the way.
Apparently, the Dutch really pissed off the natives, and the colonists were sent packing. Unfortunately for the Mespaetche, the Dutch left behind pandemic and disease. In 1652, the Dutch were back, and were in a diplomatic mood this time. They made peace with the surviving natives, and established the colony of “Nieuwe Stad.”
When the English took over, “Nieuwe Stad” became Newtown.
“It’s a meat grinder over there” is a phrase and analogous statement often used by modern pundits to describe a past or present war, firefight, or even a less than welcoming part of the Bronx.
Conjuring imagery of familiar butcher tools spewing out hamburger meat, the term means something else entirely to those versed in the lore of an infamous cataract known as the Newtown Creek.
To those who have stared too long at the blasted heaths of Blissville at the border of Brooklyn and Queens from the bulkheads of Newtown Creek or from atop the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge, “It’s a meat grinder over there” refers to a certain spot in DUGABO (Down Under the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge Onramp), whose mention engenders a sudden display of wan or pale complexions upon the faces of longtime area residents merely at the utterance of its shunned name.
As NYC.gov will tell you, the Grand Street Bridge spans the infamous Newtown Creek between Gardner Avenue in Brooklyn and 47th street in Queens. Opened in 1903, it’s a swing bridge which is just over 69 meters long (that’s 227.034 feet in Americanese) and that the approach roadways on both sides of the bridge are wider than the span itself. The first bridge on this spot went up in 1875.
It is 3.1 miles back from the East River and where the currently undefended border of Brooklyn and Queens can be found, at midspan. Once, this was an incredibly busy maritime crossing- in 1918 alone, the bridge was opened more than 5,000 times for shipping.