Category Archives: abandoned places

A Boat Journey Through the Industrial Relics of Newtown Creek

Chances are, you’ve seen little of the Newtown Creek. The 3.5 mile waterway threads between Brooklyn and Queens with its banks mostly lined with private industry and only a few points of public access. It is unfortunately best known as the site of one of the biggest oil spills in the United States, when in 1978 between 17 and 30 million galloons of oil were discovered to be seeping from crude oil processing facilities. There’s also all the raw sewage that gets in the water from the mixed sewer system, and with no current to carry it away, it mixes with the oil and other pollution to create a disgusting sediment on the bottom of the creek. Despite that unsavory image, there are hopes that the creek can be cleaned up, and many people are working to get its fascinating history more attention. One organization is the Newtown Creek Alliance, which organized a water taxi trip for the recent Open House New York weekend (during which I also visited the TWA Flight Center and Woodlawn Cemetery).

It was a rare look into the creek’s visible and verbal history, and was very surreal to be riding a New York water taxi among derelict warehouses. Here are some photos so you can take the journey yourself!

The taxi left from Long Island City on the East River, and turning into the mouth of the creek, we first saw the warehouses of Greenpoint in Brooklyn.

I enjoyed spying some work by street artists taking advantage of the creek’s seclusion. Although it borders up on busy neighborhoods, the creek itself felt oddly silent.

A sort of guerilla boat club uses the creek. I would be nervous to go boating in water I wouldn’t want to touch, but life is full of risks, I suppose.

Here is a grungy old bridge. I should have been taking notes on all the details. If you want an extraordinary look into the Newtown Creek and the surrounding industrial area, definitely check out the blog of Mitch Waxman who was conducting our boat tour. He knows the place in incredible and fascinating detail!

One of the few public areas along the waterfront is the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, a very strange little park that is heavily landscaped and has a view to what you see above: metal scrapping!

We caught a glimpse of the futuristic digester eggs of the Newtown Creek water treatment plant. It’s somewhere I’ve been meaning to take a tour of as well.

Off in the distance, we started to see a cluster of trees. This was Calvary Cemetery, and you can just catch the tip of its church in the center. (Read my story on the art of Calvary Cemetery for Hyperallergic here!) Ferries once used the Newtown Creek to carry funerals and cemetery visitors to Calvary.

We passed under a few bridges, some bustling and some smaller. This is the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge, which connects Greenpoint in Brooklyn to Blissville in Queens. It’s actually the sixth bridge to be built here, with the first being a drawbridge constructed in the 1850s. This steel incarnation dates to 1987. Why such interest in all these bridges? Well at one point this was quite the industrial center and one of the country’s busiest waterways. (Peter Cooper even had his glue factory along the creek!)

Here’s a closer look at the spooky old building by the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge.

The smoothness of the water was interesting, and you could really tell how anything dropped in the water would just sink into the sludge instead of being carried off through the river to the sea. (Not saying polluting the oceans is better, but this is how you get such a concentration of pollution.) The EPA has marked the creek as a superfund site, but we’ll just have to wait and see what successes that may bring.

After a while we were right next to Calvary Cemetery, the edge of a burial ground containing over 3 million people.

Here my friend Sean looks out from the prow of the boat as we approach the Kosciuszko Bridge.

Gliding beneath the staggering Kosciusko Bridge was one of the coolest points of the tour. Sure, almost everyone goes over it on the BQE to the airport or elsewhere, but how often do you get to go beneath it and see its towering metal form from that perspective? The bridge was built in 1939, and there are plans underway to replace it, which I imagine will be an insane undertaking.

Here is our water taxi leaving the bridge. It had started to rain a little, as you can see.

These posts are the remnants of a bridge that connected Brooklyn to Queens in 1876. Kind of crazy they’re still there.

Look, more metal scrapping! I believe there was also an impound lot, so maybe they work together. I wonder what the little shack on the right is for?

Despite the pollution, there’s still some wildlife, or at least birds, maybe drawn to the quiet. We spotted a white egret flying around (you can barely see it amongst the posts in the water).

Being not far from the Queens airports, many planes have their flight paths over the creek.

The absolute strangest thing we saw was this paddlewheel boat from Palm Beach docked by the old industry. According to our tour guide, it hadn’t even been there 24 hours earlier.

Our trip ended at the Grand Street Bridge, where after the pollution is apparently so bad that we couldn’t even go there. We turned back towards the East River and Sean and I decided to sit inside to get away from the rain that was then falling harder.

On our journey, we’d passed by Greenpoint, Bushwick, Blissville, Ridgewood, Maspeth, and Sunnyside, quite a few populous neighborhoods touched by this silent relic of an industrial peak that has fallen. I think it is so essential that people like the Newtown Creek Alliance and Mitch Waxman are making an effort to bring attention to this often forgotten waterway. New York City has so little space; whatever we have we should try to preserve and restore the best we can.

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The Modernist Elegance of the Abandoned TWA Flight Center

A few exceptions aside, airports tend to be architecturally depressing places, where function dominates form. However, flying out of New York used to be much more aesthetically pleasing, or at least more futuristic. For the 2012 Open House New York, which offered access to many places in the five boroughs that are usually closed to the public, I visited the now-abandoned TWA Flight Center at the Jet Blue terminal of JFK.

The terminal opened in 1962 and was designed by Eero Saarinen, who had a thing for curves, as shown in his other work including the Arch in St. Louis and the still-in-use Dulles Airport in Washington, DC. Saarinen unfortunately died a year before the TWA Flight Center opened and never got to see its completion. This particular design was meant to look like a giant bird perched on the airfield, although it reminded me more of a spaceship. Its use ended when TWA’s finances took a dive and the company was bought by American Airlines, the flight center closing in October of 2001. It is now encircled by the new Jet Blue terminal, and is planned to be incorporated somehow. Luckily it is on the National Register of Historic places so it is likely to be preserved at least in some authentic form.

The entire terminal wasn’t open, just the sections that have been restored, but exploring those was incredible and worth the rather long trip by train to see it. The urban explorers were there en masse, and it was great to see such a crowd out appreciating modernist architecture. It’s through public interest that buildings like this can survive and stay true to their original designs. I took an overkill of photos, but who knows when else I will be able to get inside. So enjoy some highlights below!

Planes were originally accessed by these stunning tunnels.

Here is the old duty free shop, with old cigarette ads.

Here are the old shoeshine stands.

Once you could wait for your flight in these glamorous seats.

On the second level are the remains of a lounge with an empty fountain and circles of seats looking out to the tarmac.

I think David Lynch would like the sort of seedy “secret” swanky bar.

If you get a chance to go to the TWA Flight Center, don’t miss it, it’s one of the most beautiful buildings in New York and definitely the most amazing airport I have ever seen. If only my next flight was departing from this complex of roaming curves and mid-century portals.

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Exploring an Abandoned Train Station in Jersey City

Exploring new places and abandoned things are what get me out of the apartment on lazy weekend mornings, and since last Saturday was so gorgeous with its early fall cool breeze and bright summery sun, what better thing to do than to take the ferry to Jersey City and seek out the ruins of an old train station?

I met up with my friend Hannah at the World Financial Center and we boarded the ferry for Jersey City. I had never been to this city just across the Hudson before, so I was curious what we would find.

It turned out the ferry docked not far at all from our derelict destination. The skyline of Manhattan gleamed in the not-so-distant distance, but Jersey City had a distinctly suburban feel. The station turned out to be the only thing in the area really left to ruins, as the surrounding park was carefully maintained and bordered a marina with charming white boats bobbing in the water.

The train station, overgrown with plants, its tracks lost beneath foliage, was once the gateway for the Central Railroad of New Jersey. It was built in 1889 and was in operation until 1967.

Passengers once arrived by ferry, like us, to this grand terminal before boarding the trains behind it.

The terminal building is topped with a clock that doesn’t seem to quite have the right time. In its four corners are labels and symbols for science, commerce, industry, and agriculture.

This building is actually beautifully renovated and still has ferries, except now they only go to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Word to the savvy tourist: go here to visit those monuments. The wait appeared significantly less than from Battery Park, plus you get to go through this glamorous old world terminal. Many immigrants from Ellis Island actually entered the US through this building, so there is added history as well.

Here is the corridor connecting the ferry building with the tracks. Now you can buy snacks here.

Strangely, a snack stand that was shaped like a boat said “Miss Liberty” on one side and was topped with an image of the Statue of Liberty. But on the other side it seemed like we had suddenly switched coasts. Unless there is some sort of epic ferry ride to Alcatraz from New Jersey that I don’t know about. So… is there only one version of this boat concession stand and you flip it around depending on what tourism center you are at? That…. does not make sense.

Anyway, back to the abandoned section of the station. While the ferry building looks almost new, the tracks have been left to the elements and are beautiful that way. Metal columns connect to arches of a ceiling where shafts of light pierce down. In some places, trees have grown up through the roof to the sky.

I wonder what these drawers below the train signs were for? Tickets? They seemed to be sealed shut so I couldn’t investigate too closely. And they were a bit dusty.

At its peak in 1929, it’s estimated that 21 million passengers passed through the station and ferry terminal. However, the Depression, competitor railroads, and finally the automobile caused its decline.

Unlike many architectural relics of the railroad era, the station was saved by destruction, largely to the efforts of the local community.

There was a stunning view from the small balcony on the terminal facing Manhattan, where you can also see the remains of the old piers.

Interestingly, the bricks by the pier are made from wood and have to be frequently replaced. We learned this from a National Parks ranger, who had to make sure no one went on the small area of federal land leading to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferries without going through security.

Here is a last view of the pier. If you ever want a low impact urban exploration activity, I highly recommend visiting the old station. However, our journey would not end there and in fact would include many miles of walking. But I will save that for another post.