Tag Archives: Open House New York

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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Moonlight and Mausoleums at Woodlawn Cemetery

So are you getting into the Halloween spirit? If you know me, or even glance at this blog once in a while, you know that I appreciate the creepy aspects of our cities pretty much year round, but October is always a good excuse for some extra dark exploring. I just gave a tour at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx last weekend for Atlas Obscura‘s Obscura Society, but recently I went on one of Woodlawn’s own tours that was part of Open House New York. (The same weekend of access to places usually off limits that brought me to the TWA Flight Center.)

The title of the tour was “Moonlight and Mausoleums” and it took place just after the sun went down. We went inside several of the more stunning mausoleums (or mausolea? hmmm), only lit by our flashlights. Or flashlight apps for those of us who forgot and had to use our iPhones. It was an incredible experience just to walk around the grounds at night; it sort of felt like we were on a really weird camping trip. Alas, no spending the night. Actually, I’m okay with that. As much as I enjoy the history of cemeteries, it’s best to leaving the sleeping there to those in eternal rest.

Photography was tricky, but here are some that turned out:

The Belmont Mausoleum (in the above three pictures) was created as a duplicate of the St. Hubert Chapel in Amboise, France, which is supposedly where Leonardo DaVinci is buried, and holds the tombs of Alva and Oliver Belmont (of the Belmont Stakes).

This is the relatively recent mausoleum of Cecila Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, who passed away in 2003.

The Everard mausoleum holds the namesake of the notorious Everard Baths.

The tour ended at the gorgeous Harbeck Mausoleum, one of the most ornate mausoleums in the cemetery. It even includes a pipe organ and electricity (although it was never hooked up, as the family apparently didn’t realize that the cemetery wouldn’t have any electric wires going amongst the graves for them to connect to. Solar power someday?)

Enjoy your Halloween weekend!

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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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