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Maspeth Plank Road

Given the extreme pollution of Newtown Creek between Queens & Brooklyn, Rosie & have decided not to do it by kayak, and to take advantage of Mitch Waxman’s walking tour instead. http://www.newtowncreekalliance.org/2012/07/20/tour-the-insalubrious-valley-with-nca-historian-mitch-waxman-aug-5/

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First visits to: Metropolitan Avenue Bridge, Grand Street Bridge, Kosciusko Bridge, Greenpoint Avenue Bridge (officially, John Jay Byrne Bridge), Borden Avenue Bridge, Pulaski Bridge. two LIRR train trestles, and Maspeth Plank Road (1/2 a bridge)

Route Map        More Photos   (click on any photos in this post for a larger view)

Today was 5-1/2 miles of walking through the industrial underbelly of New York City — a hot, desolate and dirty trek along Newtown Creek, English Kills, Maspeth Creek and Dutch Kills — what Mitch Waxman describes as (taking the name from a 19th century newspaper editorial) “the insalubrious valley”.

The history of the area, in a nutshell, is that for the last 400 years, Newtown Creek has been the dumping ground for the waste of every dirty industry that New York City needed to have close enough to provide for it, but wanted far away enough not to smell it.  The actual creek bed is about 35 feet below the surface of the water; that is buried under about 20 feet of “black mayonnaise”: a toxic slime of industrial, animal and human waste.  Ergo Mitch’s instructions: wash your hands before you touch any food at lunchtime, and take a shower as soon as you get home. For more info about the history of Newtown Creek, see NCA’s website at http://www.newtowncreekalliance.org/history/

Rosabla & I at the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge

The south side of Metropolitan Avenue Bridge.

Our first bridge of the day was the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge. At the end of this channel (which is English Kills, a tributary to Newtown Creek*) is a CSO (combined sewer overflow) that dumps over 500 billion gallons of toxic runoff into the creek each year. That’s 2% of the toxic runoff of the entire city of New York. The water is brown with the runoff of last night’s thunderstorm.

Grand Street Bridge

The next bridge of the day was Grand Street Bridge.

A tug boat that hauls barges of fuel up Newtown Creek

Several thousand industrial-size trucks cross the Metropolitan Avenue and Grand Street bridges every day. These bridges were built approximately 100 years ago, and such heavy use was never contemplated in their design. A  single barge can haul as much as up to 56 trucks worth of cargo. One way to lessen the pollution of the Newtown Creek area and reduce wear on these critical bridges would be a return to using trains and barges to transport goods in and out of the area.

The site of the Maspeth Plank Road

One interesting stop for us bridge-lovers along Mitch’s tour was the site of the former Maspeth Plank Road. This was a wooden bridge that existed from 1836 to 1875, spanning Maspeth Creek between what were then Mussel Island and Furman Island. In the early 20th century, Mussel Island was removed (by the Army Corps of Engineers?) and the material was used to fill in the space between Furman Island and the bank of Maspeth Creek, effectively causing two islands to disappear. (This is the 1/2 bridge in our bridge count.)

After lunch at the historic Clinton Diner (recently renamed Goodfellas Diner thanks to its role in that film, as well as dozens of other films and TV shows) Rosalba and I continued on our own, following directions from Mitch.

Bridge #3 (and-a-half) of the day was the Kosciusko Bridge, which is scheduled to be demolished and rebuilt between 2013 and 2020. This was the first one of the day that we could get under, but we were unable to get to where it actually crosses Newtown creek. Rosalba, a bridge engineer, is listening to the bridge “sing”.

Someone should have posted a sign that said “Beware of Skiploaders”!

Bridge #4 (and-a-half) was the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge (officially known as the John Jay Byrne Bridge). In order to get to it we had to walk through the yard of New York Paving Company. Thank you to the gruff-looking guy who said “You don’t look like terrorists — go ahead. It’s kinda greasy, but there’s a pier over there behind those trucks.”

Bridge #5 (and-a-half) was the Borden Avenue Bridge, which spans Dutch Kills, a tributary of Newtown Creek that extends north into Queens. I was quite surprised — after passing through such an industrial, polluted landscape — to discover that it crosses over a field of wildfllowers. I don’t know what the structure is that they are growing over, or what purpose it serves, but it was really nice to find it. And to see the bridge freshly-painted in a really lovely blue.

As you can see in the photo above, the Long Island Expressway runs parallel to the Borden Avenue Bridge. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring with me the map I had printed out the night before from Google. If I hadn’t, I would have noticed that the LIE does, in fact, have a bridge that crosses Dutch Kills, as does Hunters Point Avenue. Fortunately, these are close enough to the East Side Ferry that we’ll be able to make a return trip fairly quickly and easily. On a cooler day . . .

(The temperature today was around 90. How much nicer it would have been to do this by kayak — if that had not involved risking our health and the health of Rosalba’s as-yet-unconceived children.)

At the Borden Avenue Bridge I saw these two “mystery bridges” not listed on the Wikipedia list. A close look at the map showed that they are two LIRR trestles. The front one is on a spur that goes up to the yards between Skillman Avenue and 21st Street. The one behind is on the line that goes to the service yard just north of 54th Street, near the East River Ferry dock. (Bridges #6 & #7 — and don’t forget that half)

Our last bridge (#8-1/2) of the day — the Pulaski Bridge. The only point of access we could find that would give us a look from down under was the parking lot of the Fresh Direct warehouse. Note the CSO sign (really, how could you miss it?) Nice to know this is where our food is coming from. Actually, most of the food import and distribution warehouses for New York City are located in the Newtown Creek area. Makes you think a little more money for organic might not be such a bad idea . . .

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* “Kills” is a Dutch word for “creek”