Roosevelt Island AVAC System and A Walk Down Newtown Creek

On the recommendation of my college advisor (though I graduated some time ago, he’s my advisor for life) I researched an organization called Open House New York. Advisor told me I must check out their weekend-long event in October, where, he said, spaces usually not open to the public welcomed guests.

Through August and September I regularly refreshed the organization’s somewhat outdated website, hoping to catch any scrap of information about what October’s sites would be. I waited with baited breath until suddenly at the beginning of the month a new, modern, and quite beautiful website began to be rolled out. A couple hundred sites and their descriptions appeared for the public to browse. I agonized over the choices – so many places that I love and already have a connection to were listed and there were also so many I’d not heard of or been to with mysteries yet to be uncovered!

By the next morning I had to book a spot on tours or any other events that took reservations. I knew from my experience with the Transit Museum that I had to be quick, otherwise things would fill up. I shooed off coworkers and frantically reloaded the website (the server load took it down for many minutes) to reserve the events I’d decided on just the night before.

Saturday’s agenda was to be the following: First, an early morning visit to the Automated Vacuum Collection System on Roosevelt Island, then a scurry off to catch an 11AM tour, “A Walk Down Newtown Creek” starting in Queens.

I intended to be up and out of the house earlier than I was.  I wanted to be the first person into the AVAC building, as I knew I’d be rushed getting to Queens afterwards.

Trains were the only way to go on this run-around day, and I took my 1 train down to 59th Street. From there I thought I might catch a cab or even a bus, but when I popped up from the stop at Columbus Circle, I decided to make the trek crosstown on foot instead. Sometimes walking makes you feel like you have more control over hurrying and the passage of time, even though it might actually be slower.

As I walked the southern border of Central Park I noticed the sights around me in the crisp but pleasant morning air. A line of police cars, lights on but no sirens, paraded down the street. Tourists stared. I snapped a quick picture.

Police cars on Central Park South

A bit further, a crosswalk sign hung down, dislocated from its place atop a pole. I may have giggled at its odd appearance. Though I was in a hurry I waited while another young woman took its picture, then went in closer for my own.

Broken crosswalk light

I wondered at how the other people I passed on the street would have such different days than I was to have. Tourists were off early for sightseeing. An organized pack of runners herded by. Fangirls and boys stood in a long line outside the Apple store for the new iPhone release. But I was off to something much more special and sacred than any of them were.

Runners crossing Central Park South

Line for iPhone 4s outside Apple store

I walked further and further east, and finally came around the corner to the concrete structure I recognized as the Manhattan terminal of the Roosevelt Island Tram. With the affection of reuniting with an old friend I climbed its stairs and just barely squeaked by onto a tram that was leaving that minute.

Sign on a box by the tram: “Please do not cut lock, tram station attendant has key”

Tram cable supports and Queensboro Bridge from tram

The morning sun cast dramatic patches of light and shadow as the tram began its ascent up the wire. I tried to absorb all the visual information I could in each moment. I almost wished the tram would move slower (something I’d thought about before) so I would have time to see more of the buildings drifting by, the straight-shot views up the avenues, and, to on the south side, the skeletal structure of the Queensboro Bridge.

Queensboro Bridge off ramp

Queensboro Bridge roadway

Manhattan buildings from tram

Queensboro Bridge

Looking up an avenue

Soon we were out over the water. I recalled a photo I’d taken last year on my Trains and Trams excursion. This picture still serves as wallpaper on my work computer, so its image is imprinted in my brain. I noticed how different the shadows were over the water today, a fall morning rather than a winter afternoon.

FDR Drive from the tram

East River, Roosevelt Island, and bridges

East River and Manhattan

As we began our descent onto Roosevelt Island I turned my gaze to the south side of the tram to watch the Queensboro Bridge and its vehicular traffic. Passing the bridge support, I looked underneath the bridge’s roadway and towards the south of the island. Buildings obscured the Four Freedoms Park under construction – an OHNY site I’d passed up in favor of these others. It was to remain a mystery to me for now.

Queensboro Bridge next to the tram

South end of Roosevelt Island

I felt a sense of home, belonging, familiarity, as I hopped off the tram and looked up for a moment at the great Queensboro bridge and tram support structure. Passing Roosevelt Island in daily life I often cry in third person (and half in jest), “Roosevelt Island, future home of Emily!”

Queensboro Bridge and tram support

I had little time to stop and enjoy the view, unfortunately. I booked it north on foot, with an idea in mind of where the facility was from previous walks around the island and occasional checks of my smart phone as I walked. Minutes ticked by, and I both wished I could walk faster and had time to enjoy the quaint sights of the island’s Main Street, born of the 1970s.

One place I wished I could stop was a sweet little farmers’ market underneath the ramps from the Roosevelt Island Bridge and Motorgate (the island’s parking complex). But I hustled by instead.

Farmers’ Market

Just where I thought it would be, the chain link fence in front of the AVAC building came into view on the right. I scurried across the street and paused for a second to look at at the sign on the gate and the perspective I recognized from the photo on the site’s page on the OHNY website.

AVAC Facility welcome sign

Entrance to the AVAC Facility

While the sign was welcoming enough, I walked timidly through the gates, not knowing what to expect. Or, in fact, expecting tons of employees guiding me carefully on a predetermined path into a corral for a timed tour, which was simply not to be the case. I was distracted for a moment by refrigerators and other large appliances to my right on the perimeter of the property. Ah ha, I thought, refrigerators don’t fit into a trash chute!

Refrigerators do not fit in the AVAC system

Back to business, I peered into the garage door mouths of the facility, wondering which to enter through and where exactly to go. I was reassured a bit when I saw a couple of pairs and threes of people, who by all appearances looked like OHNY visitors, exiting the facility. I timidly stepped in, and followed where the foot traffic was coming from.

Here, I was greeted by a man. “Are you here for the tour?” he said. I nodded. “I’ll be right back. I need a drink of water. You can wait right here.”

My mind raced during the few minutes he was gone. Was I the only one here? Had I just missed a tour? How long was the tour – would I have to duck out early to get to my Newtown Creek walk?

My eyes darted around as I waited too – trying to absorb as much as I could in this idle moment. I could see nearly the entire interior of the building from where I stood. Large rollers for moving trash containers formed a path from the back of the facility out to the garage doors. Some sort of glass office hovered above the operation. Two parallel-ish pipes, painted red, entered the building from the garage door side and crossed above the glass office.

Big trash containers

Looking across the rollers to outside

Glass control room up above

Pipes entering the facility

In a few minutes the guide was back. He led me around another corner and up a flight of metal grate stairs. I followed obediently, my mind still wondering what was to come and whether I should tell him I had to leave early.

As we got to the glass office at the top of the stairs, some of my questions were answered. A handful of people were already gathered there, standing and looking around. Our guide motioned at a pile of papers on a high table in the center of the office. “Everyone sign a waiver.” A couple of other stragglers and I shuffled with the papers and found blank ones to sign.

Big map of the system and waiver forms

Nonchalantly, our guide began his remarks. He worked at the AVAC building every day, he said, and tossed off his sentences as if he was speaking about the most routine and mundane thing in the world. I looked around the room as he spoke. Everyone hung on his every word.

He explained that all residential structures (but not the commercial ones) on the island utilize the AVAC system. This means there are no dumpsters and no loud, polluting trash trucks needed. Residents throw trash in chutes inside their buildings, and a couple times per day the vacuum system gets activated. At these times, valves open up in the buildings, air comes through intake points, and the trash is sucked underground and into the facility through two 18″ diameter pipes – one each for the east and west sides of the island. He pointed to the big, schematic map unrolled on the table showing the path of the garbage out of the buildings and through the pipes.

East and west pipes from the control room

The air then gets separated from the trash, he said. The trash is funneled down back behind the control room into giant compactors, then into trucks that haul the trash off the island. And that, he said, is pretty much all there is to it!

It was clear that the room wanted more. A few questions were asked: Could the system be turned on now for us to see it? No, the guide said, he had a man out working on a section of pipe at the moment. Why did Roosevelt Island get such a system? Well, when the island started was transformed for residential use in 1969, it was planned out all at once. An AVAC system like this is a nicety that’s much harder to install after the fact, but relatively easy to put in when a place is being rebuilt from the ground up.

Somewhat satisfied with the answers, but still curious, we were allowed to roam around. I carefully examined the control room that we stood in first. It felt like being in a time warp with its 70’s-looking consoles, well-worn shelf of manuals, and institutional, metal furniture and fixtures.

Control board


Manuals and logs

Surprisingly, it appeared that we were also allowed to explore outside of the control room. Or at least a few of the people in my tour group were, so I took the opportunity as well. On the control room level we were eye-to-eye with the big funnels that emptied into the compactors. Their shiny, red paint made them seem cheerful and whimsical, though they had a grim and stinky job to do.

Trash is separated from air and funneled

Another flight of metal-grating stairs led up to a sort of third-floor landing. The others were already up ahead of me. I looked down at the control room where more people were assembling and signing waivers for the next “tour”.

East and west pipes from the upper level

Tour guide and other attendees

On this higher level, we were right next to what I think were the two, big air filters (one on each side of the stairs) that screen out fine particles of waste before releasing the vacuumed air from the facility. The shiny red of these machines matched the big cones below.

I think this is one of the air filters

Part of the filter?

Near the wall of windows on the north side of the building was quite a different scene. Big, exotic, potted plants grew near the window wall as if in a greenhouse. Out the windows, Randall’s Island and the bridges that run over it (Hell’s Gate and the Triboro) were visible off in the distance.

Bridges in the distance from window on the upper level

There was also a great view of the garbage containers on the first level from this balcony.

I slowly walked down the two flights of stairs back to the main level just behind one of the groups of people, looking again at all of the equipment.

Trash containers from the control room level

Big funnel

I’d begun overhearing the conversations of this group – it appeared that the woman was quite intrigued by the facility and the two men with her were tagging along, only semi-interested. I tried to say sort of close to them, not creepily so, but just because the woman seemed to have similar interests as me. I walked nearby them around the maze of compactors and other machinery on the first level.

Old switches

We began to wind our way out of the complex, passing a few people coming and going on our way.

A couple looks out over the container area

I got up the nerve to talk to the group of three that I’d been walking near. I asked the woman about her interest in the facility, and she replied enthusiastically. I may have told her that it’s rare for me to find another woman into infrastructure and the like. She told me what she knew about the AVAC facility before and how excited she was to visit it. It was a nice little interaction, though by the time we were walking out of the complex and towards the open chain link fence, we were drifting apart. I wished the group well and took a last look at the pipes entering from the outside before going on my way. My short time frame was on my mind.

East and west pipes entering the facility

I started my powerwalk, not back to the tram but this time to Roosevelt Island’s only subway stop. I walked on the east side of the street, right next to the Motorgate parking garage. I hurriedly checked my phone for the time. Did I have a second to visit one of my favorite little sights on the island on my way? Yes, maybe just a second…

The two old tram cars, taken out of service in 2010 for a major overhaul of the entire system, sit on the ground outside and sort of underneath Motorgate. One and Two, as they are named, look so lonely and dusty there. I can be thankful they’re not in a landfill somewhere, but what is to become of these historic and beautiful little cabins?

Retired trams – I want to take them home

From this place, there’s a beautiful little view of the Roosevelt Island Bridge (which connects the island to Queens). I took a photo, then quickly moved on.

Roosevelt Island Bridge

I was now on the same side of the street as the farmers’ market. It was so tempting, but impractical to stop, so I kept moving. Walking down Main Street I looked longingly at the 70’s-modern apartment buildings and thought again of my dream of living there. One day perhaps!

Farmers market produce


Outside one of the buildings was a feature I’d noticed on my first trip to Roosevelt Island (circa 2007) – strange, wide, brightly-colored pipes coming up from the sidewalk. Today for the first time I was able to guess what they were for: air intake for the AVAC system! I was proud of my guess and wondered what it would be like to be near them when the system activated – loud, perhaps?

I think these are air intakes for the AVAC system

On a grassy stretch on the west side of the island I saw preparations for some sort of outdoor event, perhaps a fair. It was windy out but sunny and not too cold. Tents were set up, crafting supplies were being pulled out of their carrying cases, and perhaps most interestingly, painters were starting to paint on giant canvasses set up right there in the park.

Painting in the park

More painting in the park

Again I felt the pull to stay on this little enchanted island and find out what this event was all about, but my Newtown Creek tour called. I took one more tiny detour down to the pedestrian path that runs nearly the entire length of the island on its west side. Here, views of the east side of Manhattan and the Queensboro Bridge are stunning. I’ve spent much time on previous visits staring across the river at the FDR Drive and all Manhattan’s buildings, trying to identify each and what numbered street is directly across from the place I stand on Roosevelt Island.

Looking across to Manhattan

Looking across to Manhattan

Queensboro Bridge

The funny looking, triangular, concrete-and-steel subway station – the only one on Roosevelt Island – was in my view. I might make it on time for my next tour! I descended the many escalators down to the platform, recalling how I’d heard this station is one of the deepest underground in the entire NYC subway system. Although completed in 1989, the entire station carries through the 70’s aesthetic of much of the rest of the island it calls home. It has a very different look and feeling, much more retro-modern and sterile, than many of the other, older subway stations. I waited a few minutes for my train.

F train station and apartments

Escalators down to the F station

F train station

One of the new, shiny trains came before too long. I rode just one stop, to 21 St – Queensbridge‎, figuring I could walk to the tour’s meeting place just a handful of blocks away.

The station where I got off was also a bit 70’s-modern. I was fascinated by its architecture. Though I’ve discovered that it’s not an uncommon layout, the trains here pass close under and next to pedestrian walkways. Here again I thought I could spend quite some time watching the trains go by, but I had to keep moving!

F train from above

I consulted my smartphone though I know the area a little bit from past excursions, friends nearby, and driving over the Queensboro Bridge for various reasons. It didn’t seem like a bad walk and I thought might see some interesting scenery. The wind whipped through my hair as I walked, first south towards the Queensboro Bridge approach. I only had a moment to admire this part of the bridge and its train and auto traffic.

N/Q/R makes its way across the Queensboro

Queensboro ramp sign

Queensboro ramp structure

I walked under the bridge, admiring its symmetry, and continued on. I was making good time but still had several blocks to go.

Underneath the Queensboro

Finally I made it to the Newtown Creek tour’s meeting place. In a witty email, our tour guide told us to meet across the street from the Court House Square 7 station, just outside a diner where we could get coffee or use the restroom if we needed. I spotted our guide immediately from his description in the email and introduced myself awkwardly. No one else was in front of the diner, but I spotted a crowd sitting on benches and standing outside the station, so I crossed over, checked in with a woman, and got a pamphlet.

Tour participants gather

As the organizers got everyone checked in and we waited for others to arrive, I watched the elevated track above us. Workers were up there, perhaps repairing signals. Periodically a 7 train would pass by, all but drowning out any conversation among the group.

MTA workers at Court Square

MTA workers and 7 train at Court Square

MTA worker

We waited a bit past 11 for any stragglers (of which there were some, hopping out of a car while being dropped off at the last minute) and then the tour began. The man from the email, our guide, introduced himself and a woman who was a city planner from the community board. She spoke first, in positive, public-relations language about the neighborhood we stood in.

She asked us to look up and back at the recently improved subway station behind us and explained its architecture. The angular, modern, glass design was selected to match the lines of the original station structure above while modernizing the look. Here, she said, commuters could now transfer between the 7 and G trains without going outside – and the station was accessible! She also mentioned the row of greenery planted in the median of Jackson Avenue where we stood.

Court Square station

Walking down Jackson Avenue

The woman had to depart, so she thanked the tour participants warmly and our guide took over and walked us to the next site. We stopped at the edge of the tiny Court Square Park and listened. Our guide described two sights here.

Tour participants in front of courthouse

Behind us was the Citigroup building, which he called a “megalith”. He described how this monster structure, a satellite of the company’s Manhattan offices, was allowed to be built here by exceptions granted to zoning laws in exchange for neighborhood improvements being done by Citigroup, like the glass Court House Square station enclosure/transfer point we’d just seen. He was right that the turquoise, glass-clad skyscraper was huge, towering above us 50 stories as we stood just across the street from it. This building, he said, was the tallest on all of Long Island and was visible from as far away as Staten Island and the Hudson River. While our guide gave us sturdy factual information about the building it was clear that he looked upon its presence in the neighborhood with some disdain (unlike the upbeat city planner). He quipped, “[the building] was built around the E and V [now M] trains… all that was missing was the ‘I’ and ‘L’.” I do understand it’s hard for locals (myself included) to look upon the new construction of corporate or luxury apartment high rises in our neighborhoods favorably.

I tilted my head back and studied the corporate building’s greenish skin, glistening in the dramatic October sun.

Citigroup building

In front of us was a sight whose history reached much further back: the Long Island City Courthouse. Our guide told us some history of this area – the forming of Long Island City out of several small towns, Tammany Hall’s stronghold in the area, and the corruption that went with that political power. Though the stories were grim, the courthouse sat as a beautiful backdrop for their telling. The sun shone bright behind the ornate building and fountain in the plaza before it.


Fountain in front of courthouse

Our time here went too quickly and before I knew it we were off, walking this time up the slight incline of Thomson Avenue. Here, new and converted luxury apartment buildings dotted both sides of the wide street and its tributaries. Built with Citigroup employees in mind, these dwellings seemed sterile and abandoned. I’m not sure if they’re actually under-occupied and unwelcoming, but it seemed so as we walked through this area.

Luxury apartment buildings

Soon we approached a covered portion of the sidewalk that appeared to be a sort of bridge over something.

Thomson Avenue bridge pedestrian walkway

There were a couple of holes made in the covering’s wall so one could look out. Below us, our guide said, was Sunnyside (train) Yard, used by Amtrak and the Long Island Railroad. I jumped at the opportunity to photograph tracks and trains through these openings. I could even see the elevated 7 train in the distance!

Train tracks under Thomson Avenue


Train tracks under Thomson Avenue

I spotted a couple of strange sights on this stretch too: a sign about hiking Long Island City (this mostly industrial area didn’t seem like a traditional place for urban hiking) and an official vehicle marked for New York State Courts. I wondered what, possibly, this vehicle could be used for, especially on a weekend!

Sign about hiking in Long Island City

I didn’t know courts had their own cars

Our guide also pointed out the ends of long approach ramps to and from the Queensboro Bridge here. I was becoming accustomed to his quips and nicknames about the area’s historical personalities and structures, and in this vein he referred to the Queensboro as “the machine” – another blight on the neighborhood.

Exit ramp from Queensboro Bridge

After crossing the bridge and at the crest of the hill we’d been walking up loomed a large building. It was pretty, though still industrial-looking. Large, red, capital letters on top read “IDCNY”. Our guide told us the history of this spot. Apparently some of the fill from New York’s first subway system, the IRT, was dumped at this site! Our guide said that the tributary we stood near, Dutch Kills, used to extend much further inland but had been filled in. The building was built as a factory, and is now used by LaGuardia Community College and the Design Center of New York. I was fascinated by the tie-ins between this spot and the history of my beloved subway system.

IDCNY building

Hearing a noise, I turned around and spotted an Amtrak train pulling through Sunnyside Yard, now behind us. I strained to see it over the fence and parked cars. Perhaps I will return here and find a better spot from which to watch these trains!

Amtrak train barely visible over the fence

Next we took a sharp turn down 29th Street. The industrial character of the neighborhood was quite evident here, with a large concrete factory residing prominently.

Concrete factory

Looking to our right down the cross street (47th Avenue), we could see an incredible view of some of the midtown skyline, including the Empire State Building.

Empire State Building in the distance

As we continued on 29th Street past 47th Avenue (the street numbering in Queens is so confusing to me), the street got smaller, sketchier, and more alley-like. Our guide pointed out several sights and facts while cautioning us to avoid a giant pool of standing water.

Listening to our tour guide

Looking back over the giant puddle on 29th Street

In reference to the puddle, as well as the body of water (Dutch Kills) we stood next to, our guide told of the high toxicity levels. He said  gonorrhea, typhus, and more had been found in this water, and if anyone in the military was exposed to it, they’d be ordered on a six-month-long detox program. He joked about wishing he knew this before being sent out on the Kills in a kayak over one summer. I cringed.

Concrete factory across Dutch Kills

Right close to the “shore” where we were, guide pointed out a couple of sunken, rusted, fuel barges. I strained to see them through the trees and brush.

Sunken oil barges in Dutch Kills

Warehouse foundation and barge in the kills

As always, the Citigroup building loomed tall over the landscape – another recurring theme of the tour.

Citigroup building over concrete factory

Soundstages and cleaning facilities lined this stretch of 29th Street. Walking through, it felt like we were in the backyard of these businesses. A dry cleaner even paused to look out a door at the large group of us. Near the dead-end of this road I spied train tracks buried in the dirt. As would be expected I was excited to see such a relic!

Puddle between old train tracks

We took a right at the end of this street towards Hunters Point Avenue Bridge to pass over the kills we just walked next to. Here, we were joined by an charismatic young lady – director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to educating the public about and cleaning up the creek.

Hunters Point Avenue Bridge control

Hunters Point Avenue Bridge

NCA Director speaks to the group

I listened carefully and took frantic notes as the director spoke, trying to absorb all of her wealth of information about the creek’s pollution. I learned that New York has a combined sewer system. This means that rainwater and household wastewater (yep, ew) go into the same sewage system. This antiquated system unfortunately means that whenever it rains, the sewage treatment plants are overloaded and cannot process all they take in. Therefore, they’re forced to let this polluted water out into local bodies of water (more ew). New York City releases 29 billion gallons of this wastewater, called combined sewage overflow (CSO), annually. 1.5 billion gallons of that is released into Newtown Creek. The director pointed out a sign we could read right by the bridge warning about contact with this water after storms. I remembered seeing a similar sign on my Newtown Creek excursion last winter and wondering about it then.

Wet weather discharge point sign

The creek, she said, also suffered from historic pollution by industries lining its banks.

So what to do about all this? The director spoke of two possible approaches: improvements in “gray infrastructure,” meaning an expansion of traditional water-treatment infrastructure (pipes, treatment plants, or maybe even a gigantic underground wastewater storage tank!) and starting to explore “green infrastructure,” turning the creek back into a more natural habitat by restoring plants and making the banks more organic. In the latter solution, plants could naturally help filter out toxins and restore a more healthy river.

She said there’d been some headway getting the DEP to realize the value of some kind of combined “gray” and “green” solution to the problem of pollution in Newtown Creek. This seemed like tentatively positive news, though it was clear by her concern there is still much to do.

The tour group milled around a bit on this north side of the bridge, studying the CSO sign and the view of where we’d just been. People asked the director follow-up questions. I thanked her and told her that I learned a lot.

Looking north from Hunters Point Avenue Bridge

We bade farewell to the director, and the group was herded to the other side of the street (south side of the bridge).

Group looks south from Hunters Point Avenue Bridge

Here, our guide began to talk about the Long Island Expressway (LIE), which was elevated high over the Kills here. Like the Citigroup building and the Queensboro Bridge, it seems this massive piece of construction blighted the neighborhood it runs through. Once this highway was constructed, local businesses suffered as trucks bringing produce and other goods from Long Island farms to Manhattan no longer had the option of stopping over in the area and bringing revenue to it.

While I feel sad for organic neighborhoods ruined by corporate commercialization or overzealous development, I also find the structures that these techniques created fascinating. They’re feats of engineering, tributes to man’s impact on spaces, and they change places so fundamentally that their histories become all the more intriguing.

So I stared out over Dutch Kills at the LIE and its mostly bare billboards with mixed feelings.

Long Island Expressway from the bridge

Long Island Expressway and billboards

Long Island Expressway over the kills *

We took a left onto 27th Street and our guide pointed out further desolation of the industrial area. Within sight of the shiny Empire State building, these factories and warehouses sit grim and some abandoned.

LIE and Empire State Building

One such building burned recently. Its fascinating remnants sit behind a newish chain-link fence and nearly underneath the LIE. I wished I could have explored it.

Burned out factory under LIE

Burned out factory

Sidewalk by burned out factory

We walked by the remains of the burnt building quickly and I skipped to keep up. We headed underneath the LIE structure and took a left.

LIE support structure

As we approached another bridge our guide told us about the kind of industry in the area. Fresh Direct (the grocery delivery service), other food companies’ warehouses, and UPS are all located here as their base of operations for serving Manhattan customers. It made sense because of the space available and the proximity to the island. I remembered seeing Fresh Direct’s building and huge LED sign on my previous excursion to this area.

We continued over another structure I’d seen on my previous walk: The Borden Avenue Bridge. This bridge was built in 1908 and overhauled quite recently. I remembered seeing construction workers there last winter, in fact. Our guide told us it was a retractable bridge, which means when opened it actually disappears into a pocket on the shoreline.

LIE, Dutch Kills, and Borden Avenue Bridge

Borden Avenue Bridge plaque

Coming off the bridge our guide pointed out a makeshift shack composed of tarps, plywood, and various other found materials. He said this wasn’t the only such place where people lived on the shores of the Kills. We all wondered if these dwellers knew how filthy this body of water was, and if so, whether they’d pick another place to settle.

Makeshift home

As we continued, Borden Avenue drew closer to the LIE, nearly paralleling it. The huge structure and its almost-all-empty billboards loomed over us.

Empty billboards

Curve in LIE above Borden Avenue

We passed a row of buildings to our left, including one with peculiar, very personalized, named parking spots outside of it.

Reserved parking

Just past that we stopped outside a deli. Our guide instructed us that this would be our chance if we needed anything to eat or drink. I still had water left, so I milled around outside the shop. Others came out with various snacks and drinks.

We continued on Borden Avenue, which now paralleled the LIE exactly.

Skyline, deli, and LIE

Long Island Expressway

Our guide took us down Starr Avenue – what a glitzy name for an industrial street! He pointed up at a big, blocky building painted white and green and told us of history he’d recently uncovered on it. Apparently this building was part of a complex owned by General Electric, which manufactured the then-popular electric truck there. It was then converted for use in building aircraft for World War I, and is at present a much-less-glorious storage facility (one of many in the area). Our guide’s passion for researching the mysteries of the area shone through strong in this tale. It’s something I feel too – though less specifically about one geographic area and perhaps a bit less academically.

Former GE factory

Further on Starr Avenue we passed Silvercup East, a branch of Silvercup Studios whose sign I always see when driving over the Queensboro Bridge to Queens. The juxtaposition of so much manufacturing industry and warehouses with glamorous movie and TV shoots was still rather strange to me, though we’d seen that sort of thing through much of our walk.

Silvercup East and former GE factory

Pan Am (the TV show) parking permit

We walked up a little cobblestone-y section of sidewalk and turned onto Van Dam street for just a second. There was more traffic here and every direction seemed to hold something to explore. If I wasn’t with the tour I would have stopped here and given a lot of thought to which direction to head next.


Wares outside a shop

But that decision was made for me. We walked towards the John Jay Byrne Bridge (another place familiar from my former excursion here), but then veered off to the right to walk next to the bridge instead. Here under the bridge run railroad tracks, the same ones I’d seen on that previous excursion.

Train tracks

Railroad tracks

We came to a stop just outside a building. Our guide told us of the icky history of the area: along with polluting industries producing things like sulfuric acid, dead horses also used to be dumped here. What a sight and smell that must have been!

Freight trains run through here, and our guide told of Dead Man’s Curve, southeast of where we stood. Here, Review Avenue dead-ends sharply into Laurel Hill Boulevard while the train tracks take a more subtle curve. According to our guide, many motorists were killed by oncoming trains after failing to execute the sharp turn.

Building on Railroad Avenue

Train tracks under John Jay Byrne Bridge

We walked under the bridge and up next to the other side of it, rounding a sharp corner to get onto the bridge’s approach.

The group rounds the corner up to the bridge

There were many sights as we walked over the bridge. One of the first was a top-down view of the freight train tracks we’d just crossed down below.

Freight train tracks from the bridge

Soon, the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and other industry on the water to the north of us came into view. Even further in the distance was midtown Manhattan’s skyline.

Looking northwest from John Jay Byrne Bridge

Manhattan skyline from the bridge

We stopped near the point where the bridge becomes a drawbridge, looked out, and listened to our guide.

Drawbridge gate

Drawbridge bell and smokestack

He told us of the recycling plant barges to the north of us (a flithy industry, he said) and related another story of corruption in Long Island City. This tale had to do with the fire hydrants being built to incorrect specifications (due to a politician showing favoritism for a dishonest contractor) and therefore being unable to put out a major fire in the area.

We continued our walk across the bridge, looking down and across at the industry below us.

Kosciuszko bridge in the distance

Looking southwest across Newtown Creek

Our guide pointed out a big, white building looming over the scene. “Miller Building,” its odd-shaped tower read. But despite that declaration, our guide told us he had been unable to trace the exact history of the structure.

Miller Building

As we descended from the bridge we were right in the lap of the Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant

Walking by, we got a rare unobstructed glimpse at the plant’s digester eggs through an open gate. Our guide reassured the security guard that we were with an OHNY tour and we were allowed to snap photos.

Digester Eggs

Digester Eggs

Officially our tour ended at the plant’s visitor center. Our guide told us we could use the facilities there. Other OHNY volunteers stood outside, waiting for the arrival of those participating in a tour of the facility. There were a couple of extra spots, they said, if any of us wanted to join! Though it was tempting I opted not to go, knowing I was already exhausted and had plans for the evening.

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant Visitor Center

Our guide offered to take anyone who was interested over to the plant’s nature walk. I did volunteer for this since it required a shorter time commitment and I was sorry that it was closed last time I was here. The crowd thinned out and by the time we were ready to leave it was just the guide, his friend, and me for the nature walk.

We walked the perimeter of the facility, the reverse of what I did on my first trip here. I tried not to take the same pictures I had then, but did snap a few on our way around, including one of a cat behind the facility’s gates. I wondered what this feline’s story was – did he or she live inside the plant?

Giant pipe at the treatment plant

Wastewater treatment plant kitty!

Finally we reached the opposite side of the plant and the entrance to the nature walk (PDF). Behind the open gates a flight of stairs and a metal ramp led up to the first leg of the walk.

Nature walk ramp

From atop, to our back, there was a great view to the Empire State Building.

Empire State Building from nature walk

The nature walk began with a long corridor bounded by concrete walls.

Nature walk entrance

This path turned 90 degrees left, continued, then spilled out onto a sort of plaza. Steps ran the length and led down into the creek, though signs warned about fishing here and contact with the water.

Water warning sign

Views of the skyline, LIE, recycling barges, and the plant’s digester eggs across the water were fantastic here. Our guide talked to me a bit about what we were looking at, and I told him about my blog.

Skyline from nature walk

Train bridge and LIE from nature walk

Recycling barges

Digester eggs

Guide and his friend stayed put, but I explored the rest of the nature walk. This was comprised of a skinny path bounded on one side by Newtown Creek, and on the other by the big, modern buildings of the treatment plant.

Treatment plant building and sky

Within its narrow boundaries, the walk had twists and turns around exotic foliage planted on all sides. At points there were benches, picnic tables, and maps.

Greenery at the nature walk

Metal map

Across the little inlet the digester eggs, a section of the plant under construction, and a Department of Sanitation facility were clearly visible.

Treatment plant from nature walk

Construction at the plant

Department of Sanitation building

The nature walk dead-ended suddenly and diagonally into a wall surrounding one of the plant’s buildings. I stood at the acute angle formed by the metal fence and the tall concrete wall and wondered about this odd architectural choice.

Dead end of the nature walk

Just a couple of other visitors passed me as I walked to end and back. This experience was sort of awkward – if they were walking to the dead end we’d have to pass each other twice on the narrow path.

I made my way back to the plaza more swiftly. Checking the time, I realized I needed to wrap things up. I talked with guide and his friend for another minute, then, after promising to stay in touch, left them to sit there and went on my way. Walking back through the entry corridor, I noticed how perfectly the architect had centered the view of the Empire State Building between the concrete walls.

Exiting the nature walk

I made my way on one errand in Greenpoint. The part of this neighborhood nearest the treatment plant was just about as industrial as the other places I walked through this day. Warehouses and auto shops dominated the area around McGuiness Boulevard. One such was a taxi repair shop with its garage doors left open. I stared in for a moment, looking at all of the miscellaneous yellow parts.

Taxi repair shop

After my errand I headed across the Pulaski Bridge to the 7 train, which I took into Manhattan for dinner. Exhausted and hungry, I took just one last picture, of a tile sign in a subway passageway at 14th Street. It read “H&M Tunnels”. I didn’t know what H&M stood for, I’d have to look it up, but it must be a piece of history. Upon researching, I discovered that the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad was a precursor to today’s PATH trains.

Hudson & Manhattan (now PATH) tunnel sign

This was a fun little tidbit to end a day full of history and industry. I was exhausted but energized, and ready for my next day of exploring (Open House New York day 2 post coming soon!)

See a map of Roosevelt Island AVAC System and a walk down Newtown Creek.

Our guide’s blog: The  Newtown Pentacle.

* This photo was selected in Open House New York’s 2011 Focus on Architecture photography contest, Judge’s Choice award. Read more… [back to where I was]

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