Crossing the Pulaski Bridge



499 mcguinness blvd, brooklyn, ny 10022

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Greenpoint

The Greenpoint where I live is separated from Long Island City by a slough named the Newtown Creek. Its western boundary is the East River. East is Ridgewood and South is Williamsburg. Manhattan Avenue, Ash, and Commercial streets intersect a block away from the Brooklyn shore of the creek. In the space between the creek and the intersection there is a macadam lot filled with cars of workers and artists who spend their day in the adjacent Greenpoint Design and Manufacture Center at 1155 Manhattan Avenue building cabinetry and making art. I’m told the building has had a checkered history having gone from rental spaces to Co-op, to city receivership, to a mix of cooperative commercial design studios and artists lofts.

Its footprint follows the contour of the lot it occupies. Its Southeast corner forms an obtuse angle splaying the southern and eastern walls in a Piranesi-like vision. It’s a catacomb of storage areas, narrow hallways and workspaces, filled with incendiary materials like wood dust and petroleum based solvents. In 2001 a cabinet-making shop at the back of the building was ravaged by a gas explosion, which blew out windows overlooking the creek, severely burning the hands of one of its workers. The access road surrounding the parked was jammed with fire and rescue trucks, EMTs, police and fire fighters that backed all the way down Manhattan Avenue to DuPont Street. The view from my fire escape was a carnival of bobble-head ovoid black fire hats navigating, white, blue, red, gold and chrome vehicles, flashing red lights crisscrossed by a network of ladders and fire-hose.

The neighborhood is Latina, Black, Guyanese and White. Indigents live at a hotel between Clay and Dupont. Many if not most of the workers in the 1155 building are Polish, but the real concentration of Polish people is further south. There is a small group of Japanese and a long established enclave of artists exiled from Manhattan, growing in numbers as the willingness of dealers and curators to cross the river also grows. Adjacent to 1155 Manhattan Avenue, before the Williamsburg artist‚s renaissance the sculptor William Tucker was making art and the David McKee Gallery was storing it at 99 Commercial Street. Its continues to a sculptors scene.

On December 11, 1992, just a month before I moved into a ground floor studio at 99 Commercial Street, the creek was lifted from its riverbed by an immense low-pressure system. The late Fall Northeaster brought torrential rain. The sloping drive that cuts into the center of the building became a sluiceway. Water raced in from the street meeting head on with the creek surging from the rear of the building. When the day was done nearly two feet of water stood in my studio.

Across the Newtown Creek slough in Long Island City is the nearest subway stop to Commercial Street. The most prominent landmark in the area is the Schwartz Chemical Co. It’s a gorgeously gothic structure with four pitch-black, sleekly erotic stacks. It was originally the Westinghouse Power Station, designed by McKim, Mead and White and built for the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1909. Just up Jackson Avenue is P.S.1/MoMA. The Sculpture Center is another four blocks away and close to Queensboro Plaza where at four in the morning inmates from Rikers are discharged into the city at a local donut shop. 11th Street in Long Island City has one terminus at an on ramp to the upper roadway of the Queensboro Bridge and the other at Jackson Avenue. In Brooklyn its extension is McGuinnes Boulevard. It’s a major truck route from the BQE and is the beginning of my weekly commute to Boston. The link between them and one of several Newtown Creek crossings is a recently renovated drawbridge named the Pulaski Bridge. Built in 1954, when Robert Wagner was the City’s mayor, it looks more like a rise in the road than a bridge.

When I look north up McGuinnes Boulevard toward the bridge it has a snake-like dogleg turn to it. Its four-lane roadway has a pedestrian walk and bicycle path on the Brooklyn bound side. Cyclists like to use its rolling slope and narrow, six-foot wide path, as a speedway. Last year, my girlfriend, riding her Razor scooter across the bridge on the pedestrian path, was struck from behind by a bicyclist. The Filofax that she carried in her backpack broke her fall that landed her flat on her back.

On either side of the slough, about four blocks before the walkway reaches street level, there are switchback stairways that shortcut the distance to the ground. On my way to the 7 train in Long Island City, I walk down Ash Street to get to the Brooklyn side stairway. On its upper landing is an accretion of shit and urine. A Robert Smithson-like earthwork that has slowly migrated from the dark inner corner of the landing left there by people who use it as a public outhouse. When I pass by its lurking mass, I clutch the handrail and pick up my pace to steel myself against the grotesque siren sweetly singing her alluring song, "come closer, come closer."

Up on the bridge, before reaching the bridge operator’s tower, I pass by the place where the walkway briefly juts westward to form a lookout. I’m in too much of a hurry to linger on my way to the subway, but coming home I often stop and watch flotsam pirouette in the eddies of the slough below a spectacular view of mid-town Manhattan.

I don’t remember when I first saw them, it may have been this summer, it doesn’t matter, but on the other side of the tower there are ten, breadbox-sized metal boxes bolted to the iron wall that separates the roadway from the pedestrian bicycle path. In each box is a single transparency that in sequential order picture a pair of crashing down gas storage tanks. Their then owner, Keyspan, contracted their demolition. Walking to the subway the fallen gas tanks reassemble as I read the images in reverse order from right to left. On my return they collapse as the sequence plays forward. It’s a public artwork titled Premonition.

I watched the attacks on the World Trade Center towers from my rooftop, distant but visible, they appeared as an eerily silent piece of smoke and mirrors prestidigitation. The more I think about Premonition the more I like it. As I meditate on its endless loop of forward and backward, loss and retrieval, destruction and resurrection, Premonition is a bittersweet replay of the desire to have the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath go away. It’s like the refusal of guilt after an accident when I endlessly repeat "if only this and if only that".

Western winds whipping the bridge as they carom up the creek from the East River make winter crossings bone-chilling. I move on and the stacks of the Schwartz Chemical building hold me in their thrall as they do their gentle circling dance in rhythm with my walk. I slow and stop to align the four stacks to form a perfect allee. At the moment they line up, the Empire State Building becomes perfectly centered in its sights. If it were not for the fact that the Chemical building was built twenty-five years earlier than the Empire State, one might think that the arrangement was purposeful.

My part of Greenpoint is a backwater. With the exception of 1155 Manhattan Avenue, buildings are three or four stories high. There’s a wide-open sky and weekends are country quiet. A patch of the sidewalk just in front of the doorway to my apartment building is splattered with pink, yellow, and green pastel-colored pigeon shit, the unwitting act of my downstairs neighbor who feeds them cat food she thinks is being consumed by the local strays. The breezes are predominately westerly. When they shift to the east, mercifully only rarely, the sickeningly sweet smell of the Star Candle factory drifts through the neighborhood just faintly covering the sulfurous odor emanating from the still further east sewage processing plant. There is a whiff of change in the air. From Dupont to Quay along West Street, a new Battery Park City-like development is awaiting final approval from city agencies. With the spectacular view of mid-town Manhattan and the prospect of easy commutes via water taxi, real estate developers are drooling.

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