Briefly Noted

Things Read, Seen or Heard Elsewhere

Look past New York's shiny bits and you'll find endless stretches of decay. It's a part of its generations-long life cycle.

I used to take long walks around New York City. It’s how I began shooting photos. I’d walk for hours. Click click click. It was a wonderful way to learn the city. I was reminded recently of the following story I did back in 2012. I was living in Queens at the time and my walk from my house where the story begins to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn where we end lasted a couple hours. Enjoy.


Cities like their shiny spaces. New buildings rise. Neighborhoods are born. Parks are built. Cities highlight these things. It’s good for the bottom line.

Shiny, after all, is nice, something to feel good about. But our shiny spaces—gleaming buildings, coveted restaurants, gentrified neighborhoods—are also a facade. They’re a form of urban wallpaper that covers the cracks, rust and mold that cities, like New York, are built upon.

A rusted sign on an abandoned building near the east end of Newtown Creek in Queens
A rusted sign on an abandoned building near the east end of Newtown Creek in Queens

This decay, often beautiful and inspiring, holds our history and whispers stories of success and failure brought on by growth. Interpret these objects correctly and we can see what once was, and what our urban architects abandoned as they turned their attention elsewhere.

Empty streets on the east side of Newtown Creek
Empty streets on the east side of Newtown Creek

Take Queens, home to 2.2 million people. It’s one of the most ethnically diverse place in the world, with 48 percent of its residents foreign born. If Queens were an independent city, it would be the country’s fourth largest, coming in just after Brooklyn, which has 2.5 million people.

Queens sprawls nearly 180 square miles, and encompasses a surprising amount of empty space and forgotten places.

These areas are easy to explore. Say, for example, the east end of Newtown Creek, a 3.5-mile waterway snaking between Queens and Brooklyn.

Rusted doorsteps on the east side of Newtown Creek
Rusted doorsteps on the east side of Newtown Creek

Newtown’s plight is no secret. With little to no current, the water is a stagnant mix of pesticides, PCBs, metals and raw sewage. The creek bed has been described as a fifteen-foot, toxic mix of “black mayonnaise.” And there’s a whole lot of oil: an estimated 30 million spilled gallons from the more than fifty oil refineries that dotted the banks during the 19th century. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the whole area a Superfund site.

But with all the focus on contaminated water, the surrounding area is often overlooked. Head east along the creek into Queens—it runs parallel to the Long Island Expressway—and there are long blocks of single-story buildings: some shuttered, some slightly active warehouses, and an occasional waste management plant here and there.

A family of geese walk down 48th Street near Maspeth Avenue in Queens
A family of geese walk down 48th Street near Maspeth Avenue in Queens

You see very few people but you do see oddities: a family of geese walking down an empty street, or a vast open lot of truckers sleeping in their rigs during the day so they can make deliveries by night. And, if you’ve ever wondered where the cranes that build the city’s skyline are kept when not in use, you’ll find a field of them out here.

Barbed wire protects a crane near the Grand Street Bridge connecting Queens and Brooklyn
Barbed wire protects a crane near the Grand Street Bridge connecting Queens and Brooklyn
Train tracks on 56th Road near Maspeth Avenue, and fittingly, Rust Street
Train tracks on 56th Road near Maspeth Avenue, and fittingly, Rust Street
The Grand Street Bridge connecting Queens and Brooklyn on the east end of Newtown Creek
The Grand Street Bridge connecting Queens and Brooklyn on the east end of Newtown Creek
The front door of the bridge house at the Grand Street Bridge
The front door of the bridge house at the Grand Street Bridge

There’s beauty to all the rust and decay of a mostly forgotten place, one that’s criss-crossed with bygone train tracks, underutilized bridges and corroded signs of what once was.

I’ve never been to a ghost town, but this is a ghostly place—a reminder of economic aspiration and industrial connection within the city and all points east.


Farther south, in Brooklyn, there’s the Gowanus Canal, also no stranger to controversy, attention or criticism. Nestled between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, it’s slightly schizophrenic here. It, too, is an EPA Superfund site. Originally created in 1869 as a transportation and manufacturing center, the city—and developers—recently thought to turn it into the next shiny residential neighborhood.

Looking down at sludge and debris in the Gowanus Canal
Looking down at sludge and debris in the Gowanus Canal

A New York Times article from July 2011 captures the area well, calling it a “fetid stew of dangerous chemicals and toxins, an embodiment of the worst excesses of the industrial age.”

The article goes on: “This is hardly the kind of image one would expect to draw homeowners to the neighborhood. But developers came, envisioning Brooklyn’s next big thing. Nothing, it seemed, could slow the rush, not even the sputtering housing market.”

The banks of the Gowanus Canal
The banks of the Gowanus Canal

Superfund sites and residential development have a toxicity of their own, though, and the money-people fled to the next new space, leaving behind the sludge but also a community of people who live and work around the dilapidation.

An abandoned work area near the Gowanus Canal
An abandoned work area near the Gowanus Canal
Rusted lettering along the Gowanus Canal
Rusted lettering along the Gowanus Canal

Walk the surrounding blocks and you experience a place that appears gripped in a tug of war between past and future. Many of the developers have fled, but people continue to move in—a natural progression of artists and shop workers looking for larger, affordable space.

A tire hangs alongside the Gowanus Canal
A tire hangs alongside the Gowanus Canal
A rope holds a barge along the Gowanus Canal
A rope holds a barge along the Gowanus Canal

Head down Hoyt Street and you come to a gravel yard that sits on the banks of the canal. It, too, is a sign of things that once were and things that could have, would have, been. Activity is slow here; large tractors built to dig and dump and break things stand largely idle.

A tractor’s wheel and ladder in a concrete and gravel yard along the Gowanus Canal
A tractor’s wheel and ladder in a concrete and gravel yard along the Gowanus Canal
The hydraulics of a tractor
The hydraulics of a tractor
A lock holds a metal door shut near the Gowanus Canal
A lock holds a metal door shut near the Gowanus Canal

But look at them, and look at the space and place we’re in. There’s an abandoned beauty to this mess. In a field of rust, within this city of shine, you begin to sense what once was and, maybe, what will be.

Gallery

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Walking the beaches of Block Island, RI.

Homa and I took a day trip to Block Island. It’s a beautiful blip off the coast of Rhode Island. I worked there one summer during college, returned regularly but I haven’t been for a good ten years or so.

It was a lovely end-of-October Sunday. Here’s some of what we saw.

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Rocks along the way to a light house
Rocks along the way to a light house.

A tree trunk lays on the Sandy Point beach. So too my wife.
A tree trunk lays on the Sandy Point beach. So too my wife.
More driftwood along the beach.
More driftwood along the beach.
Dunes along the way to the lighthouse.
Dunes along the way to the lighthouse.
More dunes, this time it's scraggily.
More dunes, this time it’s scraggily.
The dunes at Sandy Point with Block Island North Light in the background.
The dunes at Sandy Point with Block Island North Light in the background.
The back side of Block Island North Light in Sandy Point.
The back side of Block Island North Light in Sandy Point.
Block Island North Light in Sandy Point, built in 1867 and made of granite and iron.
Block Island North Light in Sandy Point, built in 1867 and made of granite and iron.
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Somehow, we stumbled out of New York City and into Rhode Island. It took a long time, it was a bit accidental, but we finally found home.

My wife and I moved to Rhode Island this winter.

The move was more opportunistic than deliberate. As in, we’d talked a lot about leaving New York City, and for the last two plus years we’d been dividing our time between Los Angeles, New York and Rhode Island. But, we didn’t really have a plan save for the fact that we had one daughter with another on the way and we didn’t want to raise them in the city.

So, the extent of the plan – if plan is what we’re going to call it – was, let’s leave New York City but still be a part of New York City because my wife’s work is very much centered in the city. Oh, and also: let’s also be in Los Angeles when we need to be because her work brings us there too.

In the meantime, let’s have our second daughter in the same southern Rhode Island hospital where we had our first daughter. For the curious, Rhode Island is on our map because I grew up in a beach town here and over the years have willed my appreciation of it on my much more urban wife.

Our daughter was due in late December. In early October we moved out of our New York City apartment, got rid of almost all our stuff, and left for… Los Angeles, because that’s what you do when you’re supposed to be in Rhode Island for the upcoming birth of your daughter.1

We told ourselves that we’d return to New York in early spring with a vague idea that I’d return first and find us a new, larger apartment for our new, larger family.

Come end of November we left sunny California for snowy Rhode Island for the birth of our daughter. My parents winter in Florida so we moved into their place. Without much to do except to wait for daughter number two we decided to look at houses. You know, just to see what was out there. You know, just because we were curious. And, you know, just because someday, maybe, we’d finally leave the city and move to a place like southern Rhode Island.

While all this was going on, I’d ride my bike. I’d look at houses and neighborhoods. I’d think of where we might live. But it was all very abstract. The plan – again, if we really had one – was to return to New York. Looking at houses was a way to pass time, a way to fantasize a bit, a way to imagine a future together with two daughters and how and where they might grow up.

I took photos along the way. I was attracted to the abandoned and near abandoned. I was attracted to the well-worn. I was attracted not to houses where we would live, but to those that told long lost stories about the area near where we thought we’d have our imagined, future home.

Here’s some of what I found.

Abandoned house in Narragansett, RI.
Creaky Porch & Broken Windows. Narragansett, RI. December, 2019.
An abandoned cabin along Route 1 in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.
Cabin with Chimney. South Kingstown, RI. January, 2020.
An old fishing dorm along Narrow River in Narragansett, RI.
Yellow No 95. Narragansett, RI. January, 2020.
A white house along Narrow River in Narragansett, Rhode Island
The White House. Narragansett, RI. January, 2020.

And then it happened. Boom, our daughter was born. Boom, we found a home. Boom, it was totally different than what we were looking for. Boom, it was in a totally different part of the state than where we were looking. Boom, we made an offer two days before our daughter was born. Boom, we moved in the week before coronavirus shut everything down. Boom, we no longer live in New York City. Boom, we’re ecstatic in our little town of fifteen hundred. Boom boom boom.

We went from a creaky, fourth-floor, Queens walkup to having a giant pond for a backyard.2

Sunset on a lake.
Sunset, from our new home.

All of which is slightly, if wonderfully surreal.

I sit in an unfinished basement in rural Rhode Island typing away because, depending on our perspective on any given day, we (a) lucked our way through a series of deliberate accidents; (b) finally pumped the brakes on life’s inertia and made a decision that we’d bandied about for a few years; or (c) discovered that when an opportunity to find and make a home presented itself, we took it, and are so very privileged that it was something we could do.

  • Actually, Homa had work she needed to take care of in Los Angeles. It also gave us an opportunity to see her family in Orange County. back

  • For those keeping score, I moved to New York in August 1990. I left 29 years later in October 2019. In between I left here and there for some extended stints (Saudi Arabia, Latin America) but the city was always “home”. back

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