By Steven Stern
STAND on the pedestrian walkway of the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge, and you might notice a vaguely ominous red brick tower on the Queens side of the Newtown Creek, looming over the railroad tracks and asphalt plants.
If Mitch Waxman is your guide, he will identify it as the derelict smokestack of Peter Van Iderstine’s fat-rendering business, which first set up shop in 1855. But he won’t stop there.
He will expound on the archaic waste-disposal operations that once flourished on the creek, conjuring scenes of putrescent horse carcasses floating in on barges from Manhattan and docks piled with manure three stories high. The narrative will extend to Cord Meyer’s bone blackers and Conrad Wissel’s night soil wharf — the gothic names of these forgotten businesses rattled off in a distinct Brooklyn accent.
At some point, he will start in on the horrors of the M. Kalbfleisch Chemical Works, eventually making his way to the sins of Standard Oil.
If the city’s dead industries leave ghosts behind, Mr. Waxman is an adept medium.
The Newtown Creek watershed, his field of expertise, is a place where such specters are all too real. In the murky depths of the 3.8-mile estuary, the past haunts the present. Since the creek was designated a Superfund site in 2010, contractors from the Environmental Protection Agency have been dredging and testing in search of that past. The sludge acid that the Kalbfleisch factory sluiced into the water back in the 1830s is of more than academic concern.
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