Take a northern train to Yonkers and watch New York City’s urban sprawl give way to the unspoiled undulations of the Hudson River Valley. You’ll be reminded once again that Manhattan is an island, bounded and formed by three rivers, and there is, in fact, a world outside of it.
One of the stranger stops along the Hudson line can’t be missed; it’s dominated by a sight nearly as impressive as the station you came from. Abandoned since the late sixties, the old power plant at Glenwood may be decidedly more ghoulish than Grand Central Terminal, but it’s almost as grand—they were dreamed up by the same architects. Once, the imposing brick edifice embodied New York City’s ever-increasing industrial prowess, but today, the riverside relic stands as a monument to obsolescence, caught in a destructive contest with the tides.
The Yonkers Power Station was completed in 1906 to enable the first electrification of the New York Central Railroad, built in conjunction with the redesign of Grand Central Terminal. The plant served the railroad for thirty years, but it soon became more cost-effective for the company to purchase its electricity rather than generate its own. Con Edison took over in 1936, using the station’s titanic generating capacity to power the surrounding county. By 1968, new technologies had replaced Glenwood’s outdated turbines, and the station was abandoned.
The Hudson River once delivered raw materials to the powerhouse, but now its waters collect in stagnant pools on the lowest level. Rust has consumed the factory from the inside out; in places, the corrosion is almost audible. Joints creak, bricks topple, ceilings drip, commingling with the constant suck of viscous mud underfoot. Most of the machinery was carried out long ago, leaving only a hulking shell rimmed with staircases, walkways, and ladders—harrowing paths to nowhere.
Some of the rusted-through steps threaten to crumble at the slightest touch, giving way to a thousand foot drop through decaying metal that could land you muddied and bloodied on the swampy first floor. I can’t say it’s worth the risk, but the Grand Canyon views from the plant’s highest reaches can sure ease your mind after a nail-biting ascent. Photographers, urban explorers, and filmmakers flock here; it’s the grandeur in this decay that draws so many, and makes this place worth saving.
In 2007, after 40 years of neglect, news broke that the structure would be saved, but the developer’s definition of preservation was somewhat liberal.
The project, called “BETTER,” was to be renowned British architect Will Alsop’s first foray on American soil, but the design looked more like it came from outer space than across the pond. The plan would convert the historic structure into luxury condominiums and an art museum, dwarfing the turn of the century architecture with incongruous “modern” towers. Due to a struggling economic climate, the plans fell through. This disappointment (relief, for some) primed the public for what was to come.
In 2008, Jim Bostic of the Yonkers Gang Prevention Coalition and councilwoman Patricia McDow alleged that the abandoned building was the site of brutal gang initiations, involving some 300 individuals at a time, where savage beatings and sexual deviancy took place on a shocking scale. Dubbing it “The Gates of Hell,” Bostic and McDow called for the immediate demolition of the Glenwood Power Station.
The stories were thrilling, hysterical, and ultimately hard to believe. No evidence was found and no witness stepped forward that could verify the widely-publicized allegations, and the Yonkers Police Department denied having knowledge of any gang-related activities at the site.
The initiative gained the support of a number of locals, but many remained skeptical of McDow, who’s been criticized in the past for overlooking the rising tide of violent crime in her district. Demolishing this historic structure would have little to no effect on neighborhood violence, but as a symbolic gesture, it could appeal to voters. Brick and mortar could be eradicated quickly and decisively, unlike the actual issues her constituents faced.
The powerhouse was spared from the whims of city politics, but it’s technically still at risk; landmarking efforts have failed since a proposal was first put forth in 2005.
It’s been four years since the Glenwood Power Station made headlines as the “Gates of Hell,” but not much had changed there until recently. A new owner spruced up the grounds, removing overgrowth on the lot and clearing ivy from the buildings’ exteriors. It’s a sign of good things to come, though no plans for renovation have been released at this time.
I came to Yonkers a few months prior to the cleanup, unaware that the space had already been booked for a post-apocalyptic webseries shoot. The crew was friendly and professional, but their presence proved a distraction. As a buxom actress screamed “There’s no way out!” for the fifth time, the Yonkers Power Station was stripped of its mystery, seeming to wear its decay with reluctant resignation. Today, it’s a creepy backdrop for zombie films, the subject of gruesome rumors, but it was designed to inspire pride, not fear.
Sites like these are quickly becoming a contentious part of the post-industrial American landscape, scattered remnants of a period of enormous change—a revolution that’s led us, for better or worse, to where we are now. In Yonkers, one such building wades on the banks of the Hudson, its skeleton blushing to shades of orange. It’s an eyesore, a piece of history, and a community threat; also a nice spot to play hooky, take pictures, or build a shopping mall. No one can seem to agree on these “Gates.” So what the Hell should we do with them?
Not long ago, a pack of teenage runaways lived the dream in Gowanus’ infamous Batcave, shacking up rent-free in an abandoned MTA powerhouse on the shore of the notoriously toxic Gowanus Canal. Out of the grime, in back rooms and crooked halls, the artifacts of this sizable squatter settlement remain to enlighten, amuse, and unnerve the intrepid few that enter the disreputable interior.
The aimless individuals who lived here may have recognized themselves in the old Central Power Station of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, which had long since been cast aside by society, ceasing to be useful but retaining a proud exterior. Built in 1896 to serve a rapidly expanding subway system in the outer boroughs, its position on the banks of the Gowanus ensured an efficient intake of coal to power its arsenal of 32 boilers, which supplied eight 4,000 horsepower steam engine driven generators. The plant’s technology couldn’t keep up with the times, and after a brief second life as a paper recycling plant, the powerhouse was abandoned. Today, it’s more commonly known as the “Batcave,” supposedly named for the creatures that once congregated in its broken-down ceiling.
In the early 2000s, a colony of homeless young people settled inside the building, establishing a thriving, peaceable community. At onset, the squat held a positive reputation, kept under the watchful eye of a few individuals who ensured hard drugs and detrimental criminal activities were kept out. After a drunken rooftop incident, authorities were notified and made their first attempt to evict the punk-rock squatters, leaving the colony without its guardians.
Over the next two years, heroin use and overdose grew rampant, and a wave of brutality overwhelmed the Batcave. Drug-induced violence culminated in a series of nightmarish events; one homeless man was thrown from a window, another overdosed and was left on the street for law enforcement to find. Frightened community members saw to it that the Batcave colony was ousted indefinitely in 2006.
The residents are long gone, but most of their humble furnishings remain. Some living quarters, fashioned in old corner offices of the power plant, are generously sized, complete with beds, bookshelves, and lounge chairs. Others are no larger than a closet; album covers, skulls and superheroes, and a general state of chaos are prominent features of these impromptu bedrooms.
There’s an aspect of immediate inhabitance–something in the disarray of bedding or the position of a candy wrapper–that often had me looking over my shoulder, half expecting to come face to face with a young man or woman who lived here. But only their objects remain to tell their stories, recounting the seasons squandered in cheap beer and rolled cigarettes, late nights blurred seamlessly into late mornings.
Prized possessions—a VHS copy of the Nightmare Before Christmas, a dogeared paperback edition of Hamlet—molder in the damp with shampoo bottles, plastic toys, and stockpiles of hypodermic needles. Stuffed animals are the most abundant, and telling artifacts. Once treasured, these hulking teddy bears, leather-clad Elmo dolls, and freaky Fisher-Price robots lie mired in filth, decapitated or gutted and hung from strings.
While large-scale pieces by notable graffiti artists dominate the Batcave’s main hall, the more intriguing artworks can be found on the bedroom walls. Always obscene, typically humorous, and occasionally clever, these amateur scrawls portray a community of fun-loving, hard-living, creative youth, although some inscriptions tend toward the dark and morbid, pointing to a deep resentment for society and obsessions with dying and suicide.
It’s no wonder so many lost souls found solace here—just look up. The Batcave’s eye-popping top floor certainly feels like a sanctuary. Light rain filters down from a collapsed ceiling, atomized to a sweeping mist. In a permanent puddle, arched reflections of the clerestory windows tremble. Pleated ceiling panels once muffled the hum and hiss of a mammoth industrial undertaking, but their effect is more visual now. Interweaving supports shimmer like the facets of a diamond as you move through the space—it’s a crustpunk kaleidoscope that constitutes one of the most spectacular abandoned sights in New York City.
For all the atmosphere of grime and decay, the Batcave gives an impression of a living space that, though not well kept, was certainly well loved. It isn’t difficult to imagine a time when this damp industrial shell was filled with warmth and welcome, or to imagine its occupants, in those first idyllic months, brimming with a sense of ownership and control, invulnerable to the pressures of parents and policemen, finally at home in a hangout.
The fate of the Batcave lies in the balance of Gowanus’ contentious transition from industrial wasteland to trendy residential neighborhood. Numerous plans have emerged for the development of the property, but the canal’s recent Superfund designation and an uncertain future for the game-changing Whole Foods development across the street has deterred potential investors from shelling out the millions necessary to renovate the structure and rehabilitate its environmentally hazardous grounds.
The threat of condo developments and rent hikes looms heavy over the murky green waters of the Gowanus, but for now, the Batcave’s exquisite decay progresses uninterruptedly. Through an overgrown lot in the height of Spring, the dilapidated redbrick facade remains a sight to behold, concealing a sordid wonderland within, marking the spot where a youthful dream lived, and died.
UPDATE Nov 23, 2012: The Batcave property sold for $7 million to philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz. The building will be saved, and renovated into art studios and exhibition space. Read the New York Times article here.
Situated on an eleven-acre parcel of waterfront in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, the derelict Domino Sugar Refinery remains one of the most recognized monuments of Brooklyn’s rapidly disappearing industrial past. Now, after a decade of false starts, new plans for a modern, mixed use megacomplex may put an end to the decaying colossus that was once the largest refinery in the world, marking the final passage of a working-class Williamsburg.
In the late 19th century, Brooklyn was responsible for over half of the country’s sugar production, with Havemeyers & Elders Sugar Company leading the pack of over 20 major refineries that called the borough home. The factory’s signature building—a towering redbrick structure that still stands today—was constructed in 1884 to replace an older sugarhouse that had been destroyed in a catastrophic fire. Three years later, 17 of the largest sugar refiners in the U.S. merged to form the Sugar Refineries Co. Trust, later reorganized as the American Sugar Refining Co., and branded as Domino Sugar in 1902. Domino and its predecessors operated on the waterfront for a total of 148 years; at its peak, the site employed over 5,000 workers, capable of producing over three million pounds of processed sugar a day.
With the growing use of high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners came a steady decline in demand for old-fashioned cane sugar. Production at the Williamsburg plant ended in the early 2000s with partial packaging operations lingering until 2004. The non-profit Community Preservation Corporation purchased the Domino site the same year for $58 million. Their plan would preserve and renovate the central refinery building, landmarked in 2007, and raise a battalion of architecturally offensive residential high-rises in the footprint of the surrounding industrial complex, razing the Raw Sugar Warehouse, constructed in 1927, and the Packaging House, a 1962 addition, in the process.
Two Trees teamed up with noted NYC firm SHoP Architects—the group is already leaving a lasting impression on the city landscape with the Barclay’s Center and the East River Esplanade. Unveiled Friday, their monumental plans seem tailor-made to appease the new population of Williamsburg, without limiting profits.
The plan is similar in scope to the vision of the CPC, with several key improvements. The buildings rise higher—up to 60 stories—to allow for more park space, including a one-acre “Domino Square,” where builders envision film screenings and outdoor concerts. Some of the structures include open spaces and sky bridges, an innovative solution sought to preserve harbor views for the inland community. The landmarked refinery building would be preserved and converted to office space, and several pieces of machinery would be salvaged for inclusion in a public “artifact walk.” In the face of such monumental changes, this may be of some consolation to New York nostalgics.
Developers are working with the YMCA to establish a community space on the site, and are also proposing a new public school. Street level retail would favor independent business over chain store tenants. Two Trees also intends to deliver on the previous developer’s promise of 660 units of “affordable” housing, though the condition was never legally binding.
With all these benefits, Two Trees is attempting to pacify a community that is weary of change, and concerned for its future. The Domino development marks a clear and dramatic manifestation of a contentious transition that’s been taking place in Williamsburg for the last decade. The area is well known today as an infamous haven for hipster youth, but 10 years ago the neighborhood was a quiet, working-class community of Jewish, eastern European, and Hispanic immigrants. Now, it won’t be long before the tattooed and the trendy are priced out, leaving room for only the wealthiest New Yorkers. Emerging across formerly affordable areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn, the familiar pattern is destined to change the face of our city. Call it progress or gentrification. Praise the plans, or lament the loss, there’s no stopping the reckless growth of New York City.
In its final moments, the Domino Sugar Refinery slips further into a speedy decay, introducing an element of the exotic to an already unfamiliar environment. Some of the alien interiors are coated with shallow puddles of tar, or dark sugar byproducts rendered the consistency of glue, or apple crisp. Others take on the appearance of an Egyptian temple in the impenetrable darkness, with row upon row of columns supporting the chasm of a vacant warehouse. Tinged aquamarine, the peeling factory floors of the packaging plant might be confused for the barnacled mechanisms of a sunken ship. The complex is unnervingly immense, presenting a seemingly endless series of floors connected by lightless, labyrinthine staircases. Alone in a factory that once employed thousands, up against its unfathomable depths, it felt like being in the belly of the whale—it didn’t take a miracle to get me out of there.
The next time you ride down the FDR or traverse the Williamsburg Bridge, take a good look at the sprawling industrial giant that was the Domino Sugar Refinery; it won’t be long before it’s preened and polished into the marketably modern new New Domino—another of the city’s rough edges, smoothed over in favor of gleaming glass.