It seems like every square inch of New York City has been categorized, labeled, and filled beyond capacity. But if you know where to look on the fringes of the city, you can still find places without names.
On the waterfront of Gravesend, Brooklyn, such a place still stands. It’s an all but untraveled wedge of vacant land, nestled between aging marinas and the northern border of Calvert Vaux Park on Bay 44th St. It’s a place I can only call “the secret park,” but there’s no mention of it on the department’s website. In its place, the all-knowing Google maps shows only a dull gray transected by the mysterious Westshore Avenue, though no such road exists.
The small peninsula was born out of the construction of the Verrazano Bridge in the 1960s when excavated material from the project was deposited on the shore of Gravesend Bay. Most of the new land was incorporated into the existing Drier-Offerman Park, but for some reason, this small finger of land was left out of the plan. Through the 1970s, it served as an illegal junkyard, but by 1982, developers came forward with a plan to construct a seaside residential development at the site. Apparently, the project never came to fruition. The city of New York suggests environmental remediation as a condition for future development.
On the north shore of the peninsula, decaying pilings show the outline of a former pier and odd construction debris lie scattered throughout the landscape. A family of squatters lives comfortably out of industrial containers near the lot’s entrance, where a handful of abandoned watercraft comes to the surface at low tide. Beer cans and fire pits point to recent nights of youthful revelry, but by daytime, fishermen flock to this desolate place to cast their lines into the muddy gray waters of Gravesend Bay. At the shoreline, a few minutes of rock flipping will fetch you dozens of small green crabs. On a recent visit, I was amazed to meet two hunter/gatherers harvesting these fruits of the sea by the bucket, though I wasn’t tempted to try one.
I’d wager that it won’t be long before the development potential of the site is realized, but for the time being, the unkempt wilds of the secret park offer a rustic alternative to the paved walkways and manicured lawns of our city parks. If you’re ever looking to live off the land in New York City, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more suitable spot to pitch a tent.
It’s been nearly fifty years since a freighter docked at the Red Hook Grain Terminal; now black mold overspreads its concrete silos like a mourning veil.
Its origin can be traced to the turn-of-the-century construction of the New York State Barge Canal, which widened and rerouted the Erie Canal at great expense to facilitate the latest advances in shipping. By 1918, New York City was lagging behind in the nation’s grain trade, and the canal was failing, operating at only 10% of its capacity. A new facility was built in the Port of New York to invigorate the underused waterway—a state-run grain elevator in the bustling industrial waterfront of Red Hook, Brooklyn.
The structure is largely composed of 54 circular silos with a combined capacity of two million bushels. Grain was mechanically hoisted from the holds of ships, elevated to the top of the terminal, and dropped into vertical storage bins through a series of moveable spouts. When a purchase was made, the force of gravity would release the grain from the bins, at which point it was elevated back to the top of the terminal and conveyed to outgoing ships.
Red Hook’s grain elevator is one of many similar structures built across the country in the 1920s, most notably in Buffalo, NY. Guided by practical concerns and the laws of nature, American engineers had arrived at a new style of architecture, making a lasting impression on European architects. In Toward an Architecture (1928), Le Corbusier called the American elevators “the first fruits of a new age.” Their influence can be traced through the Brutalist movement of the 50s and 60s, through which inexpensive, unadorned cement structures dominated post-war reconstruction in Europe.
The Grain Elevator was an engineering marvel, but never became a commercial success. The structure quickly became obsolete in the mid-20th century as grain trade in the Port of New York steadily declined from 90 million bushels a year in the 1930s to less than 2 million in the 1960s. Contractors grew to avoid the New York Harbor, where the cost of unloading grain came to three to four times the rate of competing ports in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, largely due to local union restrictions.
The collapse of the grain trade made up a small part of an overall decline along Red Hook’s industrial waterfront in the second half of the 20th century as shipping methods evolved and moved elsewhere. When the jobs dried up, much of the area cleared out, leaving a slew of vacant warehouses and decaying docks. In the year 2000, most of Red Hook’s 10,000 residents lived in the Red Hook Houses, one of the city’s first public housing projects. The development was a notorious hotbed for crack cocaine in the 80s and early 90s, but conditions have gradually improved over the years. A near complete lack of major subways and buses stalled gentrification in the neighborhood, but signs are becoming more common. Today, Van Brunt Street is scattered with specialty wine bars, cupcake shops, and craft breweries, and a big box IKEA store opened in 2007 on the site of a former graving dock.
The Grain Terminal has been the subject of a number of reuse proposals over the years, but none of the plans have amounted to real progress at the site. The building sits on the grounds of the Gowanus Industrial Park, which currently houses a container terminal and a bus depot, among other industrial tenants. The owner is now seeking approval for a controversial plan to extend his property into the bay with landfill, using a concoction of concrete and toxic sludge dredged from the floor of the Gowanus Canal.
As battles wage over the future of the property, the Red Hook Grain Terminal hovers over the Henry Street Basin like a grieving ghost on a widow’s walk, watching for ships that will never return…
A word to the wise: the grounds of the Grain Terminal are patrolled by security, and they’re cracking down on trespassers.
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 old Central Power Station of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company was built in 1896 to serve a rapidly expanding subway system in the outer boroughs, positioned on the banks of the Gowanus Canal to ensure an efficient intake of coal to power an arsenal of 32 boilers and eight 4,000 horsepower steam-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.
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.
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. 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.
Two stark, imposing sister buildings at 160 and 62 Imlay St. tower over the industrial wastes of Red Hook, Brooklyn. One recently renovated into a high-tech Christie’s storage facility for multi-million dollar works of art, the other a hulking, empty shell, waiting for a second life.
Constructed in 1911-13, the identical twin loft buildings on 160 and 62 Imlay St. began their lives as storehouses for the New York Dock Company. They made up a small part of a “globe-encircling commercial undertaking,” which included a sprawling network of 200 warehouses, 39 piers, and three ship-to-rail freight terminals extending over three miles of the Brooklyn Waterfront.
Rapidly declining profits and outdated infrastructure resulted in a cessation of operations in 1983. The buildings were purchased by a developer in 2000 and 2002 for a combined 22 million. In 2003, plans for a residential overhaul of 160 Imlay fell through as a result of a lawsuit from the local Chamber of Commerce, which sought to retain an industrial use for the property.
Now at 62 Imlay St, floors once flooded with tobacco and cotton are welcoming a new set of residents—multimillion dollar works of art by the likes of Van Gogh, Brancusi, and Pollack. The facility is leased by the high-profile auction house Christie’s and is equipped with “infrared video cameras, biometric readers and motion-activated monitors, as well as smoke-, heat- and water-detection systems.”
Adjacent sits the other sister with an uncertain future, its broad, vacant interiors shielded with plastic and shrouded in black netted scaffolding, gutted in preparation for a rumored second attempt at a residential conversion.