Most New Yorkers have never heard of North Brother Island, but they should take comfort in the fact that new trees are growing and manmade things are going by the wayside just a stone’s throw from Rikers and a few miles from LaGuardia Airport. New York City’s abandoned island proves that as much as we think we have a handle on things, nature is never far behind. Just give it time.
In the case of North Brother Island, it took fifty years to transform a sparsely planted hospital campus to a bona fide wildlife sanctuary surging with fresh green life. Established as a city hospital for quarantinable diseases in 1885, it became a disreputable rehab center for adolescent drug addicts prior to its abandonment in the 1960s. To add to the intrigue, the island was the site of a catastrophic shipwreck and the residence of the notorious Typhoid Mary. (For a detailed history of Riverside Hospital, see Ian Ference’s thorough account over at the Kingston Lounge.) Today, opportunistic ivy floods the old lawns and races up the corners of the dormitories. Elsewhere, invasive kudzu—a Japanese import—holds at least an acre of land in its leafy grip. Few animals roam this untrodden landscape, with the exception of a handful of raccoons that took a dip in the East River and discovered the greenest place around.
Even though it’s one of the least inhabited places in New York City, you can still find pathways on North Brother Island. Parks employees and occasional visitors leave a network of rabbit trails on the forest floor, but they taper off on the south side, where a few ruins beckon you further into the weeds. I trudged through the brush for over an hour only to end up right back where I started, and it wouldn’t be the last time I was forced to admit defeat to the thorny wilds of Riverside Hospital. The island plays tricks on you, but it’s liberating to lose your way.
In order to protect the habitat and visitors from harm, North Brother Island is permanently closed to the public, and strictly off-limits during nesting season. Frequently patrolled due to its vicinity to Rikers, it’s known as one of the most difficult places in New York City to get to, which makes it an object of equal frustration and fascination for urban explorers near and far. (I was lucky enough to accompany a photographer with a long relationship with the Parks Department and a buddy with a boat—one or both are pretty essential if you’re trying to get here.)
If you never make it to North Brother Island, take heart in the fact that it’s best appreciated from afar, where distance allows the imagination to fill in the obscured reaches beneath its canopy and populate the crumbling towers visible on its shore. An abandoned island is the most natural thing in the world to romanticize, but in the light of day, the enigma dissolves. As menacing as the old buildings may appear, they’re ultimately indifferent.
But at day’s end, the sun slips low on the horizon and the ruins of Riverside Hospital begin to gleam. Our boat departs just as the light approaches a kind of golden splendor before winking into darkness. Receding from view as you near Barretto Point at sunset, North Brother Island regains a bit of its mystery. Come to think of it, no one’s ever been permitted to go there after dark…
Can’t get enough of North Borther Island? Check out Christopher Payne’s incredible series of large-format photographs of the island in every season.
Stay tuned for more images from my marathon tour of North Brother Island, and follow AbandonedNYC on Facebook for updates.
Mrs. Bennett wept as the memorial tablet was unveiled, damping the freshly broken ground of New York City’s first municipal airport. For all time, Floyd Bennett Field would honor the legacy of her departed son, the Brooklyn native and national hero who’d won the Medal of Honor by breaking barriers as the first to fly over the North Pole.
Floyd may have made his mother proud that day, but historians have since determined that the feat was a fraud. Perhaps he sold his soul for a ticker tape parade—the remaining two years of his life were fraught with failure, culminating in a dramatic end. Bennett perished while attempting to save a shipwrecked crew on a deserted island. Two months later, a deserted island was named for him. Perhaps it, too, was doomed to fail.
It was an unlikely upgrade for Barren Island, a plot of marshland in Southeast Brooklyn that had spent half a century as the final destination for New York City’s garbage. An hour’s drive from City Hall, with no access to major highways or train routes, the location was heavily criticized by the growing aviation community, but financial concerns ultimately outweighed their objections. Barren Island had one major advantage over the other proposed sites—the city already owned it.
Dredgers began pumping thousands of tons of sand from the depths of the Jamaica Bay to fill and level 500 acres. Completed at a price of $4.5 million, Floyd Bennett Field was dedicated in 1931 with a spectacular air show, drawing crowds of 25,000. By all accounts, the airport was a fine one, with eight hangars capable of accommodating fifty planes, a state-of-the-art lighting system, and innovative accommodations for amphibious aircraft.
As the fanfares subsided, the airfield struggled to compete with New Jersey’s Newark airport, which dominated passenger flights into the New York City area. At the time, carriers depended on airmail contracts with the US Post Office to ensure profits on underbooked flights, and the Postal Service never agreed to transfer its operations from Newark to Floyd Bennett Field. Ultimately, the new airport could only attract a single commercial airline to its runways; American Airlines landed its first passenger flight in 1937. As predicted, travelers complained of the long transit times into the city.
Despite its failings in the realm of commercial flight, Floyd Bennett Field was the site of dozens of notable achievements during the golden age of aviation. In 1933, Wiley Post made the first solo trip around the world, a record that was broken years later by Howard Hughes on the same spot. “Wrong Way” Corrigan made a memorable trip across the Atlantic in 1938, claiming he had accidentally gone the wrong direction after he was unable to get approval for the flight.
With the Second World War raging overseas, the Navy purchased the underused airstrip from the city in 1941. During the war, Naval Air Station – New York was the busiest installation of its kind in the United States. Aircraft Delivery Units positioned at Floyd Bennett Field were responsible for the commission, testing, and delivery of aircraft to combat zones throughout Europe and the Pacific. The field was reorganized in 1946 as a Naval Air Reserve Training Station. As the military scaled back operations in the 1970s, most of the airfield’s military functions were phased out, and the vast majority of the property was abandoned.
Three conflicting plans emerged from the local, state, and federal governments on how to repurpose the newly available land, but the winning bid came from the Nixon administration, which proposed including the site in the nation’s first attempt at an urban National Park. The Gateway National Recreation Area included 1,300 acres of waterfront parkland scattered through broad areas of the Rockaways, South Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey, largely composed of defunct military posts. At the time, critics accused the Gateway proponents of creating a “vast wasteland.” To some extent, these words proved prophetic. The Gateway area is currently the largest contiguous open space in New York City, but relatively few New Yorkers have ever heard of it.
As of 1991, daily visitors to Floyd Bennett Field averaged around 30, and even today, the Gateway remains largely unknown. During the Reagan years, the area was allowed to languish when the Parks Service was set back by a series of budget cuts. A 2003 bid to connect the areas with ferry links and rebrand the Gateway as the “National Parks of New York Harbor” failed to raise the private funds necessary to overhaul the parks. Meanwhile many of the area’s military structures—there’s over 400 scattered throughout the Gateway—have fallen into a state of disrepair.
For a place where relatively little happens, Floyd Bennett Field seems to be in a perpetual state of emergency—police cars and rescue vehicles are a constant presence, and choppers often loom overhead. The NYPD operates its helicopter division and runs Emergency Service training here. Pockets of civilian activity are scattered throughout the park, including Brooklyn’s largest community garden. In Hangar B, a group of enthusiastic craftsmen are preserving the airfield’s history by restoring and displaying historic aircraft. On summer nights, the park is a meeting place for amateur astronomers, offering some of the darkest skies in the five boroughs. Notably, it’s the only legal campground within city limits.
The recent restoration of the Administration Building, now a visitor’s center, is a significant sign of progress. Several buildings have been cleared out and renovated, but there’s still much work to be done. Recently, a $38 million sports and entertainment center salvaged four of the historic hangars, combining them into a single structure. Beyond the packed parking lot of the Aviator Sports complex, the crowds drop off quickly, leading to a sea of grass and vast stretches of empty pavement.
The sparsely populated acreage of Floyd Bennett Field can feel deserted at times, but you’re more likely to strike up a conversation here than the teeming walkways of Central Park; visitors invariably have something in common. They’re birdwatchers, dog walkers, cook-out captains, and retirees who all share a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for quiet places. Most importantly, they all know about this place, and cherish the secret. Floyd Bennett Field is due for a rebirth, and it’s just waiting to be discovered. Until then, let’s enjoy the silence…
For more abandoned military installations, check out Fort Totten:
At the center of Staten Island lies a bucolic expanse of ancient forest, a city-owned amalgam of parks, scout camps, and overgrown lots collectively termed the Greenbelt. It’s an area known for its natural beauty, its murders, and its ruins—on the southern rim, off Brielle Avenue, there’s not one but two historic hospitals that are crumbling to oblivion. The grounds of Sea View Hospital and the New York City Farm Colony may be the most forgotten quarter of the forgotten borough, representing New Yorks’ highest concentration of derelict buildings, with over two dozen scattered through 300 acres of mostly wooded land.
What’s left of the Farm Colony only comes out in the winter—from May to November, thick greenery conceals the battered rubblestone facades of its twelve remaining structures—over forty years of neglect, trees have reclaimed the grounds. The forest bends when the wind gusts, groaning like a legion of creaky doors. In areas that had once been cleared for farmland, thorns amass in undulating hillocks, hooking and scoring the flesh of any who dare to trudge through the overgrowth. Some of the vines have adhered to the ruins of the oldest buildings, whose interiors have almost completely collapsed, leaving only a tangle of splintered beams and nail-studded boards. If you peek through the window of one of these wrecks, there’s a German Expressionist nightmare of canted doorways and lurching walls.
These dormitories replaced the charmless farmhouses of the Richmond County Poor Farm, which had operated on the spot since 1829 to house and rehabilitate New York City’s aging poor. By the time Staten Island was incorporated as a borough of New York City, the Poor Farm was renamed the Farm Colony. With distinctive gambrel roofs modeled in the Dutch Colonial Style, the buildings constructed in this period were designed to evoke the ease of rural living, avoiding an institutional design to reflect changing attitudes in the treatment of the poor.
In colonial times, poverty was equated with deviancy, and the care of dependents was traditionally left to the Church, but by the 19th Century, governments across the United States began constructing state-run institutions to house the poor, infirm, mentally ill, and developmentally disabled. This was the era of the farm colonies, when able-bodied inmates were expected to work in exchange for their room and board.
200 residents could grow enough vegetables to feed 3,000, which was more than enough to share with other institutions across the city, including City Hospital on Blackwell’s Island. With the construction of several new dormitories in the 30s, the population quickly expanded to over 1,000, and started to exhibit a perplexing problem. As early as 1910, 75% of the residents were over 50, a quarter over 70, and the majority were unfit for manual labor.
By 1925, farm work was no longer mandatory, but many residents enjoyed the perks of voluntary farming and maintenance jobs. Tokens could be exchanged for tobacco, pipes, and candy, and those who worked got first priority in the dining hall. Anecdotes from the simple lives of this isolated community scatter the archives of the New York Times. Heated horseshoe rivalries, band performances, and handicraft sales were among the most prominent events of a life lived at the Farm Colony.
The Farm Colony was in many ways idyllic, but not without its controversies. Like all institutions in this period, the facility was guilty of overcrowding at times. In 1934, a hospitals commissioner was shocked to discover that many of the Colony’s 200 employees were habitually intoxicated, resulting in the resignation of the superintendent and his second in command. By the 1950s, the facility had become a geriatric hospital. The second half of the 20th Century marked a steady decline in residency. Increased prosperity nationwide and the introduction of social security further depleted the population, and the property was abandoned in 1975.
Though the area was designated a historic district in 1985, next to nothing has been done to protect the buildings. Thought to be hazardous to children playing at a nearby ballfield, a morgue was demolished in 1999, ruffling the feathers of the borough’s preservationists. The city has been trying to drum up interest in the site over the last decade, briefly considering it as the site of a new police academy, and shortlisting the Farm Colony as a possible location for a school of engineering, but they’ve repeatedly been unable to attract an interested party. City council member James Oddo, who called the Farm Colony the “bane of his existence”, made another appeal in 2012 for expressions of interest. Lack of access to mass transit may be partially to blame for the lack of response. As another piece of Staten Island’s architectural legacy falls to its knees, it serves as a reminder that a bureaucratic designation is less than half the battle.
Generations of vandalism have eviscerated the interiors of the Farm Colony’s remaining buildings. Inside, little has been left to catch the eye. Floors are strewn with rubble. Plaster dust accrues in drifts, exposing a patchwork of masonry. Wintry details complement the desolation—a broken windowpane bearded with icicles, hallways inundated with frozen pools. Juvenile graffiti covers every surface, except on the ground floors, where the building has been sealed off with cinderblocks in an unsuccessful attempt to keep out intruders. These corridors are intensely, eerily dark, and all but untraveled. Featherweight vines dangle from the ceilings of the blackest chambers like some alien weed. A single breath seems to cloud these rooms with fog, otherwise they’re empty. To find any artifacts one must head underground. Barely visible in the basement gloom, piles of old laundry bloom with mold, chairs are devoured by rust.
The Farm Colony may be decrepit, but don’t call it desolate. Even with temperatures below freezing, the grounds experience a weekend rush. If you plan to visit, be prepared to dodge a few paintballs, it’s one of the most popular pastimes here at the Colony. (Visitors have equipped the grounds with an elaborate field of obstacles pilfered from the buildings.) Elsewhere, the grounds are littered with all the tokens of a high school hangout. Beer cans, cigarette stubs, and junk food wrappers pave the walkways. At night, these lanes are crowded with teenagers, who’ve come to escape their parents and affirm their friendships by way of getting scared. Fearing boredom above all, they enter the Greenbelt ruins in spite of the warning of a cautionary tale.
Legends of a serial killer called Cropsey have spread through this part of Staten Island for as long as anyone can remember; it’s a fiction intwined with truth. The land surrounding the Farm Colony is haunted by a history of real-life horrors, starting in the 1920s with the abduction and murder of a seven-year-old boy, who some had seen walking into the woods with an elderly man on the day of his disappearance. (The crime prompted an investigation of Farm Colony residents and staff, but nothing turned up that could implicate anyone in the crime.)
Later, sinister abuses at the nearby Willowbrook State School for the developmentally disabled cast a pall over the area. Andre Rand, a former orderly at the facility, is thought to be responsible for a series of child murders that shocked the borough in the 70s and 80s. Rumor has it he lived in the tunnels under the abandoned hospital, and it’s confirmed that he set up camp on the grounds. In 1987, the body of Jennifer Shweiger was found buried in a shallow grave not far from his campsite. Most of Willowbrook was renovated and incorporated into the College of Staten Island in the 1990s. In the intervening years, the Farm Colony has taken its place in the collective imagination as the site most associated with the Cropsey legend.
The Farm Colony has never been open to the public, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a shared space. Though some would call it useless, ugly, or appalling, the youth of Staten Island has somehow endowed this place with meaning and mystique. Its value is written in the dust, just count the footprints. Through fogbanked mornings, orange autumns, and torrid summer nights, the Colony beckons—a wilderness in which to be wild, a victim to bear our destructive instincts, a place to harbor our fears, and face them.
For a closer look at the legends surrounding the Farm Colony and the case of Andre Rand, watch the documentary Cropsey, available on Netflix.
For more on New York City’s abandoned institutions, check out Letchworth Village:
Take the A train past JFK. You’ll be one of a handful of travelers left on a car that seemed well over capacity a moment ago; the babble of the crowd fades to the soft hum of an unimpeded machine. Nobody asks you for money, or directions. If you’ve made it this far, you know where you’re going.
Suddenly, the ground drops out and you’re gliding over the silver Jamaica Bay. The train runs just above sea level, skimming over a surface that teems visibly with diving cormorants. Clustered with skeletal boat frames, aged marinas jut from a neglected shoreline across the water, to the west, a row of painted houses stand on stilts. There’s no place like the Rockaways to experience New York as a city by the sea.
Head east at Hammels Wye, and a brief walk through the quiet neighborhood of Averne will lead you to a little known peninsula called Dubos Point, one of the last fragments of salt marsh left in a city that was once ringed with tidal wetlands. The marsh was filled with dredged materials in 1912 in preparation for an ill-fated real estate development, but over the last century, the area has reverted to its natural state. In 1988, the land was acquired by the Parks Department, deemed a wildlife sanctuary, and given an official name for the first time (Rene Dubos was a microbiologist and environmental activist who coined the phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally”).
Parks officials envisioned marked nature trails and boardwalks for community use, and planned to build nesting structures and employ part-time patrol staff to encourage wildlife and keep the place clean, but none of this came to be. The Audubon Society of New York maintained the grounds sporadically until 1999, but abandoned its post citing a lack of resources. Since then, the area has been largely neglected, leaving its care up to volunteers. Green Apple Corps and the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance have orchestrated several clean-up events over the years, but they’re facing an uphill battle.
Every day, the shores of Dubos Point are bombarded with an onslaught of garbage, and it’s not coming from park visitors (the preserve is technically not open to the public). Most of the refuse is washed up from the bay, after a long journey through storm drains that began in the littered streets of New York City. Familiar objects are made strange, touched by a long encounter with an invisible world, caked with green algae, eroded with salt, barnacle-burdened and bleached by the sun. The entire peninsula resounds with the constant susurration of wind through grass. For all these reeds are hiding, perhaps they whisper secrets; mud-moored vessels, decaying toys, and saltbored furniture lay half-concealed in the tidal growth.
Standing water in old tires and plastic debris makes for a perfect breeding ground for the area’s most populous species. My first steps onto the grounds of Dubos Point seemed to disturb some ancient curse, as great swarms of mosquitoes rose from their stagnant hollows to draw my blood sacrifice. The Parks department has been criticized in the past for neglecting its duties at Dubos Point while mosquito infestation reached “plague proportions” in the late 90s, rendering backyards unusable from April to October. After years of complaints and little improvement, some residents resorted to building outdoor shelters for brown bats, a natural insect predator. Today, the only visible improvement made on the grounds of Dubos Point is a line of Mosquito Magnet kiosks, placed every 100 feet along the boundary of the preserve.
Despite decades of pollution, the Jamaica Bay harbors hundreds of species of wildlife, and the water is cleaner today than it was 100 years ago. As one of the last remaining pockets of undeveloped land in New York, the estuary supplies an essential resting place for migratory birds along the Atlantic Flyway; egrets, herons, and peregrine falcons are spotted here. Looking past the garbage, you can still make out the natural beauty of Dubos Point, and imagine what this whole region was like 400 years ago. Neck-high cordgrass is abundant, trapping bits of decayed organisms to fuel a thriving, though limited, ecosystem. Throngs of fiddler crabs crowd the soggy ground, scuttling sideways with one collective mind, crunching underfoot like eggshells. The breezy silence is only interrupted by an occasional splash from a jumping fish, or the roar of a plane, taking off from the crowded runways of JFK just across the water. Off the curling tip of Dubos Point, fishermen still cast their lines in the Sommerville Basin, affirming a bond we’ve all but lost.
12,000 of the original 16,000 acres of wetlands around the Jamaica Bay have already been filled in for development, and sources predict that the last of the saltwater marshes could disappear in the next 20 years. It’s a shame to see one of the few protected areas in this condition, when its potential for education and recreation is so apparent. New York needs to protect its wild spaces, and sometimes that means getting our hands dirty. To learn about volunteer opportunities with the Parks Department, visit their website. And check back for information on the next Dubos Point clean-up.
Letchworth Village rests on a placid corner of rural Thiells, a hamlet west of Haverstraw set amid the gentle hills and vales of the surrounding Ramapos. A short stretch of modest farmhouses separates this former home for the mentally disabled from the serene Harriman State Park, New York’s second largest. Nature has been quick to reclaim its dominion over these unhallowed grounds, shrouding an unpleasant memory in a thick green veil. Abandonment becomes this “village of secrets,” intended from its inception to be unseen, forgotten, and silent as the tomb.
Owing to its reputed paranormal eccentricities, Letchworth Village has become a well-known subject of local legend. These strange tales had me spooked as I turned the corner onto Letchworth Village Road after a suspenseful two-hour drive from Brooklyn. Rounding a declining bend, I caught my first glimpse of Letchworth’s sprawling decay—some vine-encumbered ruin made momentarily visible through a stand of oak. Down the hazy horseshoe lanes of the boy’s ward, one by one, the ghosts came out.
By the end of 1911, the first phase of construction had completed on this 2,362 acre ”state institution for the segregation of the epileptic and feeble-minded.” With architecture modeled after Monticello, the picturesque community was lauded as a model institution for the treatment of the developmentally disabled, a humane alternative to high-rise asylums, having been founded on several guiding principles that were revolutionary at the time.
The Minnisceongo Creek cuts the grounds in two, delineating areas for the two sexes which were meant never to mingle. Separate living and training facilities for children, able-bodied adults, and the infirm were not to exceed two stories or house over 70 inmates. Until the 1960s, the able-bodied labored on communal farms, raising enough food and livestock to feed the entire population.
Sinister by today’s standards, the “laboratory purpose” was another essential tenet of the Letchworth plan. Unable to give or deny consent, many children became unwitting test subjects—in 1950, the institution gained notoriety as the site of one of the first human trials of a still-experimental polio vaccine. Brain specimens were harvested from deceased residents and stored in jars of formaldehyde, put on display in the hospital lab. This horrific practice has become a favorite anecdote of ghost-hunters and adolescent explorers.
The well-intentioned plans for Letchworth Village didn’t hold up in practice, and by 1942, the population had swelled to twice its intended occupancy. From here, the severely underfunded facility fell into a lengthy decline. Many of the residents, whose condition necessitated ample time and attention for feeding, became seriously ill or malnourished as a result of overcrowding. At one point, over 500 patients slept on mattresses in hallways and dayrooms of the facility, meagerly attended by a completely overwhelmed staff tasked with the impossible.
Having discontinued the use of the majority of its structures, and relocated most of its charges into group homes, the institution closed down in 1996 as old methods of segregating the developmentally disabled were replaced with a trend toward normalization and inclusion into society. The state has made efforts to sell the property, with mixed results. Most of the dilapidated structures were slated for demolition in 2004 to make way for a 450-unit condo development, but the plan has evidently been put on hold. Ringed with ballfields and parking lots, shiny Fieldstone Middle School makes use of nine buildings of the former girl’s group, an island of promise in a landscape of failure.
Today, the rest of the neglected campus retains a kind of elegiac beauty. With its meandering walkways, pleasant natural setting, and evocative decay, it’s a peaceful spot for small town dog owners and amateur photographers alike, but by night a new breed of visitors descends upon these grounds.
Embarked on by the young and curious, a moonlit pilgrimage to a haunted location promises a brush with the unknown and an affirmation of courage—it’s a ritual that’s become commonplace at Letchworth Village. Pervasive graffiti and piles of beer cans and snack packaging mark the most popular hangouts. Much of the writing alludes to the institution’s allegedly horrific past, or warns of its vengeful spirits. Is it all just for teenage kicks, or are these acts of remembrance?
Within a crumbling fieldstone facade, one of Letchworth’s most impressive structures has been reduced to an ugly black skeleton. It’s the most evident of an outbreak of arson attempts that plagues the property, but not the most successful—some blazes don’t leave a trace. Perhaps without knowing it, these amateur arsonists, vandals, and spiritualists are quickly scouring away a shameful memory, absolving a collective guilt with paintballs, matchbooks, and pentagrams.
In a little-known and easy-to-miss cemetery about a mile from the facility, amends are being made more constructively.
Off Call Hollow Road, a new sign has been erected pointing out the “Old Letchworth Village Cemetery.” Down a seldom-traveled path, an unusual crop of T-shaped markers congregate on a dappled clearing. They’re graves, but they bear no names.
Few wished to remember their “defective” relatives, or have their family names inscribed in such a dishonorable cemetery—many family secrets are buried among these 900 deceased. Here, in the presence of so many human lives devalued, displaced, and forgotten, the sorrow of Letchworth Village is keenly felt.
As part of a movement taking place across the country, state agencies and advocates funded the installation of a permanent plaque inscribed with the names of these silent dead, and a fitting epitaph: “To Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten.”
More than ghost stories, bursts of cool air, shadows and slamming doors, we fear our capacity for cruelty and our willingness to overlook those who most needed our care and understanding. Letchworth Village isn’t a house of horrors, but it has become a thing of the past, and a symbol of these failings. Now, its ruins are vanishing—any moment, they’ll powder to dust, dirt, and ash. Who will mourn when the village crumbles, and what will remain? Soot-black foundations, half-remembered histories, and nine hundred numbered graves, poignant reminders of an all-too-recent injustice.
School’s out forever; at least at P.S. 186. This aging beauty has loomed over West Harlem’s 145th Street for 111 years—but it’s been vacant exactly a third of that time. The Italian Renaissance structure was considered dilapidated when it shuttered 37 years ago, and today its interiors feel more sepulchral than scholastic.
Windows gape on four of its five stories, exposing classrooms to a barrage of elements. Spongy wood flooring, wafer-thin in spots, supports a profusion of weeds. Adolescent saplings reach upward through skylights and arch through windows. They’re stripped of their foliage on this unseasonably warm February morning, lending an atmosphere of melancholy to an already gloomy interior. Infused with an odor not unlike an antiquarian book collection, upper floors harbor a population of hundreds of mummified pigeon carcasses—the overall effect is grim. You’d never guess this building had an owner, but sure enough…
The site was purchased in 1986 by the nonprofit Boys and Girls Club of Harlem for $215,000 under the condition that new development would be completed within three years. After several decades of inactivity, the group introduced a redevelopment plan that called for the demolition of P.S. 186 and the construction of a 200,000 sq. ft. mixed-use facility with affordable housing, commercial and community space, and a new public school.
News of the school’s demolition mobilized area residents to save the structure. A series of local petitions and letter-writing campaigns championed the preservation of P.S. 186, and gained the support of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, though a landmark bid was blocked at a 2010 community board meeting. At the time, owners insisted that rehabilitating the decrepit building was a financial impossibility.
In a surprising turn of events, the BGCH recently downsized the plan in favor of preservation. The school will be renovated into 90 units of affordable housing and a new Boys and Girls Club.
It’s a rare victory for preservationists, and an unlikely one given the school’s history—when the building was last in use, community members wanted nothing more than to see the place razed.
In addition to generally run-down conditions, safety became a major concern at P.S. 186 in its final years. The H-shaped design allegedly had the potential to trap “hundreds of children and teachers” in the event of a fire. Doors on the bottom floor were to remain open at all times to keep the outdated floor plan up to code, leaving the building completely vulnerable to neighborhood crime.
According to the school’s principal at the time, “parents have been robbed in here at knife point, and people…use this building as a through-way.” In a 1972 incident, two youths, including the 17-year-old brother of a 5-year-old P.S. 186 student, broke into room 407 and raped a teacher’s aide at gunpoint.
Increasing community concern reached a boiling point earlier that year when 60 members of the African American empowerment group NEGRO (National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization) moved into the school to call for an evacuation of 600 students on the top three floors.
The stunt caught the attention of the Fire Department, who toured the school later that week. A deputy chief “didn’t see any real hazardous problem,” but was forced to evacuate the remaining 900 students when he was unable to activate the fire alarm. Inspectors discovered that wires leading out of the alarm system had been cut, although a school custodian claimed that the alarm system had worked during a routine test at 7:30 that morning.
By 1975, funding was at last approved for a replacement school, and much to the relief of parents, plans were put in place for the immediate demolition of the aging fire trap. Who could predict that thirty-seven years later P.S. 186 would be getting a second chance?
A few decades ago, this school was described as “antiquated,” “unsafe,” and “plain,” but today, it’s called “historic,” “magnificent,” and “beautifully designed.” This reversal illustrates the complex relationship we New Yorkers have with our buildings, and begs the question: what might the the thousands of old structures we see torn down every year have meant to us in a century?
It’s been a few months since I’ve set foot in the building, and today the visit feels like a half-remembered dream.
To keep vagrants out, cinderblocks had been installed in almost every window and door of the bottom floor. It looked too dark to shoot—but as my eyes started to adjust, I saw that light was finding its way in. Through every masonry crack and plaster aperture, bands of color projected onto decaying classrooms, vibrant variations on a pinhole camera effect. Past a vault inexplicably filled with tree limbs, a hall of camera obscuras each hosting an optical phenomenon more bewitching than the last. P.S. 186 is largely considered an eyesore in its current state, but who could deny that its interior is a thing of beauty?
However photogenic, this decay does little good for its underserved community—it’s the sort of oddity this city doesn’t have room for. Here’s a look inside, before we turn the page on what’s destined to be the most colorful chapter in the controversial, and continuing, history of this unofficial Harlem landmark.
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.
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.