Fort Totten sits on a far-flung peninsula of the Long Island Sound, forming the Northeast corner of Queens. The grounds of this defunct military installation turned underfunded public park are home to over 100 historic buildings representing a series of changes that have taken place over the area’s quiet 200 year history. Unfortunately, the majority of these stuctures have been disused for decades, and many are in a state of progressive collapse. With so much of Fort Totten closed off with caution tape, overtaken with vines, or hidden beneath rusty fences, it makes for an unconventional park, but a fascinating place to wander.
An 1829 farmhouse predating the land’s military use crumbles behind a weedy barricade; out front, a prominent sign bears the inscription: “Please Excuse My Appearance, I am a Candidate for Historical Preservation.” It’s an image that typifies the current state of affairs in the Fort Totten Historic District.
On the northern tip of Willet’s Point, a monumental granite fortification constructed during the Civil War as a key component of the defense of the New York Harbor sits unoccupied, though it’s used as a haunted house on occasion. Clustered on the rest of the grounds, dozens of dilapidated Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne Style officers’ quarters, hospitals, bakeries, movie theatres, and laboratories vie for restoration, but so far the funding has failed to materialize.
One such building, a two-story YMCA facility built in 1926, has been abandoned for close to 20 years, but much of what’s left behind lies undisturbed. On a bulletin board in an upstairs landing, a 1995 thank-you letter from a kindergarten class at PS 201 hangs by a crude depiction of Santa Claus, both lovingly dedicated to an Officer Rivera. Steps away, in a rotting book room, an incongruous stash of 80s porno magazines.
Most recently used as a community relations unit of the New York City Police Department, the building is cluttered with mattresses, discarded packaging, and unopened toy donations. The New York City Fire Department, which now operates training facilities in a renovation abutting the hospital building, currently uses the attached gymnasium as a storage space. The basement was filled with rusted-through shelving and ruined equipment, flooded and too dark to shoot.
On the other side of the peninsula, a series of concrete batteries sit half-submerged in plant life. These were constructed at the turn of the century, but by 1938, they were declared obsolete and subsequently abandoned. The boxy design looks like modern architecture to me, but the battery reveals its true age in other ways.
Pencil-thin stalactites ornament the ceiling wherever the rain gets in, suspended over a crank-operated machine designed to lift heavy weaponry a century ago. The network of maze-like tunnels feature arched hallways with metal doors, winding staircases, and yawning pits, all fit for a dungeon. Guards stationed at the fort were laid off in 2009, and it was unclear on my visit if the area was open to the public or not. A rusty barrier, more hole than fence, didn’t keep out a couple of high school kids, but offered a spot for them to park their bikes.
When the military base changed hands in 2005 and became an official New York City Park, Bloomberg predicted that Fort Totten was “certain to become one of New York’s most popular parks.” Some community members feared that the estimated 450,000 yearly visitors would disrupt parking, increase crime, and change the face of the neighborhood, but ten years later, tourism has yet to pose a problem.
Fort Totten hasn’t lived up to its potential just yet, but the progress that has been made gives hope for improvements to come. The park now offers regular events and educational programs to draw visitors and enrich the surrounding community. Several nonprofit groups have occupied and renovated the decrepit buildings, including the landmarked Officers’ Club, which now serves the Bayside Historical Society as an educational facility and exhibition and event space. These are small but significant victories in the effort to save the historic legacy of a little-known plot that could be the crown jewel of Queens parkland.
If you pass by a graveyard on the Jackie Robinson Parkway, don’t hold your breath. You’ve got two and half miles of Queens’ Cemetery Belt ahead of you, a burial ground so vast it’s supposedly visible from space. Surrounded on all sides by an ocean of headstones, the modest Machpelah Cemetery makes up only a small fraction of the sprawling necropolis, but its arguably the creepiest graveyard in the city…
Cramped centenarian tombstones muster in rows on the hilly plot—the place is rundown and deserted, but one grave is consistently well-maintained. It’s the monument of Machpelah’s most famous resident, master escape artist Harry Houdini. Only steps from the headstone lurks an eerie cemetery office, abandoned since the late 80s. The cemetery is a dream destination for graveyard ghouls on a chilly October night, especially since Halloween marks the anniversary of Houdini’s untimely death.
The history of the Cemetery Belt can be traced back to the Rural Cemeteries Act of 1847, under which cemeteries became a legitimate commercial enterprise for the first time in New York. Non-profit organizations were authorized to buy up land and sell plots to individuals, replacing the traditional practice of burying the deceased in churchyards and private property.
Areas of then-rural Queens quickly became concentrated with new cemetery holdings. A stipulation of the act limited the acreage of land an organization could purchase in a given county, but church groups and land speculators got around this by buying up neighboring plots on the Brooklyn-Queens border, forming the region now known as the Cemetery Belt.
Between 1832 and 1849, a series of cholera outbreaks thoroughly exhausted Manhattan’s remaining burial sites. The common belief at the time was that ground water could become contaminated with the disease when infected corpses were exposed to the soil. As a result, all burials were prohibited on the island of Manhattan in 1852.
As the population swelled, new developments, including the Brooklyn Bridge, often required the displacement of grave sites. Manhattan started evicting its dead people, and sending them to western Queens—tens of thousands of deceased were disinterred and transported to mass graves in the Cemetery Belt. These ghoulish dealings were kept away from the public eye, often carried out in the dead of night.
Today, Queens’ five million “permanent residents” almost triple its living population, but their numbers are at a standstill. Most of these cemeteries reached capacity long ago, leaving many without a source of income. As a result, some have fallen into disrepair, with officials failing to provide the “perpetual care” their patrons are rightfully owed.
At the nearby Bayside Cemetery, conditions were downright shameful, and hair-raising—exposed human remains were identified at several of the overgrown grave sites. Community pressure, litigation, and the effort of volunteers have gotten the place cleaned up, albeit in a cursory fashion. Gaping mausoleums have been closed off with cinderblocks and boards.
At Machpelah, the plots are untidy, but not nearly as egregious as the Bayside grounds. The cemetery’s decline is most apparent in its ramshackle office building. The boarded-up structure is dilapidated now, but its architecture, dating to 1928, continues to impress on the surface.
Any semblance of grandeur breaks down on the inside. The striking arched windows visible in the facade are installed in rectangular frames, and their diamond panes are all artifice. The skeleton of a drop ceiling hangs askew, with most panels collapsed and reduced to a yellow paste that covers the ground. The office has apparently fallen victim to vandals over the years, furniture and safe deposit boxes have been ransacked, old burial records lie scattered in the grime. Anything of value has been removed, but a coin bank souvenir from the 1939 New York World’s Fair remains, its most recent deposits dating back to 1988.
“Stuffy” doesn’t begin to describe its suffocating ether. Reception rooms are boxed in with cheap wood paneling, which combines with the dizzying funk of mildew to evoke the interior of a coffin. Secluded in a cockeyed armoire, Nosferatu could feel right at home here.
Every Halloween, hundreds of devotees make the yearly pilgrimage to Houdini’s final resting place to pay their respects, party, and make an offering—around the anniversary of his death, pumpkins, broomsticks, and playing cards mount like a cairn on his headstone.
The Society of American Magicians, for which Houdini served as president until his death, was the official caretaker of the site until recently. Between 1975 and 1993, the bust that adorns the Houdini monument was stolen or destroyed four times—it’s thought to be the only graven image in any Jewish Cemetery.
For many years, the likeness was only brought out for yearly ceremonies, but in 2011, a group of magicians from the Scranton Houdini Museum engaged in some guerrilla restoration, installing a new bust with the blessing of Houdini’s family. The group has since taken over responsibilities for the site’s care, and so far the monument remains unscathed.
With no funds to reoccupy, renovate, or demolish the old office building, its likely to stand until it falls down on its own; the same can’t be said of Houdini’s shiny new effigy. Odds are he’ll lose his head again—even though it’s screwed on. So next time you’re traveling down that graveyard highway, be sure to stop by for a look while you can. There’s no need to wait for the witching hour. At Machpelah Cemetery, the gate is always open, and every day is Halloween.
UPDATE: The office was demolished on August 21st, 2013.
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.