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.