Until we return to our usual schedule Jan. 3, enjoy this daily series of longer pieces in which we unravel the mysteries and the histories of storied addresses.
On a recent white-gray Sunday, the Historic Districts Council gave a tour of what remains of the Greenpoint Terminal Market, a complex of old industrial buildings along the East River that was engulfed in 2006 by a mysterious 10-alarm fire. On the day of the blaze, billowing clouds of gray smoke stretched across the river, and could be seen all the way to Chelsea.
“It took 400 firemen and 11 hours to quench this fire” on just a single day, the tour guide said, as the crowd stood peering up through the fog at 67 West Street, a seven-story warehouse that survived. (It ultimately took 36 hours for firemen to kill the fire altogether.) After the inferno, the guide continued, “Any dreams of making the complex a historic site were lost. Was the fire mysterious? We don’t know how it started… But the owner of the complex has previously been suspected of torching one of his own properties.”
He was talking about Joshua Guttman, a developer with properties across Brooklyn who bought the complex in 2001, for about $25 million. By 2005, he had a deal to sell it for more than 17 times that, although the deal ultimately fell through.
Guttman has no record of arson, but has had more than one property disappear in a fire. And his name is brought up repeatedly by most anyone who mourns the loss of the terminal.
He is also remarkably hard to get a hold of. In my attempt to track him down, I asked Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, where I might look. “How do I find him?” Bankoff snarked. “Other than searching the sewers? I find a big rock and turn it over.”
Seven years after the fire, Bankoff continues to believe it was the work of arsonists, although there is no real evidence to prove it. Initially, attention turned to a homeless Polish immigrant, who was said to have been melting copper for scrap metal in one part of the complex when he accidentally set off the fire. But after confessing to the fire, the man later denied it, and accepted a no-contest plea, a rare occurrence that means he was convicted without actually acknowledging responsibility.
“The cause of fire was determined to be the result of an attempt to illegally remove the copper wiring from the building – for monetary gain – by melting the exterior plastic encasement,” an FDNY press officer said.
After calling Gutman’s office more than 10 times, I decided to pay him a personal visit. “Do you have a few minutes?” I asked, explaining why I was there, as he stepped out an elevator in his Dumbo office. “I don’t,” he said, and slammed his office door in my face. Later, his son, Jacob, offered a curt and pointed denial over the telephone: “We didn’t have anything to do with that fire.”
At the time of the blaze, the complex was beginning to garner the attention of preservationists who saw the terminal, along with the nearby Domino Sugar refinery, as a linchpin of industrial development in Brooklyn in the 1900s. Both factories, they said, needed saving.
The American Manufacturing Company, the first to occupy the space, built the first building of the complex, a two-story mill for making rope, on the block between Noble and Oak streets, right along the river. The mill was neighbors with the Knickerbocker Ice Company, a lumberyard, and the Continental Iron Works, which would go on to build the USS Monitor, the first ironclad warship requested by the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. The rope-making firm quickly expanded from one block to six after it purchased the space, connecting its multiple buildings with dramatic, cast-iron sky bridges. It added employees rapidly, becoming the second largest employer in Brooklyn. It grew to become the biggest rope maker in the world.
And then, in 1910, more than 1,000 workers — mostly female and Polish or Lithuanian — went on strike, saying: “they feel the living ought not to be harder year by year,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported, and that they “they do not want to be treated as ‘damn Pollacks’ by foremen.” It was an ignoble moment for the terminal, but the beginning of a major effort not only to unionize the Brooklyn waterfront, but for various immigrant groups to establish their place in the borough.
The strike didn’t stop production for the company; as soon as the Polish workers began picketing, Sicilian workers scabbed to take their place. On the sidewalks outside the plant, the Polish women hurled sticks, stones and chunks of coal at the heads of their replacements, according to reports in the New York Times and Brooklyn New York Daily Star. The Italian workers, also women, fought back with clubs wrapped in newspapers. The Police Department stationed 25 officers at the plant daily. A boiler explosion, blamed on the strikers, blew six men to bits, shooting several bodies through the window, and into the river and the street. The company, meanwhile, took out a full-page ad in the Eagle showing female laborers happily at work in their mills. One woman on strike tried to bite a detective.
Unfazed by the unrest, the company continued to expand. By 1920, the Eagle featured the terminal in its “Wonders of Brooklyn” column, describing it as the largest jute mill and hemp factory in the country, and its products as known the world over. The factory, it reported, turned out 400,000 pounds of products daily. The firm was so big it almost faced an antitrust suit from the Secretary of Commerce for holding a monopoly over the manufacture of cotton bagging and ties.
Today, that wonder of Brooklyn is still massive, but quite literally a shell of its former self. Several burned-out blocks still lie vacant, and the cement buildings across the street remain largely empty, too. The crisscrossing sky bridges are mostly gone. And outside the complex, along the waterfront, lies an industrial wasteland: stacks of tumbling wooden pallets, taped-up old ice melt bags, scattered soggy packs of plastic forks and spoons, and a caution sign felled on the rocks.
Mary Habstritt, a gray-haired, bespectacled industrial historian, worries that the terminal’s industrial stories – especially of its early mill workers – are being forgotten. “It used to be we were all related to someone who worked in manufacturing,” said Habstritt, who the Municipal Art Society employed to research Brooklyn’s waterfront history. “We don’t have that direct connection any more. We’re losing touch with our connection to people who made things.”
But within the two remaining warehouses of the terminal, at 67 and 73 West Street, the new world taking shape centers on people who are very much making things.
Occupants include a Hollywood stunts company (which did the stunts in the 2011 film X Men: First Class), several photo studios, an artist collective, a set production company and a handmade furniture store. At the elevators, signs for these businesses crowd for space. On an upper floor, a loft space with exposed high beam ceilings – made of the terminal’s old wooden timbers – is now used to shoot film and TV shows, including scenes in Zoolander, Law & Order and Orange is the New Black.
During his month-long visit to New York in October, British graffiti artist Banksy, too, went to work on the space. He scrawled a missive, directed at the New York Times for declining to publish an op-ed he’d written, on a wall of the Greenpoint Terminal: “This site contains blocked messages.”
On a recent winter day I met Lia Post, a mixed media artist who rents out two spaces inside 67 West Street – one for herself to work in, and one she uses to run the Fowler Arts Collective, a studio and gallery space for local artists. It was frigid outside, but the sprawling, 4,500-square-foot room was surprisingly warm for having just one gas heater. But then I noticed Post had jerry-rigged the heating system with ductwork to stretch it across the room. She had also put up partitions to separate the loft into different spaces. The wall across from us had a steel square cut into it, and she told me it’s because that’s where the slanting sky bridges were once attached, before the fire.
The space wasn’t glamorous, but it felt like a place where art can get made. Post said that unlike residential areas in Brooklyn where artists often set up shop, here she and others could be left alone.
“Newer buildings for artists are made too fancy, too pristine, and too expensive,” said Post, who was dressed plainly, without frills, just like the space in which she works. “You can’t really mess this building up.”
But while Post initially signed a year-long lease for the space, she hasn’t as yet formally re-upped. Technically, the lease renews annually, but there is no guarantee she can keep staying there. When people ask the Guttmans now for new, long-term leases, she says, they often don’t get any lease at all. If this means the day is fast approaching when the old terminal buildings won’t exist anymore, current tenants haven’t been informed about it. But they try to find out. Post said she previously spied artistic renderings for condos at 67 West Street pinned to the wall in Jacob Guttman’s office in Dumbo.
Since Joshua Guttman purchased the terminal in 2001, people have often measured how much time the complex has left by how public these drawings are. Just before the fire, renderings of the high rises were put up online, activists say, sparking fears of approaching demolition. The drawings were pulled down after the blaze. Today, those drawings have been popping up again, preservationists say. The Guttmans have not filed any demolition permits with New York’s Department of Buildings, yet the rumors of high rises and towers and condominiums persist.
And progress seems slow. Of the two reinforced concrete buildings across the street, just one is being developed, and that too for commercial use. The other building is occupied only by a poultry company, which uses the bottom floor to wash down chicken trucks between transport. The floor smells appalling, like death and feathers. The seven floors above it, meanwhile, are empty, save several pigeons and a few reminders of the Greenpoint Terminal’s industrial past: a sign marking HSE 303 FL 2; heavy steel doors; an ancient lift.
The building bears many more reminders, though, of the complex’s middle years, the last half of the last decade, when the Greenpoint Terminal was known only as the “Forgotten City.” These were the years when markers of the terminal’s past were indiscriminately destroyed. What appears to have once been a bath area for American Manufacturing Company workers is now only broken tile. The cracked old walls of the building are today covered in ominous graffiti, like: TURN BACK. Industrial steel doors have become grimy, the windows long ago kicked out of them.
Nathan Kensinger, a photographer who has chronicled the terminal’s history and who took some of the only photographs from inside the ruins of the burned down warehouses after the fire, said the Forgotten City moniker makes sense. “I think the Greenpoint Terminal has always been forgotten. I don’t think anybody in the neighborhood necessarily knows about its place in the history of the labor struggles. And I don’t think the neighborhood has ever embraced it as an icon of Greenpoint.”
By the 1980s and 90s, with the American Manufacturing Company long gone, other companies primarily rented it out for storage: of coffee, fabric, diamonds and gold, all piled high inside. But the majority of the complex lay empty, frequented only by squatters and drifters, feral dogs and big rats, and later skaters and punk rockers.
As word got around about the empty building, people began moving in: a squatter named Ra lived there for six years. All-night parties were held inside. A 2,500 square foot skate park called the Autumn Bowl, inside 67 West Street, was built and soon attracted members. Electronic musicians and punk rockers, including the New York hardcore band Eyes of Hate, threw concerts there. “It was a good place to drink and get high,” said Waxman. The LTV Squad, a New York group that explores forgotten places, described the terminal in a post online as having been a “post apocalyptic playground” of rubble and graffiti, where all the “wicked feral children played.”
The building at 60 West Street still contains remnants of its “Forgotten City” years, when squatters made the building their home.
So, when activists and historians tried to get historical status for the Greenpoint Terminal in the early to mid 2000s, it was not an easy sell. “Those buildings were mucked up even before the fire,” said Ward Dennis, a well-known local preservationist, and a founding member of the Brooklyn preservation group known as the Waterfront Preservation Alliance. “Though this was definitely an important property, we never actually advocated for its preservation before the fire.”
But the nonprofit Municipal Arts Society did. In 2005, it held meetings with the New York City landmarks office and the New York state historic preservation office to try to get some kind of historical designation for the Greenpoint Terminal, as well as for the nearby Domino Sugar Refinery and the Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory. The efforts for both Domino and Eberhard succeeded, at least in part, but not for the terminal.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Phil DePaolo, a hell-raiser of an activist in northern Brooklyn and a former president of the New York Community Council, who was also trying to gain historical status for the terminal at the time. “We got the Domino Refinery, so we did get some victories. But [the terminal] was a tough one. To a lot of us it was a very significant building, a significant part of the industrial age of the Brooklyn waterfront. And it had a lot of identity with the community.”
The year 2005 is also when Greenpoint and Williamsburg were rezoned, what many see as having been the death knell for the Greenpoint Terminal. The rezoning document notes that while the terminal was a “visual landmark and a symbol of the area’s industrial heritage,” its buildings had by 2005 deteriorated to the extent that developing (read: razing) them wouldn’t matter. The terminal was zoned for high-rise residential towers.
Just weeks before the blaze, though, the collective efforts to fight the rezoning with a historical designation appeared to be working. The terminal was put on the calendar for consideration by the Landmarks Preservation Committee.
And then, on May 2, 2006, fire broke out in the alleyway of the terminal, or in multiple places, depending on whom you ask, and soon much of the industrial complex was in flames. In mere seconds, the fire consumed any remnants that were left of the American Manufacturing Company. Over more than a hundred years, the terminal had survived fire after fire, but this single blaze gutted much that remained.
Kensinger describes the sky over Brooklyn that night as being fully red, a “really dramatic sunset that clouded out the whole sky.” As the sun set, activists and historians called one another and discussed what to do. Among them was Habstritt, the industrial historian, who remains convinced the fire wasn’t an accident, simply because of the complex’s history: it was constructed with slow burn timbers on purpose, to withstand a major blaze if any of the items manufactured there — highly flammable ropes, bags, ties — ever caught on fire, which they did.
“It was really frustrating that a lot of people assume that old buildings are more flammable than new buildings are. The buildings were built knowing that fire was a danger,” she said. Indeed, the complex somehow burnt hard and fast on that day, instead of slowly spreading as the construction had intended it to. And it burned down like many other buildings had that year — in 2006, a year after the rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, the Uniformed Firefighters Association said blazes of two alarms or more had somehow increased by 50 percent over the year prior. In the terminal fire, DePaolo believes there’s no question accelerants were used.
“Let’s say you start a campfire, and you throw a stump of wood in there. It doesn’t combust. It smolders and burns for hours,” he said. “[The terminal, too] was designed to burn slowly, and not combust.”
The presence of accelerants on that May day, often used as evidence that arson was committed, is something the New York Fire Department never confirmed, despite rampant speculation. In whatever way the fire spread, it managed to consume several of the terminal’s large warehouses (leaving just the two behind) along with mounds of fabric, Christmas tree lights, rags, books and other items that were being stored in the space.
Days after the blaze, with rags still piled high amid the wreckage, the Municipal Arts Service held a memorial service for the terminal. At the service, a man who had grown up in Greenpoint stood up and remembered the terminal as one of two pillars of the community, along with a church and steeple on the other end. Another man, who had worked with the Port Authority, said his job for years was to fly over the terminal and take inventory from above – that’s how massive the complex was. Those who gathered not only mourned what the fire and the Forgotten City years had destroyed, but worried over the development that was sure to come.
For how long the remaining Greenpoint Terminal warehouses will stand is uncertain. Artists in the building point to expiring leases and a recently built, smooth, new driveway as evidence more development could happen soon. Activists say a nearby 22-acre development called Greenpoint Landing, which was just approved by the City Council, is sure to have a cascading effect. The 2008 financial collapse – which most believe delayed the terminal’s development – has all but faded.
But Jacob Guttman insists there will be no demolition of the terminal for high rises this year, or in 2014. But “everything is possible” in the future, he said.
If high rises are built, the terminal’s remaining buildings will likely all disappear, and along with them another distinctive characteristic of Greenpoint: the low scale waterfront. Waxman, the photographer historian, cynically believes that’s what the rest of New York wants. “People in Manhattan, when they look over at Brooklyn and Queens, only see low-lying buildings and smokestacks. They want a wall of mirrors so they can look back and see themselves.”
Not everyone sees a wall of mirrors where ferocious female laborers once stood. Kensinger said that the people who will come to live there will build a new history, their own history. “For me it is the death of one part of New York City, and the rebirth of another kind,” he said. “The post-industrial ruins on the waterfront have been slowly falling apart for years and years, and now maybe they will turn into something new.”