This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
Sol Graf was a vital-looking 36-year-old Jew in 1966 who, in the company of his wife and two daughters, boarded the Greek ship Olympia from the Israeli port of Haifa and headed for New York City to start a new life. In a black-and-white photo taken aboard the ship, Graf smiles relaxedly at the camera while sitting at a table with his family and two other companions. The image belies his horrific early life experiences trying to survive the concentration camps of World War II. The war, and his boarding the ship, would forever change the course of his life in ways that he himself would later describe as “immeasurable and unbelievable.”
Once in New York, Graf and his wife advanced, slowly but surely. Thanks to his degree in industrial engineering, he got a low-paying job in that field and, in just a few years, he secured a job as general manager of a plastics firm with about 100 employees located at the tip of Greenpoint. The New York Post reported that his hiring practices were “admirable, providing well-paying jobs to a new” community of East European Jewish immigrants.
The plastics factory where this all took place was Nuhart & Co. Inc., on the block located between Dupont and Clay across from the Greenpoint Playground and a few feet from Newtown Creek. It had been a manufacturing site since the late 19th century, housing, at various times, a boiler shop for Logan Ironworks, a gas and light fixture factory, sheet metal works, a soap factory, a waterproofing factory, a scrap metal facility and stables. The business would become Graf’s livelihood for the rest of his life. He worked there for at least two decades. Then, on September of 1983, public records show that the entity 49 Dupont Realty Corp bought the property from Dynamit Nobel-Harte Inc. The company continued to work with plastics until it shut down in 2004. Media outlets point out that the buyer was Graf, but since the land was bought and sold as a corporation, it is risky to make this claim with the public information available.
Trying to tie these pieces together, I reached out and spoke to archivist Emma Sarconi, Reference Professional for Special Collections at Princeton University. “Blank spaces can sometimes tell us more than concrete answers,” she said by chat. “Like what does it tell you that he bought the land as a corporation instead of an individual? That’s valuable information because he made that choice for a reason.” Without speculating about Graf’s motives, it is still safe to assume that 49 Dupont Realty Corp was somehow related to Graf’s family, because the president of the factory in 1983 shared Graf’s wife’s maiden name.
But, moving on…
Located in a neighborhood with a history written by tides of immigrants and linked to individual stories of triumph and resilience, the factory is a place where Graf and so many others found a path to the American dream. The ironic flipside is that it was a significant source of air pollution. Even though it closed more than a decade ago, it remains one of the most contaminated sites in New York State. In 2010, the state government declared the area a Superfund site—called that way because of a federal government program designed to fund the cleanup of locations with hazardous substances. Dangerous plastic compounds had leaked into the soil and groundwater from the underground storage tanks that were abandoned after Nuhart stopped operations.
Since then, “It’s essentially just been laying there,” Mike Schade of the Northern Brooklyn Neighbors organization told Bedford + Bowery. “This is a toxic legacy that’s been left behind that we are now trying to get cleaned up.”
Before the Nuhart site became synonymous with toxicity, it welcomed waves of Jews, Polish, Russian and Italian immigrants, looking for jobs in the factories, furnaces, shops and foundries. The gentle-mannered Graf, now 88, came with a latter day wave of 73,000 Jewish immigrants that debarked between 1960 and 1968, coming mostly from Israel, Cuba and the Near East. Before his life story was recorded by the Shoah Foundation in 1995, Graf had never really spoken about the death, hunger and even cannibalism he saw as a Jewish teenager held prisoner in places like Auschwitz. “I didn’t feel that anybody was especially interested or ready to listen to a story of two or three hours and somehow I didn’t feel that it was terribly interesting to anybody,” Graf said back then. Bedford + Bowery was unable to reach Graf, now living in New Jersey, for comment on this story.
In his oral history, videotaped in his home, he, at 65, reflected on the war and the tremendous cost Jews paid. “If this all hadn’t happened, where I would be?” he wondered out loud. He thought of his childhood growing up with a father weak with tuberculosis. Of the small estate in his birth town of Mosonmagyaróvár in west Hungary, Graf expressed gratitude. If “this all” hadn’t happened, he imagined he would still be in his hometown, “doing nothing, reaching nowhere.” But the war and being a survivor of the Holocaust had given him the experience of leaving Hungary, to live in Israel and later in the United States.
For decades if not centuries, gumption like Graf’s fueled the spirit of this little corner of New York. The New York Times interviewed him in 1993 as part of a story about a subsequent wave of immigrants, the post-Soviets who arrived in New York at the time. Graf hired many of them to work at Nuhart. The newspaper spoke with Yakov Borisevich Alesker, a man with 40 patents in construction techniques who had a prolific academic in the Soviet Union. He “could have been basking in the accumulated glory of a long career at a prestigious Soviet engineering institute,” the Times said. Instead, he found himself “near the bottom of the ladder” at a Brooklyn manufacturing plant.
So, to trace the history of the Nuhart site is to trace the footsteps of the influx of immigrants to Greenpoint, bringing with them their traditions, languages, histories and dreams. The first to arrive in the 1600s were the Dutch and French Huguenots, who massacred and pushed out the Lenape Native Americans. In their resistance to colonization, the Lenape burned down the first Dutch attempt at a settlement on the banks of Newtown Creek. The white settlers owned slaves and farmed the fertile lands, and as the families grew in size, their descendants took control of the shipping business that became Greenpoint’s economic mainstay in the 1800s.
Centuries before Graf made his livelihood through the production of vinyl products, the block and lots where the 1930s building is located belonged to a single family whose dynasty began with a French Huguenot named Pieter Praa. He acquired most of the land in Greenpoint in the late 1600s, either through marriage to Maria Hay—who inherited land from her father—or through purchase.
Even today, reaching Greenpoint can be tricky. Its protruded shape is located in the same latitude as Madison Square Park in Manhattan, but separated by the East River. Only one train crosses the river, the G, with stops at Nassau and Greenpoint. The isolation has a history, too. Early settlers in Greenpoint “had to travel a circuitous route to reach Bushwick Village, near today’s Metropolitan and Bushwick avenues, the closest place to find a church, store or school,” reads a passage in the Greenpoint Neighborhood History Guide, edited in 2001 by the Brooklyn Historical Society.
While Praa left no son to carry on his name, his four daughters and their husbands inherited the property. During the American Revolution, these families constituted the entire population of the neighborhood and are still present in the names of some of the streets that run past the sites of the original farms: Meserole, Calyer; Provost. The forefather of the Meseroles was Jean, born in France, probably in Picardy, around the year 1640. He died in Greenpoint in 1695. A document compiled by Andrew J. Provost on the early settlers and the descendants of Bushwick, Long Island, and New York indicates that in 1663 Jean Meserole traveled to New York—back then known as New Amsterdam—aboard a ship, The Spotted Cow, with his wife and infant son. The plot of land where he eventually settled was a high bluff of 128 acres “near to and facing” the river called the Kijkuit or Keikout farm, meaning lookout in Lenape, in what is now South 4th Street in Williamsburg.
Jean Meserole’s grandson, Jan, inherited the property and lived in the area with his wife and 10 children. In 1727, his father-in-law, Pieter Praa, sold Jan about 80 acres higher up in Greenpoint, making Jan “the largest landowner in the Town of Bushwick,” according to the historical document compiled by Andrew J. Provost in 1949. The Meseroles grew in local prominence. By 1827, an Abraham Meserole was named Secretary of the Board of Williamsburg. A pamphlet published in 1847 listing “the solid men of Williamsburgh” attached a worth of $20,000 to a David M. Meserole.
The rapid transformation of the land came after the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent, which opened the seas to trade. Manufacturers of steam engines and iron foundries streamed into Greenpoint, and a man named Neziah Bliss seized this opportunity, seeing the potential of Greenpoint’s shoreline. Bliss married Mary Meserole in 1832, inheriting her land and gaining a foothold along the riverfront. Bliss came from Connecticut, and became prominent in the manufacturing of marine engines as the farmland started to be partitioned into streets and lots. Thousands of men and boys “in lumber yards, sawmills and shipyards lifted, sawed, planed and carved the wood by hand,” as the Greenpoint harbor filled with tall-masted ships.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Eagle recorded the happenings in the streets, documenting life in the area. On July 14, 1859, the Eagle’s City News and Gossip column reported that three men had drowned because they presumably did not know how to swim and children playing with matches started a fire near straw bed close on Franklin Avenue. “The body of a man was picked up at Bay Ridge yesterday morning. He had no clothes, and it is therefore supposed was drowned while bathing. He was about five feet six inches in height, 25 years of age, and had sandy hair, whiskers and moustache,” read one item.
As the 19th century turned into the 20th, the Meserole farm in Greenpoint had been broken down into streets, and block 2487 was marked off by the Manhattan Avenue to the east, and by the Dupont, Franklin and Clay Streets to the north, west and south. It was a few feet away from block 2487 where, in 1902, in the rear room of Dennis Gildea’s Saloon at 110 Franklin Street, young Thomas McLoughlin, who lived nearby, put a whisky bottle to his mouth and never took it out until he reeled and fell on his back. The Eagle described the 24-year-old as “a good workman” who “earned good wages,” but had fallen “victim of the drink habit” and become tired of the struggle. He made efforts to get on his feet again, while the others in the saloon laughed at first and then stood “terror stricken, watching him die.”
The Eagle did not say where McLoughlin was employed, but he easily could have been one of the laborers who worked in one of the nearby businesses in block 2487. The Desk Atlas Borough of Brooklyn of the City of New York of 1929 shows that by the early 1900s, the block had been subdivided into more than 80 lots. Fledgling companies—with names like Hopwood Retinning, Post & McCord or Steel Construction—were working steel, metal or iron. The transformation was fast and massive. So many Polish, Russian and Italian immigrants had moved in by that time, that 40 percent of Greenpoint’s inhabitants came from abroad, and more than 80 percent were first generation Americans. In 1919, William Felter said the era of shipbuilding and artisanry was over. He described Greenpoint as a place of “smoking skies, blazing blasts from fiery furnaces, the never ceasing machinery in a hundred factories, where thousands of laborers spend their busy days… today is the era of factories, furnaces, shops and foundries.”
Considering all these transformations, it’s remarkable that the Nuhart site has remained relatively unchanged since it was built in 1930, according to city records. The property, belonging originally to Harte and Company, was developed for plastic manufacturing sometime in the late 1940s to early 1950s. The first mention of Harte & Co in land conveyance records occurs on December 3, 1945, then again in 1948, and progressively more often as the company bought up lots during the growth of the plastics industry. The photo unit of the NYC Department of Records no longer has the black-and-white photograph taken for tax purposes between 1939 and 1941. Nonetheless, the tax record photos from the 1980s show the building as it stands today, a 31,000-square-foot blonde brick structure with the “Harte & Company” sign still emblazoned in silver lettering.
That will all change soon. Though it seems to be altogether abandoned, the building is perfectly sealed from the outside world and a closer look at the doors of the construction show shining new locks. The property has been changing hands in recent years. With a sale price of $23.25 million, city records show that in 2014, the entity 49 Dupont Realty Corp—headed by Graf’s relative Joseph Folkman—sold the property to Dupont Street Developers LLC. Then, earlier this year the All Year Management developers bought the site from a group of investors for $55 million, and the Real Deal reported that the current developers want the superfund site to give way to 325 apartments.
On a winter Tuesday morning, the streets surrounding the Nuhart site are simultaneously quiet and bustling with activity. Few cars or pedestrians are out for a stroll, but dozens of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking construction workers cross Clay Street to and fro, from a steaming coffee and breakfast cart parked at the corner of the Nuhart site, to another massive construction area just a few hundred feet away on the Brooklyn waterfront.
Curiously enough, it is the redevelopment of the old plastics factory that is prompting a comprehensive cleanup of the chemical compounds that have seeped from the underground storage tanks. All Year Management is working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to clean up the toxic plume that is spreading underneath the factory. In an interview, Mike Schade of the Northern Brooklyn Neighbors organization, said that it may take the developers from 5 to 10 years to eradicate the pollutants. Once that happens, though, the wrecking ball will tear down the curved 1930s art modern façade of the Nuhart site. And the face of Greenpoint will be transformed once more.