This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
This past September, New York City’s housing department announced plans to convert the entirety of the long-abandoned Greenpoint Hospital complex into over 500 units of affordable housing and 200 units of housing for the homeless. The new project grows out of a nearly three-decade battle between the city and a number of Greenpoint neighborhood community organizations. But a deeper look at the history of this plot of land reveals that the complex’s commitment to working class, underserved families reaches further back. The recent announcement to transform this historic and often contentious space into a community-supported and designed project represents a victorious new chapter in a longstanding legacy.
Contamination and Contention: Greenpoint Hospital’s Gluey Beginnings
Lot 2885, the hospital complex site, is less than a mile from Newtown Creek, a 3.5-mile long tributary of the East River that borders Brooklyn and Queens. The 146,100-square-foot complex consist of vacant land and three buildings bordered by Jackson Street, Debevoise Avenue, Maspeth Avenue and Kingsland Avenue. In 1642, there were Dutch and Quaker settlements around this creek, a fertile area for crops and livestock until the 1850s and 1860s when the industrial revolution took off—as did evolution of this particularly storied site.
To this day, there are factories all up and down Newtown Creek that date back to the end of the 19th century. The old Greenpoint Hospital is less than a 15-minute walk from the English Kills, one of the most heavily industrialized man-made tributaries of Newtown Creek and one of the most polluted sites in all of the United States. In the 1860s, the city built the Montauk Branch of the Long Island Rail Road to service the port. Although parts of Newtown Creek are calm and would make for perfect summer day recreation or waterfront residential living, the water is still so incredibly contaminated that is not fit for use. The now abandoned hospital building is less than a mile away.
As early as 1891, a good two decades before the factory closed down, the then Brooklyn Health Commissioner, John Griffin, called out the factory for its “offensive odors” that were a “ serious detriment of the health of the residents of the fifteenth ward. The smell was both “nauseating and deathly” and caused “many cases of sickness.”
In November 1899, the Brooklyn Eagle published a somewhat satirical article under the headline, “Some Picturesque Aspects of Odorous Newtown Creek.” The writer argued that Newtown Creek was so much more polluted, vile and “positively wicked” than the Chicago River that the Chicago habit of nose-pinching with little silver clothespins to avoid the river’s stench would prove futile at Newtown Creek. Refuse from the “fertilizer factories, chemical works, soap factories, oil refineries, many other high smelling establishments” had made the creek so malodorous that even a “blind man” could figure out what industries were polluting the body of water. Most overpowering of all the, the unnamed writer wrote, was glue, emanating from the factory of Peter Cooper, a name enshrined in parks and on buildings across the city.
Cooper’s Glue Factory, one of the largest in the city, operated from the mid 1840s until 1915, when Cooper moved the operation first to Queens and then to Gowanda, a town near Buffalo. In February of 1915, Peter Cooper’s Company announced it would demolish nearly all of the factory’s 30 buildings over 16 acres, which, the Eagle said, “hindered development in that section for a long time.” Because of the contamination in the area, there had been almost no residential development east of Morgan Avenue.
By the 1930s, the factory remained a surprising source of nostalgia for the communities of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, with some residents waxing poetic about the childhood days playing among the barrels of glue on the roofs of some of the buildings until supervisors chased them away. The factory’s legacy of danger and contamination would live on at Greenpoint Hospital throughout its nearly 70 years in operation, from 1915 to 1982.
Kings County Hospitals: A Legacy of Negligence and Corruption
In the summer of 1913, as Cooper’s factory relocated, construction on the hospital began. The hospital is actually misnamed: “It is not situated in Greenpoint for its site on Kingsland and Debevoise avenues, Jackson and Bullion streets is wholly within the limits of Williamsburg,” the Eagle helpfully corrected in January 1915. Today the complex, overlooking Cooper Park, would be considered located in East Williamsburg. Upon the complex’s completion, although it was not the largest hospital in Brooklyn compared to the Kings County Hospital, Greenpoint was considered “the most modern” of all the New York facilities, the Eagle said.
But John A. Kingsbury, the Kings County Charities Commissioner at the time, begged to differ. In 1914 he conducted a thorough investigation of Brooklyn public hospitals, and although Greenpoint was still under construction at the time, it nevertheless received its fair share of criticism. That July, he publicly denounced Frank J. Helmle, the Brooklyn architect responsible for designing the hospital. Helmle had been most recently under scrutiny for having laid foundations for a hospital on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island that was too shallow to be structurally sound. He also faced rebuke for many of his design decisions for Greenpoint.
Kingsbury’s investigation also revealed a wider pattern of negligence and corruption within the Brooklyn public hospital system. His appalling report described overcrowded rooms with no sunlight, patients sleeping on floors without mattresses or sleeping on wooden benches, and mis-tagged corpses that would be buried under the wrong name. In the same investigation, Kingsbury also discovered widespread instances of petty graft, including staff members who required patients to pay fees for services covered by the city. The report also detailed violations at private Brooklyn hospitals. In one astonishing case, a Catholic hospital had attempted to charge the city for the maintenance of a patient who had been dead for over six months.
By December 1915, Kingsbury pushed to reorganize the boards of hospitals all across Brooklyn. He ordered the resignation of hundreds of doctors, who protested vehemently. Some accused Kingsbury of ulterior political motives —but Kingsbury insisted that “his only purpose was to end an undesirable system.” The newest public hospital serving Greenpoint and Williamsburg would be the first to open its doors under Kingsbury’s new board of doctors. As its construction neared completion, the commissioner wondered: would the brand new facility fall into the same patterns of gross negligence?
Filling a Dire Workers’ Need
Construction crews completed the work early in 1915, but despite a dire local need for medical services in the surrounding communities, authorities delayed the scheduled Feb. 1 opening by several months. And what was the reason for the delay? “No one seems to know exactly,” the Eagle reported in May. Kingsbury blamed the Brooklyn Contract Supervision Bureau, saying that the agency had been far more exacting in its labor regulations than required for private operations. Even though Kingsbury tried to expedite the process by foregoing the usual process of public letting required for the purchase of tables, beds, furniture, and general hospital equipment, the delay consumed the better part of an entire year. Local communities protested the delays. In April 1915, the Emerald Gaelic Society complained in a letter to Mayor John Purroy Mitchel “that the lives of 90,000 residents of Greenpoint are menaced constantly seems to be unworthy of due consideration by the parties responsible for this outrageous delay.”
Bureaucrats appeared to be overlooking or downplaying how dangerous the industrialization of Newtown Creek continued to be to the health and wellbeing of the area’s working class.
Local residents expected Greenpoint Hospital to “fill a long-felt want in what [was] probably the most densely populated section of the city,” not to mention the borough’s chief industrial and manufacturing center. The distance and traffic delays from the nearest three hospitals—all located in Williamsburg—was a constant problem. In August 1900, before the glue factory moved out of the neighborhood, boiling glue burned the face and hands of a 16-year-old boy. A few months earlier, 15-year-old John Miller, the “elevator boy,” was caught between the floor and the shaft when the elevator suddenly descended and crushed him to death. The most sensational incident came in 1910 when it took an ambulance three-quarters of an hour to arrive at the scene of a factory accident that left seven workmen dead.
The lack of accessible emergency care in this heavily industrialized area is a classic case of environmental injustice. The city had been drastically underserving the Brooklyn district most vulnerable to widespread contamination and deadly workplace accidents. The choice of location was thus meant to serve the factory workers of all three of Brooklyn’s industrial hubs: Blissville, Laurel Hill and Newtown Creek. When announcing the new hospital, the Brooklyn Eagle lauded that one side of the complex would face the park, meaning that open windows could bring fresh air. On the east side, however, the opposite was true. The building ran against an open stretch that led to Newtown Creek. Many local civic organizations pushed to have the creek drained to stop foul odors from permeating the hospital environment, but this community demand was never met.
70 Years of Operation
Despite the repeated delays and Kingsbury’s critique of the complex’s architecture, advance publicity promoted the new hospital as a state-of-the-art facility, expected to rival Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham and Massachusetts General. The Commissioner of Public Charities John A. Kingsbury announced in September 1915 that the hospital would be “one of the most modern institutions of its kind in the East,” and that it would have its own X-ray equipment and its own post-graduate training school for nurses.
Nonetheless, in 1925, only a decade after the hospital opened, charity posts in the Eagle’s classified ad section sought donations to re-floor the kitchens and fund other renovations. The Eagle reported that Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Public Charities Henry C. Wright called Greenpoint “one of the most awkwardly planned public hospitals he ever saw.”
Nonetheless, Greenpoint was known for its innovations, some of which would prove ill-thought. In addition to the nursing school and the X-ray department, in October 1915 the hospital’s superintendent Dr. Charles F. Sanborn unveiled a new “twilight sleep” department. “Twilight sleep,” also known as “Dammerschlaf,” was a new childbirth technique that involved doctors administering a cocktail of morphine and scopolamine designed not only to work as an anesthetic for the mother, but to erase her entire memory of the birth process. American journalists initially welcomed the German-imported practice as a miracle, but it soon fell out of favor. While the women were unconscious, doctors would use forceps to forcibly remove the baby, often injuring both mother and child. In some cases, the infant would fall into respiratory failure or die. The narcotic cocktail sometimes lead women into a state of violent psychosis, and hospital personnel would have to tie them up to keep them from hurting themselves.
On October 4, 1915, the new Greenpoint Hospital, finally—although informally because the building remained half-furnished—opened its doors with 13 employees on its payroll of $15,124. Its very first ambulance call responded to 19-year-old May Keagan, who suffered an acute appendicitis attack. On its first day alone, the hospital sent outo six ambulances and performed one emergency surgery.
Less than two years into operation, the hospital ran into trouble. A measles outbreak overtook the children’s ward on one of the coldest days of the year. Instead of creating an in-house quarantine, the hospital sent the sick child five miles to Kings County Hospital. The child died in transit. Locals were outraged and demanded that the hospital establish a system that avoided sending sickly children on lengthy ambulance rides.
With such a predominantly working class service area, it wasn’t surprising that the hospital regularly treated victims of electrical accidents from rundown and overcrowded tenement buildings, those injured in instances of police brutality, and others suffering from burns and head trauma caused in work accidents. On Christmas Day 1915, about three months after the hospital first opened, an elevator operator on Wall Street named Robert Tiedemann “shared in the Christmas prosperity of the Street and received more than $100 in presents from tenants,” only to be robbed on the way home of the gifts and his salary for the week. Depressed, he drank enough creosote to end up at Greenpoint nearly dead. Hospital staff managed to pump his stomach in time to save his life.
One of the more interesting events in the hospital’s history was its role in treating a series of victims of a teenage killing spree. In the summer of 1954, violent teenagers who came to be known as the “Thrill Killers,” threw 34-year-old Willard Menter to his death off a bridge over the East River. In August 1954, Jack Koslow, one of the “young sadists” who was 15 at the time, drenched 63-year-old Felix Jukabowski with gasoline and turned him into a human torch for no apparent reason. Greenpoint staff nursed Jukabowski back to life. The American Bar Association blamed the baffling rush of “teenage thrill crimes” on “glamorized vice in television, radio and in comic books.” Four of the young boys were eventually arrested later that August on charges of torture and murder. At parks in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, they beat two more men to death and tortured four young girls with with braided whips.
But the most famous patient treated at Greenpoint was Frank Serpico, the famed New York City Italian-American cop, best known and beloved for blowing the whistle on the systemic corruption of the New York City Police Department in the 1970s, memorialized in both the 1973 neo-noir biographical crime film Serpico, in which Serpico is played by Al Pacino, and Antonino D’Ambrosio’s recent documentary titled Frank Serpico that was released to high praise last year. On Feb. 3, 1971, when Serpico was shot in the face during a drug bust on Driggs Avenue he was rushed to Greenpoint Hospital for treatment. New York’s mayor at the time, John Lindsay, paid the beloved cop a visit at Greenpoint and was happy to be informed that Serpico would survive the assault.
Greenpoint vs. The City of New York
By the time of Serpico’s hospitalization, the Greenpoint Hospital’s days were already numbered. In late December 1967, the State Health Department began threatening forcible closure if health, sanitation, and structural conditions were not greatly improved. Earlier that year, a State Health Department report detailed a variety of unacceptable conditions, such as “unscreened open windows…with pigeon droppings on the window sills” that “resulted in the entrance of pigeon excreta directly into the operating rooms.” Other violations included “filthy” emergency rooms, untrained staff in the pharmacy, an “extremely dirty” butcher shop, and “generally poor housekeeping.”
In the mid-summer of 1979, Mayor Edward Koch announced his plans to close Greenpoint along with three other public hospitals in Harlem and Brooklyn. The mayor said that New York had a surplus of 3,000 hospital beds more than needed, and that the way to improve the city’s municipal health care system was by paring it down. However, Koch’s announcement was met with protest. Although the city had an excess of hospital beds, community members who lived near these hospitals argued that cuts and closures should be made somewhere else in the city— “not where it hurts the poor.” Nevertheless, Greenpoint—the only municipal medical center in North Brooklyn at the time—closed its doors for good in December 1982, even though the Woodhull Hospital that would replace it was not yet open. The vice president of the Professional & Allied Employee Association of Greenpoint, Samuel Bobe, called the closing “premature” and accused the Health and Hospitals Corporation of “jeopardizing health and care in a community comprised basically of poor Blacks and Hispanics.” The environmental injustice ghosts of Peter Cooper’s Glue Factory prevailed—and some of the community organizers who protested the closure of the hospital are still involved in bargaining with the city over the use of the complex today.
Once the hospital closed, community members banded together to form the Greenpoint Renaissance Enterprise Corporation, commonly known as GREC. The consortium of neighborhood organizations hoped to find strength in numbers and solidarity, to demand community involvement in the redevelopment of the hospital site. Nonetheless, in 1983, despite the efforts to protect the vacant property and develop a community-supported plan for its reuse, the city clandestinely moved 40 homeless men into the vacant buildings without public notice and without the consent of neighborhood residents.
Before long, the buildings housed upwards of 700 homeless men, with a place to sleep but with virtually no other support services. By 1984, the hospital complex was known as an “extremely violent place for residents” and housed 1,150 men—the largest men’s homeless shelter in the United States at the time. Crime in the surrounding neighborhoods skyrocketed, and the city’s apparent apathy for the well-being of the Cooper Park community left many enraged. Residents subsequently spent 140 nights in vigil outside the complex, with the aim of drawing attention “to the combined injustice to homeless men and the host community.” This was the beginning of a tortured relationship between Greenpoint community members and the City, and what community residents decried, in a version of its original 1984 plan for the site, as the City’s “complete disregard for reasonable community planning concerns.”
Justice in the New Life of the Greenpoint Hospital
In May 1989, only after two lawsuits and a mass protest that blocked the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Mayor Koch reached an agreement with community members to phase out the homeless shelter over the next five years and phase in the GREC community-supported development plan. When Koch reneged on his promises, the coalition of Greenpoint communities took its case to the Brooklyn Supreme Court and in January 1990, Judge Elizabeth A. Garry forced the city to remove nearly 300 beds and vacate four buildings, as outlined in the GREC redevelopment plan.
Although this was a step in the right direction, the Greenpoint Hospital complex would remain a point of contention for nearly two more decades. Frank Lang, the Director of Housing at St. Nick’s Alliance, explained that this was not a battle easily won. St. Nick’s Alliance is one of the founding members of GREC that started organizing during the hospital’s closure in the early ’80s, and Lang has been involved with the Greenpoint Hospital project since 2006.
In 2007, Lang explained, the city released a request for proposals of how to use the complex. Community members submitted a proposal that outlined GREC’s redevelopment plan, but the city ended up choosing a for-profit development proposal that was not supported by the community.
“It was discovered that the proposal that they designated was not originally feasible, and the city had actually coached that development team to make it feasible,” said Lang. “And even then it was not as adhering to the guidelines as our proposal.” Shortly thereafter, one of the joint venture partners was arrested for bribing the Department of Housing Preservation and Development on a separate matter, and the Greenpoint Hospital project was suspended yet again. “The community ended up settling with the city, but it was just an agreement to not go ahead with any party,” said Lang.
Last year the city released another expressions of interest form which again allowed for community members and developers to submit proposals for the project. This one, however, encouraged applicants to submit proposals informed by “the historic nature of the building” and also gave preference to proposals that reflect community needs and goals. After a nearly four-decades struggle, the city chose GREC’s proposal. The communities that have fought over the use of the Greenpoint Hospital see the new transformation plan as the hard-won fruits of their labor. This past September, the City’s commissioner of housing preservation and development lauded the move as the chance to transform the site’s “long and storied history.”
“The community really sees this as a huge victory,” said Lang. The project will feature approximately 512 units of affordable housing and a new building which will serve as a homeless center for 200. Lang also emphasizes the integrated nature of their project, which will do away with all fences, empty parking lots, and abandoned buildings.
“Instead of a big fence that goes around the whole place, we can now have a pedestrian way that will cut across the whole site,” he said. “It will be well lit, a lot safer. And we can use this as an opportunity to bring a health clinic to the site, and a small commercial cafe. It is a way to integrate the space and engage it with the community.”
The project is set for completion in 2023. In the meantime, members of the Greenpoint and Williamsburg communities eagerly await the opening of the complex, just as the community awaited the inauguration of Greenpoint Hospital over a century ago. The air in Cooper Park is celebratory. “The final result has been informed, and is the response to, the 36 years of community advocacy on the site,” said Lang. “In the end, it is going to be controlled by St. Nick’s, and finally for the community’s benefit.”