Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Greenpoint Terminal Market - The Forgotten City

Greenpoint Terminal Market Remaining Buildings - Looking South Down West Street
The Greenpoint Terminal Market was a complex of structures connected by sky bridges that covered 14 acres across six city blocks. The earliest buildings of the Greenpoint Terminal Market date back to 1890 and were built by the American Manufacturing Company. "The company was the largest rope manufacturer in the United States, producing rope, twine and oakum for the shipyards along the East River."[1] As the second largest employer in Brooklyn at the turn of the century, the Greenpoint Terminal Market played an important part in American industrial history. The site hosted labor riots, later came to represent post industrial decay and neglect and recently has been repurposed as an informal art gallery and urban playground. Much of the industrial heritage that the terminal market came to represent was destroyed by fire in 2006 and today the complex is mostly vacant except for some small businesses that reside in a few of the remaining buildings. Some of the businesses that currently reside in the complex are Hollywood Stunts, a furniture design company (From the Source), as well as a few other small businesses. Two of the buildings are still empty. In 2011 a project called "Bring to Light" brought an array of light themed art installations including Nathan Kensinger's "The Forgotten City" that projected images of the interior of some of the terminal market buildings on a wall of an existing terminal market structure. More recently the buildings were paid a visit by British artist Banksy during his month long artist residency in New York. He painted white text reading "This Site Contains Blocked Messages" in Helvetica, one of the most ubiquitous fonts in use today and the official font of the MTA and New York City DOT's new citywide way-finding signs. It looks like at least one of the abandoned buildings will remain as luxury lofts but it is sad that so many of the buildings were destroyed.

In 1910 an estimated 2,500 rope workers emboldened by a recent strike at the American Sugar Refinery (Domino Sugar Refinery) went on strike for higher wages and rioted when they were locked out of their factory. The riots which spanned several days with women acting as shields on the front lines, while men hid behind them and hurled rocks, coal dust and anything else they could turn into a projectile at the police. At times the police fired their service revolvers into the air to keep the crowd at bay and over the course of the protest arrested fifty five men and women.[2]


Projection of People Climbing Building
Projection of People Climbing
"Bring to Light" 2011 Art Festival
Banksy Art on Greenpoint Terminal Market Building
Banksy at Greenpoint Terminal Market
From the 80s until 2006 the industrial landscape of the Greenpoint Terminal Market became a playground for squatters, urban explorers, artists, musicians and skate boarders, many of whom knew the site as the "Forgotten City". This eclectic group of people used the site for parties, concerts, art installations, shelter and skateboarding.[3] After the fire in 2006 the few buildings that remained were reclaimed for various uses. The skate park (Autumn Bowl) that was spared by the fire, remained in use until it closed in 2010 when the rent became too expensive.

Autumn Bowl Skate Ramp
Autumn Bowl - Autumn Mini (Image Source: Rose Pile)
The Autumn Bowl was a 2,500 square foot skate park built in 2003 that survived the fire. Pictured in the left photo is Brian Davis skating the Autumn Mini, one of the ramps that was in the building.


Red Brick Building
61 to 73 West Street
Sky Bridge and Stairs
Sky Bridge & Stairs
Although the red brick facade seen in the photo of 61 to 73 West Street appears to be that of a continuous structure the building is connected at the front, then separates into two wings that are connected by sky bridges. The photo on the left shows the sky bridges as you walk through the building's main entrance toward the East River. The image on the right shows the stairs behind the sky bridges.


Interior of Red Brick Building
Greenpoint Terminal Market Interior (67 West St. Building)
Greenpointers Holiday Market
Wood Cobbles
Wood Cobbles
The wood cobbles in front of the red brick building that spans 61 to 73 West Street are thought to be the last remaining wood cobbles in New York City.[4]


Greenpoint Terminal Market Fire
Greenpoint Terminal Market Fire (image source: Tim Pugh)


I never got to know the dystopian "Forgotten City". I awoke one spring morning in early May of 2006, during my first year living in NY and looked out the large windows of my Bushwick loft to see a huge column of smoke rising from somewhere in North Brooklyn. Most of the Greenpoint Terminal Market buildings went up in the flames of a 10 alarm fire that day. I regret not exploring the ruins when I moved to within a couple of blocks of the site a few months later. The photo above was taken by local artist TM Pugh and you can find many more images of the fire in the visual archeology section of his site.

The fire, which happened under suspicious circumstances, was investigated and the blame was placed on a 59 year old Polish immigrant named Leszek Kuczera who was reportedly burning insulation off of wires in a practice known as "mungo". According to a NY Magazine article one former fire marshal said "if that was a mungo fire it was the biggest mungo fire in history".[5] I doubt that the Polish immigrant was to blame. Kuczera, who confessed to the crime, spoke little English, was hungover the morning of his confession and later rescinded his confession with an alibi to back him up.

I am not one to buy into conspiracy theories; however, mysterious fires often follow land development and the developer who owns the Greenpoint Terminal Market (Joshua Guttman) has a sordid track record. Prior to the fire, Guttman had a four hundred and twenty million dollar deal to sell the complex fall through and the Municipal Art Society was pursuing landmark status for the entire terminal market complex. Had the Municipal Art Society succeeded, development of the Greenpoint Terminal Market would have been greatly restricted. I met a woman who lived in Joshua Guttman's artist loft building in Dumbo. I was told by her that the building was kept in non-compliance with loft regulations; so, when Guttman was ready to develop the site, likely he or one of his people called the city out to inspect the building. The city then evicted everyone due to the building's noncompliance and the tenants had to be out within hours of the eviction notice. When the tenants sued to continue living there, Guttman reportedly gave keys to at least one local homeless man, maintenance of the building ended and garbage that attracted rats was left in the common spaces. When Guttman was unable to develop the building the way he wanted, it too mysteriously went up in flames in 2004.

When a city abdicates public authority to private developers terrible things tend to happen to those who stand in the way of real estate profits. The year after the rezoning of the Brooklyn waterfront and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, fires increased by fifty percent. Many people were burned out of their homes and several people died in the wake of those fires. It is ironic that during white flight buildings were torched by owners wanting to cash out of declining neighborhoods and now buildings are torched to evict low paying tenants in some of those same neighborhoods currently on the rise.[5]

Panoramic
Greenpoint Terminal Market Panorama

Terminal Market form East River
Greenpoint Terminal Market from East River


References:
  1. Kensinger, Nathan "The Greenpoint Terminal Market Revisited" The Abanoned and Industrial Edges of New York City. Online.
  2. "Women Strikers Battle Police" New York Times. Online. 22nd April 1910
  3. Colin Moynihan "Hidden Populace Mourns Fiery Loss of Forgotten City" New York Times Online. 12 May, 2006
  4. "Greenpoint Terminal Market" Atlas Obscura. Online. 
  5. Jacobson, Mark "Brooklyn is Burning" New York Magazine Online. 25 September, 2006

9 comments:

  1. Great post, ties all the historical bits together! I posted these photos of Smokey, one of the feline survivors of the fire. http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisacat/sets/72157594196726623/

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    1. Thank you for linking to the photos of Smokey. I am glad everything turned out well for him after being rescued.

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    1. I'm glad you liked the article. I spent a lot time on it and enjoyed writing it. Unfortunately I don't always have the same level of time to dedicate to my blog due to my work schedule. However, I have been able to give more attention to my upcoming repost of the Public Bath on Huron Street, so it should be good.

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  3. Greenpoint Terminal Market appears in the 1998 film A Perfect Murder, starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen plays an artist who has his studio in the building.

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    1. There was another movie that filmed at the Greenpoint Terminal Market as Well but the name has slipped my mind and now I can't seem to find any mention of it on-line.

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  4. Great job Cory.. I have always known about the buildings from personal research and I pass by the area very often as part of my tour with my company www.brooklynbiketours.com. I enjoy reading posts like yours that bring back the once majestic Brooklyn waterfront as well as other very interesting parts of historic Brooklyn. I remember the fire very well .. I grew up in nearby Bushwhick in the 60's and worked for many years in the factories along the Brooklyn industrial belt . Thanks to you I now can add a few more tidbits of information for my guests to absorb . Keep up the good work ..a fan

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    1. Tony, thank you for the complement. Judging by the tour photos posted on your website, it looks like you visit a good mix of well known and obscure Brooklyn locations. I discovered some of the sites I researched and blogged about from neighborhood tours like yours. So, at some point I'll have to check out one of your tours.

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