November 30, 2010 -
The Greenpoint Terminal Market is a historic complex of warehouses on the Brooklyn waterfront. Once home to the largest rope making factory in the United States - the American Manufacturing Company - the complex covered 14 acres and six city blocks, with buildings dating back to 1890. At its peak, American Manufacturing employed over 2,500 workers and - like the nearby American Sugar Refining Company (aka The Domino Sugar Refinery) - was an important part of the struggle to unionize the Brooklyn waterfront. In 1910, one century ago, striking employees battled police in a huge riot outside the warehouses. "The streets surrounding the factory were a miniature battlefield, upon which nearly twoscore policemen and 500 to 1,000 men and women fought. Stones were hurled and heads broken. Men and women had their clothes torn nearly off them. The policemen had to fire their revolvers to keep the mob back," the NY Times reported.
It is difficult to reconcile these scenes from America's labor history with the desolate quiet that occupies these streets today. By the end of the 20th century, the Greenpoint Terminal Market was largely abandoned and known as "the Forgotten City," according to the NY Times. "The derelict warren of buildings was an example of how New Yorkers can be creative in turning the city's faded industrial past into a playground," the NY Times reported, with empty warehouses hosting punk rock shows, skateboarding bowls, graffiti murals, and squatters like Ra, who "lived in the complex for six years." Much of the Forgotten City was destroyed in 2006 by a catastrophic 10-alarm fire. The surviving buildings have remained largely unused, despite the skyrocketing value of land in Greenpoint.
The Greenpoint Terminal Market had a long history of fires and explosions before the blaze of 2006. During the American Manufacturing era, the complex processed and stored jute, hemp and cotton to make cordage, rope and twine. Because of the volatile nature of these raw materials, accidents were common. In October 1910, a massive explosion killed least six workers at the factory. "So great was the force of the explosion that a boiler weighing 40,000 pounds was lifted three stories through the roof... and then hurled several hundred yards into a vacant space on the river front," according to the NY Times, with victims including the chief engineer of the plant, who was "torn to pieces and when found was in a patch of clear ground 50 yards from where the boiler had stood." The body of another worker "was hurled through the side of a frame building that stands opposite the factory in Oak Street. It was found on the far side of the building an hour after the explosion."
Fires were a common occurrence at the factory, and warnings can still be found posted throughout the remaining warehouses. In 1902, a fire in Storage House No. 2 destroyed $150,000 worth of jute. "Nearly a dozen firemen were more or less overcome by smoke, and some narrowly escaped suffocation... the fire is believed to have been caused by spontaneous combustion," reported the NY Times, which notes that another fire had occurred just 18 months before, causing $200,000 in damage (roughly equivalent to $5 million today). In 1904, fire struck again. "Two firemen were killed and fourteen others were overcome by smoke," according to the NY Times. "The whole floor was filled with the dense smoke from the burning jute. The firemen's lamps were put out by the fumes, and they groped about in the darkness trying to turn their hose in the fire, but soon succumbed and fell unconscious to the floor."
Taken in this context, the 2006 conflagration was not a surprise, especially after an exploration of the fire-scarred ruins of the complex in 2007 revealed that many rooms contained mountains of charred cotton rags, perhaps leftover from the rope making process. According to police, the Greenpoint Terminal Market fire was caused by a Polish immigrant named Leszek Kuczera, who had descended into a life of alcoholism and petty crime because of the horrors he had witnessed while cleaning up Ground Zero, the NY Times reported. He led "a life of homelessness, begging and selling stolen copper as scrap metal for vodka money," according to the NY Times, and initially admitted he had caused the fire while "trying to melt the insulation off a long length of copper wire inside the vacant warehouses, using a pile of eight flaming truck tires."
However it began, the resulting blaze was enormous. Visible for miles, it clouded the sky above New York City with black smoke. "More than 350 firefighters from at least 70 units spent all day at the fire, those in front retreating to safety when entire walls crumbled and launched smoldering red bricks 100 feet down the narrow streets of the waterfront. At 10 alarms, it was called the city's largest fire in more than a decade, excepting the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001," according to the NY Times.
In the years before the fire, several plans had been made to develop the Greenpoint Terminal Market, including "Greenpoint Common on the River" - a 1990 plan to create a "13-building, 3,324-unit co-op and rental apartment complex" on the site, according to the NY Times, which was soon followed by a proposal to build "a 500-megawatt power plant" on the waterfront, according to the NY Times. Since the fire, however, the majority of the complex has remained empty. Two large warehouses to the east appear to be completely gutted and abandoned, while the rest of the warehouses along the East River contain a few small businesses, including a new gallery space called Fowler Arts Collective. Even in these active buildings, though, the majority of the spaces remain empty, with floor upon floor of unused rooms. And at the top of these buildings, dark, empty halls are left open to the elements.
It is unclear what the future of the Greenpoint Terminal Market is. There are currently no plans to landmark its remaining historic buildings. Like much of Brooklyn's industrial waterfront, it may soon be demolished and turned into luxury condominiums.