This is Then & Now , a monthly column by Adrian Shirk on the history of buildings in New York.
At the far south edge of Brooklyn, there was once this weird bit of industrial architecture: the Revere Sugar Refinery. Built in 1910, it had been grafted onto every decade as manufacturing modernized. The refinery was, thus, a sort of palimpsest, surrounded by concrete tunnels, steel tracks, rickety transoms, brick storehouses, equipment from a variety of decades, and at its center a giant metal dome rising up like a pyramid, victorious, above the Erie Canal Basin.
The refinery ceased its sugar processing when the company declared bankruptcy in 1985. All of its constituent parts—and that peerless dome—were left exposed to the elements for decades. The structures began to sag and fall. The awesome series of external chutes buckled in freeze-frame. Everything looked a little burned. Several dozen feral German Shepherds made their home in the dome silo. The dogs were muscular, straw-colored things; although appearing fearsome, they cowered from the residents of Red Hook, and stayed close to the industrial decay of the waterfront.
When the refinery works were slated for demolition in 2006, Brooklyn residents started photographing the property in droves, urban explorers plumbing its depths, Flickr accounts filling with time-lapsed shots, the hulking ruin hustled into public archives before it was wiped out of existence.
The dogs were rounded up and adopted out or taken to the pound. The old shipyards next door were already being developed into an IKEA, and there was talk of a slick mixed-use commercial building to replace the refinery itself. And just like that, New York transitioned from the kind of urban landscape that could sustain a large population of wild dogs to a city that could do no such thing.
When the last of the Revere site buildings—a Civil War-era brick warehouse—was pulverized in 2009, Curbed eulogized , “Like grains of sugar through an hourglass, so pass the days of our Red Hook lives.” But vivid memories of the refinery persist: the chutes, the transom, the iconic metal dome. The refinery’s ghostly image began to show up on T-shirts, postcards, bags, tattoos, crowning the headlines of articles about the state of Red Hook, new and old: The Revere Sugar Refinery’s presence and absence became the metonym for the neighborhood’s change.
I was fifteen years old the first time I heard about Red Hook, during a week I spent at a Lakota Sun Dance in southern Oregon. A woman I was camping out with mentioned that she’d spent the mid-nineties squatting in a cathedral on 9th Street. The guy who owned the property was a mobster, and “My God,” she said, “I learned so much about NYPD corruption.” We were sitting in the shade of a pine forest, three thousand miles from New York, but I had been to Brooklyn before; a dreamy teenager, I could see this space in my mind: a crumbling set of cement steps, a boarded door, a dozen Gen-X punks sleeping behind curtains hung for walls.
Later, driving home from the Sun Dance, I told my dad about the woman who once lived in the Red Hook cathedral—he had lived in Brooklyn once—and he said, “Woah, Red Hook’s rough,” and talked about Straight Outta Brooklyn and that dangling bit of coastline at the bottom of the borough, cut off by the freeway and left to rust.
So when I moved to Brooklyn in 2007, I had been thinking about Red Hook for a long time. I was surprised to hear, then, that the neighborhood’s main drag was the new home of Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Stumptown was from southeast Portland, Oregon, its flagship coffee shop literally around the corner from my childhood home, the place I had just left, a neighborhood that looked a lot like what Red Hook was about to become.
In the 1954 film On the Waterfront , Marlon Brando plays this hot longshoreman named Terry Malloy—a self-described bum born and raised in Red Hook—caught between crooked Teamsters and allegiances to neighborhood buddies. Red Hook is a hotbed of criminal activity centered around the dock workers’ union, heightened for cinematic effect, but true in real life, too. It was where Al Capone started his racketeering, and where Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s confidante ran places like the Revere Sugar Refinery. A major receiving and processing port at the edge of the city, Red Hook—a little “hoek” named by the seafaring Dutch who settled it, and for its red-colored soil which no one has seen in a hundred years —was where you could live if you were poor and strong and willing to duke it out with the bad guys from time to time, and where, if you were, you’d always have work.
But things change. The neighborhood fell into disrepair in the 1950s when shipping methods began to favor the ports of New Jersey. Suddenly, tens of thousands were out of work. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway was extended, and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was built, physically sealing the neighborhood off from the rest of the borough. No work. No money. No train stop. When you look at maps, Red Hook appears literally snipped off.
I coulda been a contender!
“Ah, I better get you home,” Marlon Brando says to the blonde broad. “There’s too many guys around here with one thing on their mind.” Behind them are lovely old row houses, wrought-iron fencing overlooking the water and—wait, in the background, is that the Empire State Building?
Although On the Waterfront is set in Red Hook, it was filmed in Hoboken, during a moment when Red Hook could have really used the cash.
The first time I went to Red Hook, a few friends and I set out from our apartment in the middle of the night (again, you know, a bunch of white kids from art school, leaving a trail of slow food restaurants and artisanal coffee roasters in our wake). We’d heard about a folk jam in the back room at Sunny’s Bar, so we took the slothy G to the end of the line, which was Smith and 9th Street in those days, and then walked for a mile in the dark. Sunny’s seemed like the very first light, a pin prick, and then a wash of warm red glow from inside. I could hear the bay lapping at the rocks, see the moon on the water. All night we sang along to songs like “Goodnight, Irene” in the back room, drinking tall, cold cans of Narragansett. Then the very long walk and train ride home.
Later, after reading H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook,” I went again, this time during daylight, and walked the industrial perimeter where I could see the Revere Sugar Refinery detritus peeking up above construction fencing, and next to that the happy Swedish flags of the then-new IKEA snapping in the wind. Facing it a few blocks away were the Red Hook Houses, the city’s oldest public housing project, built at the time for those Italian and Irish families of dock workers, now housing 8,000 of the 11,000 residents of the neighborhood, mostly black and Latino. Between the IKEA and the Houses, an urban farm, tended by earnest white people in gardening clogs. And then, just a few blocks to the west, rounding the corner from a warehouse—the Statue of Liberty. Right there. What is it like waking up every day so close to her, closer than anyone else in the whole damn city, like she was made for you?
When people came to visit me from out of town, I invariably took them on walks to Red Hook—long, winding walks all the way from Bed-Stuy where I lived. It would be cold and windy and gray, the freezing wet of February, I didn’t care. A friend from Oregon shuddered as we approached the abandoned docks and warehouses along Van Brunt Street. “God, it’s really . . . quiet.” Of course, as we got closer to the water, we passed a soap and flower shop, a clothing boutique, a bakery, a brasserie and, at the end of the stretch, that enthusiastic Fairway sign. We walked along the newly renovated piers, bought key lime pies on a stick, and found a silkscreening business having a fire sale. At the very end of the rack was a print of the Revere Sugar Refinery, the transom, the glowing dome. I bought it for five dollars. “I know that place,” I said. Then we ate pulled pork and drank lukewarm beers at the Ice House until dark.
Later even, after a bad breakup, I imagined moving to Red Hook and walking through the snow in wintertime to the G, which would never run, and it would be quiet, and I would finally be alone.
Of course, this was ridiculous. By then, Red Hook was too expensive for a twenty-one-year-old to casually rent a room. But a girl could dream—of the perfect lobster roll, a view of the Statue of Liberty above the choppy waters of the bay, living life out in a modest Federal Style walk-up against the backdrop of twin forces, poverty and gentrification. That the neighborhood was inflected by tragedy and isolation was a marketing plus—artists and developers were rescuing it from memory, saving it. Had you seen the views? Seen the way that statue looks at me? She was waiting for me. A colonizing impulse. And what’s more colonial than sugar?
That sugar was Revere’s product seemed to have no special significance to the nostalgic masses, and yet it is generally significant to Brooklyn. During the nineteenth century, somewhere in the ballpark of 50 percent of all sugar in America was produced in the borough. In 2014, at another famous disappeared Brooklyn sugar plant, Kara Walker presented her installation “A Subtlety, or A Marvelous Sugar Baby.” It was in the old Domino Sugar Factory shed in Williamsburg, in the months before it was going to be demolished: a giant Sphinx tall as a building, a black mammy figure with a kerchief, crusted in sparkling, bleached sugar granules, echoing the slave labor that undergirded this industry. Art critic Roberta Smith described in the New York Times how Walker “subjects a grand, decaying structure fraught with the conflicted history of the sugar trade and its physical residue to a kind of predemolition purification ritual.”
If the obsessive documentation of the Revere Sugar Refinery was its own predemolition purification ritual, it had an inverse effect. Rather than a reckoning, the ubiquitous claim of the image was a sort of refusal to share the history, removing it from its context. If you do even a cursory Google image search of the Revere Sugar Refinery you will find, on the first page, a tattoo of it on some white dude’s shoulder.
I think of Thomas Wolfe’s 1935 short story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” when the narrator runs into a guy on the street asking for directions. The narrator is miffed—what gall! You can’t just wander around this place with no particular goal.
“ Listen!” I says. “You get dat idea outa yoeh head right now,” I says. “You ain’t neveh gonna get to know Brooklyn,” I says. “Not in a hunderd yeahs. I been livin’ heah all my life,” I says, “an’ I don’t even know all deh is to know about it, so how do you expect to know duh town,” I says, “when you don’t even live heah?”
The narrator names all of the different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, all the places he’s been, and is surprised to hear that the guy he’s encountered, a sort of working class flâneur, has recently been to Red Hook.
“Jesus! Red Hook!” I says. “What-cha do down deh?”
“Oh,” he says, “nuttin’ much. I just walked aroun’. I went into a coupla places an’ had a drink,” he says, “but most of the time I just walked aroun’.”
“Just walked aroun’?” I says.
“Sure,” he says, “just lookin’ at things, y’know?”
He goes onto to say how he crossed a wide open field, down near the Erie Canal Basin, where he could see ships and cranes and factories. The narrator warns that he ought not to do that, that he ought to stay away from Red Hook, ‘cause it’s a good place to stay away from, that’s all. But the guy shrugs off his advice. He’d had a fine time.
It’s a good place to stay away from—why? Because of the crooked Teamsters, the mob, the fact that in 1992 Life named it the crack capital of America? But who can stay away? There’s no place in New York with views quite like this, and no place as quiet.
A flâneur lays claim on nothing, only walks and admires. She does not patronize businesses nor assess real estate, and she does not dream of home, because she does not have one. If only the dead know Brooklyn, it is not because Brooklyn is so big and varied and impossible to scale in one lifetime, but rather because the dead are like the dogs. They can go places people cannot, sleep in places that people would perish, appear fearsome and be left alone on the waterfront, or wherever, in repose amongst the palimpsest. You can take away the dome, turn its effigy into some kind of insiders’ litmus test, but the dogs will know you’re a poseur, and so will the dead.