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Exploring an Abandoned Long Island City Chemical Complex

The West Chemical complex in Long Island City is now being prepared for demolition, to be replaced by several new residential towers.
The West Chemical complex in Long Island City is now being prepared for demolition, to be replaced by several new residential towers.
Nathan Kensinger

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger explores one block-long property in Long Island City's Court Square microhood.


[The West Chemical complex in Long Island City is now being prepared for demolition, to be replaced by several new residential towers. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

As summer draws to a close, the demolition of Long Island City's industrial heritage is once again gaining steam. In the Court Square area—already transformed by numerous development projects—a slew of old warehouses are now on the market, while the destruction of the iconic 5 Pointz complex is well underway. Overshadowed by this better-known neighbor, an even more impressive piece of Queens history was recently gutted. The West Chemical Company, a warren of abandoned buildings dating back to the early 1900s, is now an empty shell. Soon it will be completely demolished and replaced with an $875 million luxury residential project.

The sale of this block-long property along Jackson Avenue was announced in June and a request for several demolition permits was filed today, but work began onsite at least a month ago, according to neighbors, with the removal of the buildings' windows and interiors. For a brief period of time under its prior owners, however, West Chemical was a forgotten time capsule, its long-abandoned warehouses containing a colorful collection of artifacts tracing its transformation from a chemical factory to a Board of Elections office, an artists space, and, finally, a haven for squatters. "All the homeless people you see around LIC lived here," said Frank, a local with intimate knowledge of the structures. "I've walked through the buildings at midnight with no flashlight… a lot of interesting stuff in there, man."

West Chemical, also known as C.N. West Disinfectant, moved out in 1977, but blueprints and photographs from its industrial days were still scattered around the building in 2013. In other parts of the complex, half finished paintings and sculptures had been left behind in vacated artist studios, alongside a theater, library, bedrooms, and a makeshift kennel filled with homemade cages. From an archaeological perspective, this was one of the most impressive ruined factories in New York City, with each floor's objects contributing to a larger, unique story about this changing neighborhood.

The invisible remains from these buildings' past are equally interesting, and they will continue to tell their story long after these structures are gone.  According the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), this entire property has been saturated with an array of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, creosote, mercury, and arsenic, either stored in its 45 underground vaults or soaked into the surrounding soil during various spills. A Brownfield remediation plan for the area was announced in 2007, but does not appear to have been completed. As of Monday, no new remediation or demolition work permits had been posted at the property or online at the DOB, so it is unclear what the scope of the recent labor onsite entailed. A single, faded asbestos abatement announcement was the only descriptive sign posted on the property, and was addressed to non-existent building occupants.

Like any abandoned space in NYC, the West Chemical buildings did not remain a local secret for long, and before the block was sold, an influx of visitors came calling. "In the spring of 2013 scrappers ripped this building open," wrote Control of the LTV Squad, who had a lifelong connection to the complex. Shortly after the scrappers, graffiti artists and urban explorers found the property, making it a popular destination. "In all my years… of exploring abandoned buildings, I've never seen one become so completely graffitied in such an extremely short amount of time," wrote Control. Even now, graffiti murals can be seen on the outside of the buildings, marking the end of their rapid decline. Soon, a 42-story tower will rise on the site, which will eventually house two more towers and 1,600 apartments. "It's sad," said one neighbor who has worked across the street for 18 years. "It was a good building."

Located on Jackson Avenue between Orchard Street and Queens Boulevard, the property includes one former residence that is now being gutted (at right).

The following photos, taken in the first half of 2013, show the condition of West Chemical before it was gutted and before it was overtaken by scrappers and graffiti artists. This largely intact workshop was a holdover from its industrial past.

Tools, heavy equipment and documents were left behind when West Chemical closed in 1977. The company "manufactured commercial and household products such as disinfectants, insecticides, soaps, floor wax and Kotex dispensing machines," according to the DEC.

Numerous artifacts from the company were left behind. This flier documented the 1968 West Award of Merit, given to 54 salesmen who had made "outstanding contributions to the field of environmental hygiene and sanitation."

One floor up, a handbuilt kennel had been set up, complete with cages and various dog training tools. In the 1980s and 90s, this neighborhood had a lawless reputation.

A ring padded with carpet and a dual level set of cages imply that this was a large and well-organized operation. "You used to come to LIC and there'd be hookers and shit there at 11 a.m.," said one neighbor, describing the street scene outside the building.

"I'm drawn to the dark stuff," said Frank, who had visited this floor before. Throughout the building, "there were bones. Bones all over the place. Some of them were very questionable."

In a different section of the complex, artists once had a system of studios set up. This abandoned library included numerous books on photography and an extensive VHS collection.

In the 2000s, the building was home to The Space, an arts foundation that offered movie nights and various studious for art, sculpture, and welding, according to the LTV Squad.

Numerous canvasses and sculptures were left behind when the artists left the building.

On lower floors, the buildings once housed the offices of Modell's Sporting Goods. Checks and bills for the business dating back to 1997 were left behind, the ceiling collapsing on them.

An elaborate array of tarps, perhaps set up by one of the later residents of the building. One caretaker here said homeless residents had rigged up electricity to power their TV and DVD player.

A relatively unlooted workshop. Before the building was taken over by scrappers, it was in surprisingly decent shape. But then "the homeless people started taking the copper out," said Frank.

Empty floors were in good condition, before the scrappers and the demolition crews. The main building on the campus could have been renovated, like the plans for the nearby Eagle Warehouse, located just two blocks down Jackson Avenue.

Instead, the West Chemical buildings will be demolished as soon as its permits are approved, to make way for yet another collection of glass towers. Already, floors like this have been completely stripped, either by scrappers or by the new owners. "On Friday, they finished taking out the windows," said Frank. "They were supposed to hollow out the building."
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Long Island City's Court Square Changes as Towers Rise [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]