They weren't sleek. The broadest parts of their bodies were an earthen tone, like old clay pots. I remember it as a darker beige, though it could have been gray, taupe, or an ashy brown, the type of utilitarian color that characterizes life under a communist regime in the movies. The Maspeth Holders, the two towering natural gas tanks that stood in Greenpoint, were an icon of northern Brooklyn for decades. You might misjudge their immense size until you realized that the odd little line zig-zagging up the side was in fact stairs. The New York Times claimed the tanks were visible from all five boroughs. Which is to say that potentially all New Yorkers of a certain era knew their red and white-checkered tops. The color scheme, mandated by the FAA, was meant to keep planes from crashing into them. As a kid, I had a vision of them as an industrial Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum—two fat guys in funny hats.
The first of the 400-foot-tall behemoths was built by Brooklyn Union in 1927, to be joined later by another in 1948. They were called the Maspeth Holders, because while located in Greenpoint, they were on Maspeth Avenue. While I always viewed them as mere storage—they held 32 million cubic feet of natural gas within their combined bulk—their true purpose was security. Before technology allowed for advanced systems of pipelines, the tanks were supplying gas to over a hundred thousand homes. In those days, uneven gas pressure ran the risk of pilot lights flickering out, which would in turn result in gas leaks and fires. Essentially, the tanks kept us safe. Upon learning that, my childhood view of two fat guys morphed into one of vigilant sentinels delivering us from flames.
I was 16 when the tanks went down. To be more precise, they were torn down in a controlled implosion. The term is an anemic euphemism meant to drain the violence from the action. The tanks were destroyed, intentionally and by explosives. Though I didn't know it during their lifetime, they were something special, a shared experience for denizens of that stretch of the BQE. I was young and didn't care for such things; I was too busy looking ahead to be sentimental about much, let alone two big silos that didn't do anything. That was the summer of 2001 and anything about the tanks' destruction in my memory has long been overshadowed by the other two iconic giants we lost that year.
[Photo by Raymond Gazer.]
I've started feeling like I missed out on something. I have only hazy memories left from which to conjure their image, and it leaves me with a slight pang of longing. Was there a petition to save them? I wish I could say I signed it. The cliché "you don't know what you've got til it's gone" comes to mind, but it isn't so much the tanks themselves that I want, it's the sentiment. Certainly, I'm not alone. Nostalgia lays bare the city's evolution, and as much as we revel in its changes, we nonetheless lionize our historical idols—from CBGB to the Unisphere or the Greenpoint tanks. It's why we still cling to our memories of the bad old days, of smutty Times Square and trains blazing end-to-end with graffiti. They are our bona fides and neither future generations nor new arrivals can ever acquire them. It's about the time as much as the place. The tanks were an emblem of a different Greenpoint than exists today, and while that may be the fate of all of our neighborhoods, they don't all have such visible icons to mark the change so starkly.
My cousin Ray brims with sentiment. Over the years I've tried to leech off of his tank nostalgia, to fabricate a similar distress or outrage, but it never takes root. Which is exactly why Ray and I went down to the Newtown Creek. Standing on what could best be described as the bank, looking into the murk, I hadn't found what I was looking for. We were at the end of a long stretch of Maspeth Avenue populated by truck yards and covered in a gray dust I took to be concrete. Queens sprawled large and flat across the water, but on the Greenpoint side, the scrap metal and heavy machinery stood as a monument to industry. Ray and I talked about the wooden posts that poked up from the water, and speculated whether there had ever been a bridge there. It seemed more likely to me that they were just two opposing piers. I stared at an oily streak running across the surface of the water as Ray pointed out where on the rocky shore he was the day the tanks were demolished.
For years we'd joke about how toxic the water was, but this was the closest I'd ever been to it. In my mind, the most striking thing about the area surrounding the creek was always the stench. As a kid, we would be driving up Metropolitan Avenue and the smell was the landmark reminding me that we were almost home. While my memories of the area are dominated by that creek-water fetor, Ray's are of the Maspeth Holders.
On the day the tanks fell, he was defiantly perched on the creek shore to capture, with his disposable cardboard camera, their final moments. And though he has not a lick of photographic know-how, he came away with a beautiful series of photos showing the Holders falling. They hang prominently in his living room, blown up and framed, a triptych of destruction and reminiscence.
The demolition was scheduled for 7 a.m., he said, and he had stayed up all night to stake out a spot on the creek bank. It was mid-July but he wore a hoodie and jeans to protect himself from whatever toxic trash or bugs he'd have to climb through. A police boat was patrolling the creek, specifically to stop people like Ray from doing exactly what Ray was doing, and once spotted he had to leave. While his friends gave up and stood in one of the designated viewing areas, he persisted. He ducked into a truck yard and climbed a truck. "Once on top of the truck, there's a cliff, and as I'm trying to figure out my maneuver, gravity figured it out for me. I fell about 20 feet," he recalled. He was bleeding, he says, and hoping to god he hadn't broken the camera. He awaited the boom. "There's no countdown, just dead silence," he said. "All of a sudden there's this roar, the ground is shaking, it took a matter of seconds and it was done."
When I suggested that we head down to where the tanks were, he was all for it. Looking up into the sky, I tried to imagine them there – exactly how tall is 400 feet and where would that checkered roof be? – but their absence didn't quite hit me. We walked up to the fence where the tanks' footprints were visible, and even though I knew nothing had happened with the lot, I was nonetheless shocked that a swath of land this big in Greenpoint hadn't already been turned into a hipster highrise. Or even a park. People love turning post-industrial wastelands into parks now, don't they?
So why the big push to destroy them? I assumed it was a symptom of the gentrification of Greenpoint. At minimum, I thought, they were trying to pretty up the place to that end. Terrorism could have been a possibility, we speculated. "Can you imagine if they blew?" Ray said. "This would all be wiped out." But the demolition took place two months before September 11th, when we didn't immediately think in those terms, so it seems unlikely. Also, they weren't in use. Ray remembered noticing holes cut in the panels and talking to his father. "I said 'Look, dad, I don't think they're in use any more.' And he brushed it off, because he wanted them to still be in use." That was in May, Ray says, and by July they were gone. But they had actually been decommissioned years prior, the older one in 1992 and the other in 1997.
[The Maspeth Holders as seen from McCarren Park in 1951. Image from the Brooklyn Eagle via the Brooklyn Public Library.]
Ray's passion may have been instilled by his father. Ray Sr. grew up in Greenpoint, on Hausman Street, and used to play ball in the field next door to the tanks. "They signified Greenpoint," he said. "Even when you came in on a plane, you always seen them. Coming into LaGuardia you would see the big tanks—you knew you were home." And after the tanks were imploded, he looked upon the rubble and compared them to "two slain monsters."
He's a man of very few words, the type of old-school guy who says "earl" when describing the oil refinery at the end of his childhood street. He remembers bright lights high up on the tanks, illuminating a sign that could be seen for miles. "The sign said 'BE MODERN.' Then under it, it said 'GO GAS,' then 'COOK HEAT COOL,'" he said. "They were lit up bright. That's got to be '56, '57&8212;the little league field was a dump then." He remembers how they'd joke during games for a lefty to hit one off the tanks, and how before each game they had to walk the field to pick up rocks.
[Photo by Raymond Gazer.]
News stories from the time of the demolition don't reveal outrage. There were those who, like Ray and his father, mourned the loss of a symbol of their youth, but there were others, like the Concerned Citizens of Withers Street, who welcomed the removal of an eyesore. Largely there seemed to be indifference. Too few wanted to save them and too few wanted them gone to make any difference in whatever Keyspan Energy (formerly Brooklyn Union, now National Grid) had planned for them.
Watching Youtube videos of the demolition, I was glad to see that my memory held up. The viewing was also surreal—just as my mental abstractions settled into a firm visual, there went the silent puffs of black blowing out the sides. The rumble kicked in a moment later and it's hard to say what portion of the roar is from the explosives and what's from the crumbling steel, but it's loud and sustained under a black cloud. Just when my sense of nostalgia began to ripple, the tanks were gone again. Car alarms sounded, birds circled the smokey sky, and people cheered. I don't know if they were cheers of victory from those who wanted them destroyed, or just people praising destruction. Even though I hadn't been successful in adopting my cousin's sentimentality for the tanks, I found myself somewhat offended at the applause.
For the last leg of our trip to the creek, Ray and I went around to the designated demolition viewing area on the other side. After passing through the icy mist from a man in a rubber suit power washing a garbage truck, we figured out which yard Ray must have snuck into to climb that truck. At the opening that led to the shore, we briefly entertained the idea of going down by the water, but it was freezing, not to mention whatever mutant ticks and aquatic sludge monsters might lurk down there. Before we left for good, I tried once more to imagine the tanks being there—really tried to see them—but couldn't. From this side of the creek the alignment of the wooden posts is clearer, as is the street where Maspeth Avenue very obviously continued on the other side of the creek. There certainly must have been a bridge there. There was—it was called Maspeth Plank Road—and I found that trip down the local history rabbit hole much more satisfying.
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