Over the past decade, the landscape of Brooklyn’s post-industrial waterfront has been radically reshaped. Vacant refineries, powerhouses, and train yards have disappeared, replaced by residential towers and shopping centers. Empty lots and brownfields have been cleared out and remediated, becoming new parks and recreation spaces. Wild dogs have vanished, burnt-out cars are hard to find, and roaming through an abandoned building has become an increasingly rare pleasure.
Few reminders from this earlier, anarchic period of history remain today, especially along the Gowanus Canal, where a decade of redevelopment has erased many of the historic industrial ruins that once were neighborhood landmarks. The fertile fields around the Coignet Stone Building have become a Whole Foods Market; the Kentile Floors and Eagle Clothing signs have been removed from the skyline; and countless warehouses have been demolished or retrofitted, to make way for bars, boutiques, shuffleboard courts, spas, and other indoor playgrounds.
Even the fabled Bat Cave, an 1890s powerhouse that became an infamous graffiti-covered squat before being purchased by millionaire developer Joshua Rechnitz in 2013, is now being redesigned by famed architects Herzog & de Meuron, with the New York Times romanticizing this “temple of graffiti” as “the lone sentinel of the neighborhood’s postindustrial, pre-apocalyptic days.”
However, vestiges of the past remain hidden all along the city’s waterfront, and a haven for displaced graffiti artists can still be found on the Gowanus Canal just 13 blocks away from the Bat Cave, at an equally historic complex of abandoned buildings. Stretched out along four quiet waterfront blocks, this graffiti-covered campus includes the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, a uniquely feral 1800s artifact that may also soon disappear.
The S.W. Bowne warehouse was built in 1886, after the marshes of Red Hook were filled in for development, but the industrial history of this stretch of Gowanus waterfront dates back to the Dutch era of New York City. “In this spot, really, there is a continuous thread of grain-handling from the time the Dutch arrived,” says Joseph Alexiou, the author of Gowanus: Brooklyn's Curious Canal. “There were a lot of dikes and different mill ponds around there, for grain-grinding mills. It would have been completely marshland.”
At the time of its construction, the Bowne facility was a two-block complex used to process hay, feed, and grain for local stables, and its owner, S.W. Bowne, eventually became a wealthy man. “By the mid-1920s, this guy owned a lot of property around the Gowanus,” explains Alexiou. “He became rich, but he also worked alongside all his workers.” These early factories could be dangerous workplaces, and in 1916, while helping his employees load lumber into the warehouse, Bowne’s left leg was crushed by a conveyor and had to be amputated above the knee.
As the industries along the Gowanus Canal evolved over the decades, the Bowne warehouse slowly slipped into obsolescence. By the 1930s, it had become a general-use warehouse, and by the 1950s, parts of the property were being used by cargo and stevedoring companies, but “around World War II would have been when these things started failing,” says Alexiou. “Most official documents seem to suggest that it was abandoned by 1960.”
Today, the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse has been left to slowly collapse. In 2007, it was purchased by CF Smith LLC and Red Hook Developers Holdings LLC, two companies formed in Delaware, as part of an $11.5 million package for a four-block stretch of Gowanus waterfront at the southern end of Smith Street. After the purchase, all of the properties onsite appear to have been abandoned. Dire conditions at the Bowne warehouse were first reported in 2014, when its roof began to cave in, and that same year, the city placed a full vacate order on the warehouse and its surrounding grounds due to a parapet collapse.
By 2015, graffiti artists had begun covering the empty warehouse in elaborate murals, and in 2016, a partial vacate order was placed on the buildings next door for illegal dumping of asbestos and other hazardous waste. Several other major violations were also cited in 2016 at the property’s southernmost warehouses, which had become a canvas for large-scale graffiti works. None of these violations appear to have been resolved, and the entire campus is currently being left wide open to the elements.
During several recent visits, groups of teenagers could be seen wandering from building to building, clearly overwhelmed by their first visit to a post-industrial wilderness. Their explorations could soon come to an end, however, as the property’s owners continue to allow the Bowne complex to collapse. “They are trying to let the elements take it, it’s pretty clear to me,” says Joseph Alexiou. “But I don’t think it’s beyond help. It could all be repaired, it really could be.”
When I first began this series of photo essays 10 years ago, in March 2007, it still seemed that there might be some hope for Brooklyn’s historic industrial waterfront. That year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the entire Brooklyn waterfront on their list of America’s most endangered historic places, and the Municipal Art Society launched an initiative to “Save Industrial Brooklyn.” But in the ensuing years, many of the borough’s iconic factories, warehouses, and refineries were destroyed, culminating with the demolition of Admiral’s Row in 2016.
Over the past decade, the unique architecture of the industrial era has been burned, buried, and crushed, replaced by a new vision of the waterfront. The S.W. Bowne warehouse complex, a holdout from this transitional moment between past and future, is a fitting place to reflect on what has been lost.
The S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, on the banks of the southern end of the Gowanus Canal. Built in 1886, the building’s roof is now collapsing in several places.
The Bowne building is part of a larger Red Hook property that stretches for four blocks along the waterfront, and which includes several other empty warehouses.
The property’s shoreline is collapsing into the canal, and its abandoned piers are overgrown with trees above the waters of this federal Superfund site. Almost every surface has been covered with graffiti.
Inside the more modern warehouses at the southern end of the property, elaborate graffiti murals date back to at least 2014.
The interiors of these warehouses are largely empty, revealing their dramatic skeletal framework. The roof here is also slowly falling in.
Every wall in these warehouses has been covered in graffiti, though some reminders of the industrial past remain.
A gutted office space has been turned into a clubhouse by local teenagers. Little evidence remains from the businesses that preceded this current period of abandonment.
An abandoned boat, also covered in graffiti. The warehouse’s front door has been left open for many months.
The historic Bowne Warehouse, also covered in graffiti, also with its front door wide open. Concrete-covered landfill nearby is eroding into the water.
Inside the Bowne building, massive wooden pillars support four floors of open warehouse space, an impressively solid piece of 1800s architecture.
The rotting roof has let rain and snow slowly erode the floors away, creating gaping holes down through the building.
Truck traffic on the nearby BQE, visible through two expanding holes in the roof. The recent snowstorms will have filled this room with ice.
On lower floors, solid wooden pillars and floors have withstood the elements, though they have been marked by many recent visitors.
Into the darkness of the deeper recesses. Few artifacts from the building’s former life remain, besides several “No Smoking” signs, in both Yiddish and English.
Even in the darkest corners, the walls are covered in detailed graffiti pieces. The solitude of the building has left space for much creative experimentation.
Left unprotected, the Bowne building may soon disappear, like the now-vanished Kentile Floors sign, a neighborhood landmark that was removed in 2014.
The Burns Brothers coal pockets, as seen in 2009, were another casualty of the Gowanus Canal’s recent development boom. They were demolished in 2014.
The open fields of the Coignet Stone complex, as seen in 2009, were a wild creative space for many years. They are now a parking lot for a Whole Foods Market.
The Coignet Stone building, as seen in 2008, before its renovation and before Whole Foods was constructed. A decade of change has reshaped the wild open spaces that once dominated the neighborhood.
Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. "Industrial Twilight," an exhibit of Kensinger’s photographs of Brooklyn’s changing waterfront, is currently being exhibited at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.