Down on the waterfront of Sunset Park, a last pocket of abandoned post-industrial grit has managed to survive. Hidden behind a campus of low warehouses, a series of crumbling piers and a hollowed-out powerhouse have become a graffiti-covered playground for local teenagers. Walking along these dead-end streets, where the cobblestones are laced with cut-off train tracks, you might think that this section of Bush Terminal was empty and unused.
When Mayor Bill de Blasio arrived here last month to announce his plans for his Made In NY Campus, that was certainly the impression the press received. The plan, according to the NYCEDC, was to transform two of their “underutilized” Bush Terminal warehouses “into a hub for garment manufacturing and film and television production,” leading publications like Variety to report that “a little-used area on the waterfront” would soon become “200,000 square feet of garment manufacturing space.” But what the Made In NY Plan had not yet accounted for were the dozens of small businesses and artists who were already tenants inside these warehouses, including numerous garment manufacturing companies.
To many of these tenants, the mayor’s announcement that day was a complete surprise, as was the news that they would soon have to leave their building and relocate their manufacturing facilities. The Made In NY Campus, which is anticipated to be completed in 2020, will displace sewing factories, pattern cutters, woodworking shops, and moving companies who have been in these buildings for over a decade, each employing dozens of local workers from Sunset Park. In the month since the mayor’s visit, tenants inside the first warehouse that will be rehabilitated had not yet determined where they would go, but had been told they must leave by the end of the summer.
“We are being displaced to be replaced,” said Joseph Amaniera, the owner of Looking Good Inc., a garment business that has rented a space in the warehouse at 13 42nd Street for over 12 years. Inside his busy workshop, Amaniera and his employees were busy cutting patterns for hundreds of dresses and shirts, including a big annual order for the New Orleans Jazz Festival. “We never knew they were going to want everyone out. We thought it would be a temporary displacement. But everybody’s got to be out by August, that’s what I heard.”
Down the hallway at Dean and Silva, a millworking company that has been creating furniture and cabinets in this same warehouse for over 10 years, Glaucio Silva was mainly concerned about how a move would affect his 25 local workers. “Most of my work force lives nearby. They walk or bike to work. With them kicking us out, what’s going to happen to all the employees?” asked Silva, who hopes he can relocate to another NYCEDC property nearby. “Now we are in negotiations with them, but we might have to leave the city and move to Yonkers or New Jersey.”
In the days after the mayor’s announcement, several local politicians voiced their skepticism of the Made In NY Campus plan, saying it needed to consider the “extreme gentrification and displacement” now happening in Sunset Park. The president of the NYCEDC, James Patchett, responded with a letter stating that he was “personally committed to ensuring Sunset Park communities are part of the development of this plan.” In the ensuing month, the NYCEDC has offered to help relocate about half of the 19 official tenants from inside the first warehouse that will be remodeled, showing them properties in Bush Terminal or at the nearby Brooklyn Army Terminal.
Several businesses report, however, that relocating with the NYCEDC would involve signing a new lease with significant rent increases, in some cases tripling their current rent. And for the numerous artists currently occupying studios in the building, the NYCEDC has offered to rehouse some in the neighborhood, but has reportedly offered them smaller spaces, sometimes at half their current size. Meanwhile, the businesses that are not being offered relocation to other NYCEDC buildings, including storage spaces and moving companies, have been told they will need to find new spaces on their own.
“I got the feeling that they wanted a younger, better looking version of us to come in here and pay more rent,” said Judy Richardson, an educator and sculptural artist who has rented a studio space here for over seven years. “They had this big announcement that they are going to bring in all these jobs, and we are thinking, ‘Well we’ve been here all this time, doing these things and giving people jobs.’ It was a little insulting.”
As billions of dollars are invested into redeveloping the Sunset Park coastline, creating an upscale version of a working waterfront, many local workers and employers are being squeezed out by rising rents and by developers with a different vision for the neighborhood. “You say you want to keep small businesses in Brooklyn, but where are they supposed to go? People need places to come to work, and the waterfront is where you came to work. This is where you used to have shipyards and railroad trains getting loaded up, and people are still coming here to work,” said Richardson, reflecting on how New York has changed. “It’s like they made a city for rich people. And it just doesn’t feel right.”
The Made In NY Campus would be created by renovating two warehouses in the northern section of the Bush Terminal campus, which is operated by the NYCEDC. New York City purchased a three-block-long section of waterfront here in 1971, for $8.5 million.
Inside the first warehouse to be renovated, at 13 42nd Street, empty halls and padlocked doors at first suggest an empty building. In 1997, the city leased this warehouse to Janton Industries, a millworking company, which subleased various spaces out to numerous businesses and artists.
“Janton leased the building for 25 years from the city. They used a lot of the building themselves, but there was a lot they didn’t need, so they subbed it out to everybody else that was here,” said Judy Richardson. The NYCEDC took over operations here in 2015, after Janton had left the building.
Less than half of the building is currently occupied. “There was a lot of unused space in this building that people wanted to rent, and the city wouldn’t let them rent it, ever since Janton moved out,” said Richardson. “So now, when they say the building is underutilized, yeah, it’s because they wouldn’t rent it.”
However, many tenants are still working inside the building. For Richardson, whose studio space is filled with sculptures and art materials, finding a comparable space and relocating will be a daunting undertaking. “Moving is a huge expense. Moving is a huge ordeal.”
In Glaucio Silva’s millworking business, apprentices from the neighborhood are trained to work with wood and create furniture. “What’s going to happen to all these workers? I have 25 people here,” said Silva. “We thought that because this building was owned by a city agency, that they would be trying to protect manufacturing and small businesses, but it’s not the case.”
At Joseph Amaniera’s business Looking Good Inc., garment workers cut out patterns for dresses and shirts. “Their original plan was to fix the building up one floor at a time. But then I guess someone didn’t like that plan,” said Amaniera. “I dread moving. I thought this place would be my last move.”
Amaniera collaborates with several other garment businesses in the building to create his finished products. These businesses and their dozens of employees hope to be relocated together by the NYCEDC somewhere in the neighborhood, although they are facing a large rent increase. “They showed us a spot and we are considering it,” he said. “They are trying to help us. They are not saying get out.”
Outside Amaniera’s factory is the New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty. “If you look out the back window, you wouldn’t believe it. It’s a billion dollar view,” he said. “Eventually, it will go residential. If I owned it, I would make it residential.”
In the meantime, the waterfront here is littered with piers that have been abandoned for decades, overgrown with trees and used as a post-industrial playground by local youth. If the Made In NY Campus is completed, “I guarantee they will fix the docks,” Amaniera predicted.
Bush Terminal was once a 200-acre campus employing thousands of workers. Its slow decline over the decades has left many of its historic buildings empty. “You’ve got empty buildings on your left, empty buildings on your right. Fix that first and move us in, instead of displacing people that are already operating,” said Amaniera.
This abandoned power plant, located next door to Amaniera’s warehouse, is also an NYCEDC property. “Look at this building. Empty, falling apart, rotten,” said Amaniera, whose windows face the old powerhouse. “People are working here. Fix this ugliness.”
There are currently no specific plans for the powerhouse. “If I was a new tenant, I wouldn’t want to be next to that,” said Amaniera. “If they are going to fix this warehouse up and make it a beautiful building, why not fix the old buildings first?”
The inside of the old powerhouse is filled with rubble and debris. “It’s like building next to a garbage dump. What for? It doesn’t make sense,” said Amaniera. “I wouldn’t build next to garbage.”
Left open to the elements, the powerhouse has been used as a local hangout for many years. Its empty locker rooms are a reminder of the days when the waterfront here was a much more active workplace.
Today, the building is covered in graffiti and slowly being allowed to fall apart, its smokestack collapsing, staircases rusting, and large holes punched into its brick edifice.
Still, its interior has a quiet elegance that could be restored instead of abandoned, rehabilitating a historic space for some future version of the waterfront.
Update 4/5/17: The EDC tells Curbed that 19 tenants, with approximately 90 workers, currently occupy the Bush Terminal warehouse. The EDC is working with manufacturing and artist tenants to offer space in other Sunset Park EDC properties, either at the same rental terms or with longer leases at current market rates. The renovated Bush Terminal campus is likely to employ approximately 1,500 people, according to the EDC.
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.