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Exploring the last vestiges of Greenpoint’s post-industrial waterfront

For those who once found inspiration in Greenpoint’s gritty dead-end streets, these may be the last days for wandering freely along its abandoned coastline

Out on the shoreline of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the old post-industrial waterfront is nearly dead. The oil depot is covered in rust, the sludge tank has been demolished, and just a handful of warehouses remain.

For many years, this ragged coastline was a haven for urban explorers, accidental playgrounds, wild animals, and chance ecologies. Sunbathers were drawn to its collapsing piers, while punk bands played all night in its vacant buildings.

But now, along a one-mile stretch of East River shoreline, the last vestiges of these anarchic days have been almost completely erased.

It has been 13 years since Greenpoint’s industrial waterfront, in the northwest corner of Brooklyn, was rezoned, allowing new residential redevelopment to replace the manufacturing spaces, but the full impact of this policy change is only now beginning to take shape. After years of delays caused by the Great Recession and Hurricane Sandy, two of the tallest apartment towers in the neighborhood are now nearing completion along the coast, where the last empty lots are being paved over.

Just five years ago, the northwest corner of Greenpoint still felt like a forgotten backwater, its streets lined by low warehouses, parking lots, and simple homes. By 2015, however, local residents had begun warning other communities that the rezoning had “turned their area into an overcrowded playground for the rich.”

“Over the next decade, Greenpoint is slated to add some 8,000 new apartments as a years-in-the-making wave of residential development sweeps the neighborhood,” the New York Post wrote in 2015. “What happens when a neighborhood beloved for its small town charm runs smack into a development boom? Greenpoint is about to find out.”

Today, block after block of West Street and Commercial Street are busy with construction projects, replacing simple one-story warehouses with a parade of generic apartment buildings. For those who once found inspiration in the area’s gritty dead-end streets, these may be the last days for wandering freely along its abandoned coastline, where the crumbling bulkheads will soon be replaced by public parks and esplanades serving thousands of new residents.

The dismantling of Greenpoint’s industrial waterfront is just one small part of a much larger erasure that has been perpetrated by the city government over the past two decades. Under the administration of the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, 37 percent of New York City was rezoned, including numerous coastal communities. This has led to the wholesale demolition of New York City’s historic waterfront, with developers given free rein to destroy century-old sugar refineries, drydocks, fish markets, and powerhouses.

Today, only a few significant industrial structures remain standing along the entire coast of Brooklyn, as waterfront properties in Williamsburg, Red Hook, Gowanus, and Sunset Park are bought up and bulldozed by real estate developers. The same story has played out across all five boroughs, with industrial and manufacturing neighborhoods like Long Island City and Manhattanville rezoned, razed and replaced by thickets of anonymous glass towers.

The trend is now continuing under the current mayor, Bill De Blasio, who has supported rezoning plans for Inwood and the Bronx, along the industrial coast of the Harlem River.

In Greenpoint, it will take many more years until the last luxury apartment is completed. In the meantime, as sea levels continue to rise and the coastline continues to erode, the future of the city’s waterfront is becoming increasingly uncertain.

One of the last significant historic structures on Greenpoint’s industrial waterfront sits at the north end of Manhattan Avenue, near the confluence of the East River and the Newtown Creek. Owned and managed by the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC), these buildings were originally part of the Chelsea Fiber Mills complex, which dates back to 1868.

Over the past five years, many of the warehouses around the GMDC have been demolished to make way for residential development. These include the warehouse complex next door, at 77 Commercial Street, seen here in 2013.

Today, 77 Commercial Street is a vast open lot, overgrown with trees and shrubs, providing a unique view onto the Newtown Creek. Development plans for the property, which is owned by the Chetrit Group, include the creation of three residential towers with 700 apartments, but the site has clearly been untouched for years.

Just a short walk down Commercial Street, a collection of truck parking lots once sat at the mouth of the Newtown Creek, as seen here in 2013. Several of these lots have since been redeveloped as part of the Greenpoint Landing megaproject, which will eventually cover 20 acres of the neighborhood.

The first buildings in the Greenpoint Landing complex finished construction in 2016 and work is nearing completion on its first tower, a 30-story residence located at 37 Commercial Street. When complete, Greenpoint Landing will include 10 towers and approximately 5,500 residential units.

At the intersection of Eagle Street and West Street sits another finished piece of the Greenpoint Landing complex. This residential building was constructed next door to the Greenpoint Sludge Tank, a neighborhood landmark that was demolished in 2014.

Back in 2007, the landscape of West Street was mostly low warehouses, like this one-story building at 160 West Street. The neighborhood’s 2005 rezoning allowed many of these warehouses to be replaced by apartment buildings.

160 West Street is now home to The Gibraltar, a six-story “sustainable luxury condo” which, in 2016, held the record for “the neighborhood’s priciest condo, which sold for $2.1 million.”

By comparison to what is coming next in the neighborhood, The Gibraltar is relatively tiny. Its nearby neighbor, The Greenpoint, is now under construction. When complete, this 40-story tower will be the tallest building in Greenpoint.

The Greenpoint, located on West Street between Huron and India streets, is 400 feet tall and will include 95 condos and 368 rental units, bearing no resemblance to the humble one-story warehouses that currently surround it.

The tower replaced the Huxley Envelope Warehouse, a local landmark that was demolished in 2015 as part of a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) brownfield cleanup, which removed hazardous waste and oil tanks buried at the site.

The collapsed piers behind the old envelope warehouse were once a popular spot for sunbathers, and offered one of the neighborhood’s few access points to the East River.

As part of its development, The Greenpoint’s developers have promised to replace the old piers with a waterfront esplanade and 29,500-square-foot public park, as required by stipulations in the 2005 rezoning. For now, the waterfront at the end of India Street remains fenced off.

To the south, a series of low warehouse, collapsing piers, and dead-end streets can still be found along the East River between India Street and Kent Street, and are still used by locals for sunbathing and contemplating the water.

At the end of Noble Street, a rocky coastline fronts some of the last remaining buildings of the Greenpoint Terminal Market. This historic rope manufacturing complex dates back to the 1890s, and once covered 14 acres and six city blocks in the neighborhood.

The same stretch of coastline, as seen in 2007, eight months after an enormous fire destroyed much of this historic complex. The ruins of the burned-out warehouses were still being cleared away.

In the aftermath of the fire, Oak Street was lined with charred, half-collapsed buildings. Before the conflagration, Greenpoint Terminal Market had been abandoned for years, becoming a home to squatters and all-night parties known as “The Forgotten City.”

The debris from the abandoned warehouses and the fire have now mostly been cleared away, and several of the remaining buildings in the complex are being redeveloped into residential towers.

One last reminder of the fire still sits at the end of Oak Street. This concrete silo is all that remains from several blocks of warehouses, catwalks, and machinery.

Next to the former site of the Greenpoint Terminal Market, yet another large development is underway, along West Street between Oak Street and Quay Street. The owner of this enormous site, Halcyon Management, filed plans in 2017 to build a 33-story residential tower here, as part of a larger complex of three buildings.

This site was once a truck depot and parking lot. Today, the asphalt is slowly collapsing into the East River, as the shifting tides reclaim the shoreline.

Just south of these coastal ruins, the Bushwick Inlet opens out into the East River. This narrow bay is situated between Quay Street and North 12th Street. The remains of the Bayside Fuel Oil Depot are located on its southern banks.

The shoreline of the Bushwick Inlet is also badly eroded, with piers and landfill collapsing into the East River. The inlet is home to a one-acre site owned by the Greenpoint Monitor Museum, which has placed a plaque here marking the site where the USS Monitor, an ironclad boat, was constructed during the Civil War.

Phragmites, salt grass, geese, and ducks have found a home on this secluded waterfront. Much of the Bushwick Inlet is now owned by the city, and will be incorporated into the larger plans for Bushwick Inlet Park.

New residential development is encroaching onto this southern end of Greenpoint as well, creeping up along Kent Avenue from Williamsburg, to the very edges of the Bushwick Inlet site. For now, most of the land around the inlet is occupied by single-story warehouses.

The southern shoreline of Bushwick Inlet was once the site of the Astral Oil Works, which was founded by Charles Pratt in the late 1800s.

The oil works site is now home to the remains of the Bayside Fuel Oil Depot, a seven-acre site that was acquired by the city in 2016 for $53 million. The complex includes 10 fuel storage tanks and an empty three-story warehouse.

Since the closure of the oil depot, its tanks have become an abandoned playground for local teenagers. They are slowly being covered over by graffiti and rust.

The tanks are one of the last large industrial complexes still standing along the East River waterfront. They are anticipated to be demolished during a remediation of the area, as Bushwick Inlet Park moves forward.

One local group has proposed that the fuel oil tanks be salvaged and incorporated into the new sections of Bushwick Inlet Park, as part of a concept they call Maker Park. “The idea springs from an awareness that both our waterfront heritage and the local creative community is being wiped away at alarming speed,” according to their website.

Looking back from the oil tank, onto Greenpoint’s changing shoreline. In the years to come, the industrial landscape here will be completely transformed by new parks, towers, esplanades, and sea level rise.

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. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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