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As NYC gains new waterfront parks, its industrial past is erased

The old working waterfront has almost completely disappeared as the city realizes its new vision for the coastline

Over the past decade, New York City’s post-industrial waterfront has been transformed by countless new construction projects. Refineries and factories have been torn down and replaced with dozens of residential towers. Shipping piers and warehouses have been demolished, making way for new parks. The old working waterfront has almost completely disappeared as the city realizes its new vision for the coastline.

This past June, as part of this ongoing transformation, two new parks opened along the coast of the East River: Domino Park in Williamsburg, and the second phase of Hunter’s Point South Park in Long Island City. These new public spaces join the list of a dozen other waterfront parks that have been built along formerly industrial East River sites in the last 15 years, ranging in scale from tiny gestures like the 1.5-acre Hunts Point Landing in the Bronx, to grandiose projects like the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park. With the opening of these two spaces, 10 more acres of waterfront are now accessible to the public.

The similarities between the new parks are striking. Both are built on the sites of old sugar refineries, and both have radically altered the post-industrial landscapes they replaced. Both are part of multi-million-dollar megaprojects, which are changing the demographics of their neighborhoods. And both represent an erasure of the East River’s rapidly disappearing industrial history.

This past weekend, crowds of summertime visitors were out in full force at both parks. At Hunter’s Point South, parents pushed baby strollers along narrow footpaths at water’s edge, winding their way through freshly planted forests and newly created wetlands. At Domino Park, hundreds of people strolled along wide concrete pathways, sipped cocktails, and watching the sweaty action at a beach volleyball court.

In terms of their visions for how the East River waterfront should be used, the contrast between these two parks is stark. At the new extension of Hunter’s Point South Park, which was designed by SWA/Balsley in collaboration with Weiss/Manfredi, the focus is on quiet recreation and contemplation. Visitors are invited to wander through a carefully designed series of meandering trails and well-chosen vistas, where the water is always tantalizingly close at hand.

Domino Park, which was designed by James Corner Field Operations, is more like a carnival midway, with an array of amusements set at regular intervals along a rectilinear promenade built high above the water. There are bocce courts, beach volleyball, a misting station and a water feature, a Danny Meyer-backed taco bar, and a sugar-refinery themed playground. The predominant materials here are metal and concrete, and the green spaces feel almost like an afterthought, largely confined inside enormous steel planter boxes.

The extension of Hunter’s Point South Park is truly an impressive piece of landscape architecture and wetlands engineering, but where the park falls short is in creating a meaningful connection to the landscape and history that came before it. Much of this earlier landscape was completely destroyed in the process of redesigning the coastline, and the new park is so markedly different that, for visitors familiar with what was here before, the transformation will be confounding.

Prior to creation of this section of Hunter’s Point South Park, the waterfront here was already an informal parkland, home to a collection of wild forests and meadows that had grown up from mountains of landfill pushed out into the East River. Local residents often visited this open landscape to stroll along wooded paths and clamber over the ruins of an old shipping dock and float bridge, the last remnants of from the site’s history as the National Sugar Company.

To create this new park, hundreds of mature trees and shrubs were torn from the ground; bluffs and promontories were bulldozed; and the remaining artifacts from the site’s industrial past were carted away. Community members had hoped that several pieces of this unique post-industrial wilderness would be preserved, including the float bridge and several full grown mulberry trees.

But today, nothing remains from the previous landscape. Gone are the homemade rope swings, the dramatic rocky cliffs, the dense woods, and the fields of wildflowers.

As a result, the new section of Hunter’s Point South Park feels unmoored from its past, as though its architects took a busy canvas and whitewashed it, creating a new artwork using only the faintest outlines of the original. This is a surprise, when you consider some of the other parks designed by SWA/Balsley along the New York waterfront. At Riverside Park South and Gantry Plaza State Park, for example, large-scale industrial structures were kept in place as centerpieces of the design, providing a solid connection to the past.

At the new park, no reference is made to the the previous industries that once stood here—the train yards, the sugar refinery, the concrete silos, and the Daily News plant—which were all demolished long ago. All that remains from the industrial past are a few old pilings left to rot in the East River. And while the park’s new wetlands are certainly a welcome addition to the waterfront, the complete erasure of this site’s history is a glaring omission.

At Domino Park, the industrial past has been made the absolute centerpiece of the layout. Scattered throughout the park are a wide array of artifacts taken from the Domino Sugar Refinery, which operated here until 2004, including syrup tanks, mooring bollards, and screw conveyors. An elevated catwalk has even been affixed to the ruins of the old Raw Sugar Warehouse, looking out over a playground designed to resemble the demolished refinery.

Despite the presence of these artifacts, Domino Park also represents a significant erasure of the city’s historic industrial waterfront. This enormous complex, which dated back to 1882, was once the world’s largest sugar refinery, and was still open for business just 14 years ago. In order to create this new park and the residential towers that are being constructed around it by Two Trees Management, most of the historic Domino Sugar Refinery was razed to the ground.

Today, only a single segment of this complex remains: an imposing brick structure that once served as the Filter House, Pan House, and Finishing House of the refinery. This structure was declared a NYC landmark in 2007, but several other blocks of warehouses have since been demolished. The remains of the destroyed refinery have been used to spruce up the new Domino Park landscape, like bones picked from a decaying carcass and turned into a macabre sculpture.

Demolition of the Domino Sugar Refinery in 2015.

Walking through Domino Park, one can’t help but to reflect back on the woeful story of Erie Basin Park in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where one of the city’s last working dry docks was filled in to create a parking lot for an Ikea furniture store. Just like in that park, the old cranes at Domino have been repainted and relocated like props, to enhance the scenery, while a collection of scavenged artifacts have been spruced up and arranged into decorative backdrops. These sanitized remnants pay homage to the history of the site, but are also a reminder of its wanton destruction.

A plaque has been placed underneath the catwalk at Domino Park, near the skeleton of a warehouse demolished by Two Trees. It announces that “this park is dedicated to the diversity and resiliency of the Domino Sugar Refinery workers and their neighborhood.”

Many of the former employees of Domino still live in Williamsburg today. How do they feel, knowing that their former workplace has been almost completely destroyed, and that most of the industrial jobs along the East River have disappeared? What do they think of the new luxury towers that are replacing the working waterfront, and of the new residents that are gentrifying their neighborhoods? There is no plaque on site to answer those questions.

At the new extension of Hunter’s Point South Park, winding pathways invite visitors into a impressively engineered landscape of new hills, lookouts, and wetlands.

A curving bridge at the north end of the park takes visitors out to a redesigned peninsula, which is separated from the mainland by a new tidal marsh.

The sloping lawn here replaces what was once a high hilltop, looking out over the United Nations. This site now contains a public art installation by Nobuho Nagasawa, with mounds of concrete meant to resemble the phases of the moon.

A small cove sits at the center of the new park. New platform seating has been built along its edges. The wetlands and rocky shoreline here have also replaced a much different landscape.

The same stretch of shoreline in 2015, when the cove was home to a large float bridge and an old shipping dock, remnants of the site’s past as a train yard and sugar refinery.

Another view of the cove in 2015, looking north from a nearby cliff. The terrain of Hunter’s Point South was covered in hills and trees, which had grown wild along this forgotten waterfront.

The same view, today. The float bridge, shipping dock, hills, cliffs and trees have all been removed and replaced by an expansive wetlands ecosystem with shoreline trails.

The wetlands continue south along the East River coastline, through an area that was previously lined with dramatic cliffs. Thousands of tons of landfill and soil were removed to create this new coastline.

The same landscape, as seen in 2015, when Hunter’s Point South was an informal parkland. Small footpaths led visitors through a lush forest atop the cliffs. All of these wild-growing plants were removed to create the new park.

Down at the water’s edge, the new pathways bear some resemblance to the meandering trails that were once here. The new plants, however, have all been carefully selected and situated by the park’s designers.

The result is an artificial environment designed for human visitation, complete with concrete walkways and safety barriers—a pleasant place to walk along the water, surrounded by an unnatural landscape.

The park’s pathways are dotted with secluded places to sit and contemplate the scenery. All that separates visitors from the water is a low metal railing, which would be easy to step over. This close proximity to the water is rare in most of the city’s new waterfront parks.

The East River always feels close at hand here, so much so that you can have a conversation with kayakers passing by.

The waterfront at Domino Park is a much different design, dominated by straight lines and hard edges. A high railing keeps visitors away from the East River, which is far out of reach.

The promenade here is typical of many new waterfront parks in the city, where the river can be seen from a distance, but not engaged with in any meaningful way.

Various attractions have been placed at regular intervals along the promenade, including Tacocina, run by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, where visitors can buy margaritas and barbacoa tacos for their stroll.

Artifacts taken from the old sugar refinery are also placed at intervals along the boardwalk. These screw conveyors are treated like sculptural elements, scattered around a planter box.

The last remaining segment of the old Domino Sugar Refinery looms over the park. “The Refinery Building represents the physical and spiritual heart of the entire Domino redevelopment and the center of Domino Park,” according to the park’s website.

The original Domino Sugar Refinery complex, seen here in 2011, was an elaborate campus, sprawling across several city blocks. Most of the refinery was destroyed to make way for the park and a new residential megaproject.

The old Domino Sugar sign, seen here in 2008, was once a neighborhood landmark. It has yet to be brought back to the site, and the iconic building it was attached to, the Bin Structure, has since been completely demolished.

The original waterfront of the Domino Sugar Refinery, as seen in 2010. The straight lines of its shipping docks have been maintained in the new park.

A view of the same landscape today reveals how much of the old refinery complex is gone. The new residential complex is still being constructed around the park.

In the meantime, this section of warehouses has been replaced by an astroturf ballfield, popular with picnickers gazing out onto the Williamsburg Bridge.

On a hot summer day, the park’s water feature was one of the most crowded attractions. It sits immediately in front of the landmarked section of the sugar refinery.

The park’s elevated walkway is attached to the ruins of the demolished Raw Sugar Warehouse. From here, visitors are offered sweeping vistas of the Manhattan skyline, and of a playground designed by Mark Reigelman.

The playground is meant to resemble the old sugar refinery. The crowds of screaming children caged inside provided an inadvertent reminder of the generations of anonymous workers who spent their lives inside the factory.

The view from the walkway represents an excellent opportunity to reflect on the New York City’s new waterfront, as the city’s old industrial history fades away into the past.

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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