Sunday, May 2, 2010

On the Waterfront: Domino Sugar Refinery

Sitting at the bar at Blue Ribbon Bistro a few weeks ago, I was eavesdropping on James, the (infamous) bartender, talking about his fascination with "out West." He said, "You just don't get those wide open spaces here in the East..." he said, and I nodded knowingly.

Especially in New York, there's always somebody around. And if there isn't, it's not peaceful. It's really terrifying.

Even the abandoned buildings in New York City aren't really abandoned. They're never really totally empty. They get invaded by graffiti artists, crackheads, homeless, and, in the case of the North Brother Island typhoid hospital, breeding harbor herons.

After walking across the Williamsburg Bridge (for the first time ever) on this hot, summery afternoon, I decided to walk down to the East River waterfront and go snooping around the old Domino Sugar refinery, whose yellow sign is a landmark of the Brooklyn waterfront as much as the Pepsi sign is a landmark of the Queens waterfront. The plant processed sugar cane for nearly 150 years, until processing ceased in 2004. Sometime around then, I was invited to a few (possibly illicit) parties in the Domino Sugar building, which I can't for the life of me figure out why I didn't attend when I had the chance.

Now, the abandoned factory complex - which has been purchased by a private corporation and a Brooklyn developer - exhibits the curious intersection of 19th century industrial architecture and 21st century operations. Peeling paint intermingles with very recent signage. Rusty chainlink and barbed wire seamlessly melds into shiny new fencing and scaffolding.





Vines grow along old brick facades...



...while the refinery manager retains his old parking space.



I rattled a few cages and tried a few doors despite all the signage warning me of video surveillance and encouraging me to report any "suspicious activity," but I couldn't get in. I found a couple broken windows behind a fence but not accessible enough to stick my camera in and shoot with a flash. Every entrance was painstakingly blocked off, and although I didn't see a soul, I did feel...watched.



I walked along the side of the building, and a cool breeze shot up my skirt from the grates below. The air conditioning was on - a sure sign of livelihood within the abandoned structure. Sure, the cool air smelled like...abandonment...but having the air on could only mean some kind of activity inside. Indeed, the refinery was not as abandoned as I would like, at least not today...



Still, despite the unvandalized signage along the main access driveway, the adjacent lawn is overgrown, and there are some rusty relics lying about.





The future of the Domino Sugar refinery is still uncertain, though borough president Markowitz recently supported the redevelopment plans to turn the multi-block complex into a huge residential development. Plans for the new development are part of a new exhibit at the Center for Architecture in Manhattan, on view until May 29.

For more photos outside the refinery - and inside! - visit:
Bluejake
Nathan Kensinger

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