…the story of a brownfield and a fellow
In 1896, a massive multi-story structure was built along the shores of the Gowanus Canal in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. This prominent edifice was once a coal-fired power plant owned by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. But over the past two decades it became a prime spot for graffiti writers and squatters, slowly turning into a nightmare for real estate mega-developers.
Back in 2004, urban developers envisioned a huge luxury-condominium complex, to be quaintly named “Gowanus Village.” But when the economy and the real-estate market collapsed, the added costs of cleaning this highly polluted area caused developers to abandon their plans for an urban-bourgeois Eldorado along the banks of the toxic canal.
Indeed, the former power plant holds a solid industrial record and was officially designated as a brownfield and accepted into the state’s cleanup program. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, a brownfield is an abandoned industrial site “where redevelopment may be complicated by the presence of a contaminant like hazardous waste and/or petroleum.” However decades before all of this public concern over “Gowanus Village,” squatters were living inside the power plant and calling it by another intriguing name: the “Bat Cave”.
They were living as a community, in peace and harmony, under strict communitarian and anti-drug rules. But when the developers purchased the building in 2004, all long-term inhabitants were chased out of the Bat Cave in a day’s time. Thus, the building became a temporary shelter for street people and drug addicts. In 2006, a scathing NY Daily News article denouncing drug abuse and violence in the Bat Cave forced the owners to seal it off. Since then, the “Bat Cave” has been sitting vacant, falling into decay season after season.
Accessing the property was fairly easy, but entering the Bat Cave proved to be a bit more challenging than other places I have explored in the past. The building was completely hermetic; all door and window access points to the ground floor and the basement were restricted. Vincent Vega and I were wandering around the Bat Cave to find an access point when we encountered Omar. Omar is a handsome young man from Puerto Rico. He was standing alone on the left side of the building next to a rotten truck and a blazing rusted oil drum. He was cutting wires with a huge gripper.
We asked Omar if he knew a way to get inside the Bat Cave but he remained silent. We asked him again in Spanish, and after explaining to him that we were here to take pictures of the graffiti murals on the top floor and reassured him that we were not cops or reporters, Omar was much more relaxed and cooperative. We conversed for a couple of minutes and he even agreed to continue our conversation with the camera rolling.
Omar had a sad story to tell…
He came to NYC from Puerto Rico after losing his mom in January 2010. Then, after living with his girlfriend for a couple of months in Coney Island, they eventually broke up and he started living in the Gowanus Canal area. At first Omar built himself a little shack on the waterfront, but security guards quickly demolished it. He then decided to establish residency inside the property. Now Omar spends most of the hot summer nights sleeping on a mattress outside of the building. He fixed a hook next to a big metal door where he hangs his foods, preventing raccoons from devouring his provisions. But Omar does not feel entirely safe outside, and likes to take refuge occasionally inside the Bat Cave. He created a small access point in one of the first-floor windows. Omar told us that he was the only resident here. After finishing our conversation, we ascended to the elevated hole and entered the Bat Cave.
We started our exploration from the basement but quickly abandoned the idea as it was completely pitch-black. The second and third floors of the Bat Cave consisted of huge open industrial spaces filled with debris. The floors were covered with rotten spray-paint cans, damaged chairs, clothes, rusted springs from old mattresses and other detritus. Layers of paints and colorful graffiti covered the walls of the main halls. Along the edges of the main floors, squatters established tiny rooms where they arranged chairs, mattresses, coffee tables and sofas.
Signs of a brutal eviction are evident as posters were still hanging on the walls of the makeshift living room. Magazines, books, cassettes, condoms, shoes, bibles and toys; all sorts of vestiges from past generations of residents appear throughout the building. In some of the rooms, piles of used syringes, rotten spoons, dispensable razors and sewing thread have been left behind, illustrating the unnecessary habits of the latest residents’ flux.
Stairways at the end of a catwalk on the side of the main floor led us to the rooftop. The Bat Cave’s roof is completely permeable as large panels on the ceiling are inexplicably amiss. Walking up there was a bit unsafe but the view was definitely worth it. One side of the building revealed a panoramic view of Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill. A massive water tank stood right in front of me, blocking parts of Cobble Hill’s public housing and downtown Brooklyn. Looking south, the foreground unveiled the Whole Foods construction site across the street from the Bat Cave, a huge monochromic mural by street artist “Read” as well as the jade color of the Gowanus canal. In the background stood the old Kentile floor sign, the elevated F train line and the majestic Grain Terminal.
On the side of the canal I observed a typical 45-year old New York couple with a newborn, contemplating hand in hand the noxious canal and the ghostly silhouette of the Bat Cave. I hypothesized that they had no idea that next to their modern, one-million dollar loft lives Omar, a 28-year old homeless man.
On our way out I was expecting to see Omar again, but he probably went to sell the copper he recycled in order to survive and save money for his trip back home. Omar told us that he was planning to go back to his native island very soon. As of today, Omar’s crystal-clear look still haunts me. I remember perfectly the sadness, the distress and the pride in his eyes and I sincerely hope he managed a safe return to his haven of peace in the Caribbean.
See full photo narrative here.
Words, images and video by Charles le Brigand
All rights reserved. Une production de Brigand © 2010
Music: “Lux Aeterna” by Clint Mansell (feat. Kronos Quartet)