The Grain Terminal
On the far side of Red Hook Park’s soccer and baseball fields, locked-up behind a fence made of enormous concrete blocks, lays the last vestige of Red Hook’s industrial grandeur: The New York Port Authority Grain Terminal.
This massive 429-foot long and 12-story high beige-colored fortress was built in 1922 for the purpose of washing, drying and storing grain from the Great Lakes, before the grain was loaded onto freight ships and delivered to breweries, distilleries and flour mills. Ultimately, the terminal was built to invigorate New York State’s Canal System and compete with railroad-owned stationary elevators.
Nevertheless, NYC’s uncompetitive labor costs and storage disputes forced the Port Authority to cease operations in 1965, after 40 years of under-use. Since then, the grain elevator has sat vacant and majestic on Gowanus Bay’s waterfront, alongside the Erie Basin, dominating Red Hook’s urban landscape.
City officials and engineers refer to the Grain Terminal as the Magnificent Mistake. However, Red Hook’s inhabitants affectionately term it one of two distinct names: “The Lady Finger,” due to its unique structure which consists of a series of 54 joined concrete semi-circular silos; or simply, the “Elevator.”
NYCitizen and I decided to pay the Lady a visit. That Sunday, the park was packed with baseball and futbol players, picnickers and street vendors. I asked a carnitas taco vendor if he knew how to get closer to the Grain Terminal. His first reaction was to tell me that the building was under government surveillance and that the coast guard was watching it as it was located right in front of an oil refinery on the other side of the Erie Canal. However, while heating up a stack of tortillas, he also told me that the easiest way to climb the concrete barricade was to scale a tree near the baseball field’s bleachers, and jump over the fence. Right…
A more realistic and less hazardous way seemed to be through the bus depot alongside the Grain Terminal. As we approached the main entrance, the security guy stopped us and asked for the reason of our visit. I said that we would like to take some pictures of the Elevator. He retorted that it was a private property but that we were welcome to do so…from the sidewalk.
As we walked along the concrete blocks desperately looking for an access point, we realized that the enormous barrier had suddenly transformed into a 3-foot high hurdle. The last and only obstacle left was a duo of State Park officers sitting on a bench, watching a baseball game in the shade. After waiting for them to leave for a couple of minutes, I realized that these two were here to stay. I decided to approach them and ask candidly if we could jump over the hurdle to snap a couple of images. Despite an obvious negative first response, my insistence won them over and the female officer told us grudgingly that they don’t want any problems. We could do so at own risks, but that they never had this conversation with us. As we dashed to the closed-off section of the Grain Terminal, the two officers decided to begin patrolling around the park.
At this point, we were only halfway there, as we still needed to get inside the actual Terminal. After running between cargo containers, we decided to stop in the transformer house and study our options. From there, the terminal looked completely hermetic. Concrete chunks blocked the doors, and windows were obstructed by metal bars and barbed wire. Graffiti on an oxidized beam gave us the gist of the challenge ahead: “How do we get in?”
Approaching one of the windows, I noticed more graffiti on the ground floor and thought, “If there’s graffiti, there must be a way to get in there.” After wandering around the building for a while and a round of seemingly impossible physical contortions, we were finally inside the Grain Terminal.
The ground floor, which seems to be the warehouse floor, looked like an old Greek temple, with immense concrete columns, long passages and adornments created by street writers. Loading railways were still fixed on the ground. Three dilapidated metal staircases were located on the Erie Canal side of the building. We climbed the middle one to access the following floor which happened to be the top-floor. A grain terminal is simply a large, empty box, where huge concrete silos separate the ground floor from the top-floor.
The penthouse was a huge open space; a massive loft filled with old machinery, boasting an unbeatable panoramic view of the surroundings. A bunch of no-smoking signs were still hanging here and there. I’ve read recently that grain elevators are actually explosion-proof, due to the highly flammable nature of the grain. As we investigated the top level, we zigzagged between large holes in the floor with just the right diameter to swallow a human body. These holes were actually located right on the top of the silos, and hence allowed the grain to fall from the top to the bottom, just like the sand in an hour-glass.
At both extremities of the top-floor, staircases led to the Elevator’s tower used to lift the grain. We decided to start with the south tower, which seemed bigger from the park. The tower is a complex metallic structure filled with all sorts of geared traction machinery and empty lockers. The oppressing silence was only broken by pigeons, apparently disturbed by our visit, and by the wind filtering in through the black metal walls.
At the end the climb, a hatch on the ceiling revealed an incredible 360-degree view of New York City. After the Williamsburg Savings Bank’s clock tower in downtown Brooklyn, it is probably the highest point in the borough. From the rooftop of the south elevator tower (about 68 meters high) Brooklyn looked like a miniature replica of itself.
The Terminal gave a full frontal view of Lady Liberty, the busy NY Harbor, Jersey City and the Verrazano Bridge. The old Kentile Floor sign, hung above the elevated Prospect Expressway where cars and trucks look like Hot Wheels toys. On the foreground, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges guided our eyes to the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings in mid-town and the Citi Bank tower in Long Island City.
Seagulls, helicopters and planes from JKF Airport soared over our heads as we sat on the roof, absorbed by the sunset and the silence that exists only in the city’s cacophony.
We left the “Lady Finger” as the light begun to disappear. On our way back to the car, a black Ford which looked just like an under-cover vehicle stopped in front of us…though it was just a lost driver asking for his way to Ikea. Funny enough, the Swedish furniture retailer was constructed two years ago at the mercy of two other Red Hook industrial history symbols, the Revere Sugar Refinery and the Todd Shipyard, which were torn down to give rise to the global giant.
As of today, The Port Authority is trying to sell 159 acres of land in the Gowanus Bay area, including the 43-acre site of the Grain Elevator. As the barren Terminal faded into the distance, I could not help but hope that the Grain Elevator would not end-up being recycled into a Hilton Hotel like in Akron, Ohio, or into luxurious condominium complexes like the plan the city has for the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg.
See full photo narrative here.
Words, images and video by Charles le Brigand
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All rights reserved © Production de Brigand. Brooklyn 2010
Music: A Flower’s Shade by Eduardo Cintron