View Full Version : Scary fire in Brooklyn

05-03-2006, 03:14 PM
I'm surprised this isn't a bigger story, even though I guess it is strictly local news. There was an enormous fire on the Brooklyn waterfront yesterday, just a couple of blocks from where I used to live:


Check out the pictures. Scary stuff.

Forgive me for being a little self-indulgent, but I'm going to post something I wrote elsewhere, because this is something about which I feel very strongly and I think there are a few people here who might be interested in this.

Greenpoint, the northwesternmost neighborhood in Brooklyn, is a weird, wonderful place. Initially farmland settled by the Dutch and largely cut off from Manhattan and other Brooklyn neighborhoods even as close as Williamsburg (the next neighborhood south), Greenpoint took off in the mid- to late-19th century when it became a hotbed of warehouses mostly making rope, potter, and steel (the Monitor, among many other ships, was built there). It was a place for the working class, the Polish, Italian and Hispanics, but rich in resources and in a prime location (essentially the meeting point of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan). Over time, the place fell apart environmentally, due partly to the industry going on there pre-EPA and mostly to an oil spill in the 1950s that was covered up by the government for years. The spill involved approximately 17 million gallons of oil into Newtown Creek, the little body of water that separates Queens and Brooklyn and feeds into the East River and so obviously in a highly populated area. By contrast, the Exxon spill in Alaska, which we all remember so well, was between 8-9 million gallons in a largely remote, unpopulated area. Nothing was done about the Brooklyn spill at all until 1990, and it's still the most polluted body of water in America. Now consider that this is RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF NEW YORK CITY. Cancer rates in Greenpoint have been high for years, and since the neighborhood is still largely Polish, self-contained, and heavily working-class (though not without a recent influx of artists and hipsters), the information regarding the extent of the damage there is kept as much under wraps as it possibly can be and few people who live there are informed enough to seriously fight it. It's one reason I was in favor of the NYC Olympics -- the Village was slated to be built right across the Creek in Queens, and extensive, well-researched plans were drawn up for a massive clean-up of the area.

Add to the oil spill the fact that rope-making and ship building were no longer raking in the big money or bringing in the big jobs, and the neighborhood simply fell apart along the river, industrially.

But Greenpoint has remained a vibrant and eerily beautiful community, a safe, family-oriented area, and a hotbed of life in the midst of a place that is, unbeknownst to most people who live there, environmentally terrifying. To walk up Manhattan Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Greenpoint, during the day is to see a textbook New York Community: family-owned bakeries and groceries, dollar stores that mark purchases in a ledger and add up the total on a calculator, old men walking their dogs and greeting each other in Polish on the street, mothers picking up their children from Polish-speaking nursery schools and stopping at the park to watch the Hasids play baseball with the Hispanics under the shadow of the Empire State Building before everybody goes back to their houses that are aluminum siding on the outside, 19-century architecture and plumbing on the inside. There are about four or five large Polish dance halls, all with the name "Princess" or "Palace" in the title, and nary a Starbucks in sight. And to walk along the river at night is an equally unique but completely different experience: silent and deserted, with empty warehouses and a few still-operating power plants along the side, and yet somehow calming and gorgeous in its own way, with the old bridges heading over the water to Queens and the Manhattan skyline still looming right overhead.

A year ago, New York City agreed to terms in the development of the north Brooklyn waterfront, meaning mostly Greenpoint with a bit of spillover into Williamsburg. While my initial reaction to the development of such historic places is never good, I knew that it was foolish to think that such a prime location would be ignored forever, and I was happy about the plans they chose, which provided for cleanup of the water, copious amounts of green space, and rules requiring a higher percentage of low-income housing for each story added onto skyscrapers (the buildings there now are largely around a hundred years old or more, and few go above three or four stories. Forty will be jarring.) I don't know how they plan to deal with the inevitable transporation problems, and I do think it's impossible for the neighborhood to retain its true (from north to south) Polish/Italian/Puerto Rican/Hasidic character in the face of such development. If a Banana Republic crops up, my heart will be forever broken. But it was, to some degree, inevitable.

My hope was that some of the original warehouses would be able to be retained and converted. It is my understanding that many of them are in good enough shape to do so, and some are intended for such purposes. They are extremely meaningful in the history of Greenpoint, the very reason the neighborhood developed as it did. And some of them are quite beautiful architecturally, not to mention built to be converted for upscale condo living, with wide-open space inside and with incomparable views of the Manhattan skyline.

But, as it turns out, why would you invest your money in such a forward-thinking, historically respectful manner when you can just set fire to your own buildings for insurance money? Why convert a neighborhood in a safe, considerate manner when you can put a neighborhood of working class Poles and young artist-types, already at health risks, in the path of a 16-alarm fire and all the smoke and flying bricks that go with it, not even five years after they were right down the river from the same thing? My blood is absolutely boiling. Innocent until proven guilty and all that, but whatever. This guy did it, and he knew what he was doing, and not only that, but his lawyer then tries to put the blame on squatters. It's very apparent that this was arson. Who's more likely to set fire to a set of warehouses: a group of poor people who may or may not use the buildings as their only home, or a guy who stands to earn literally millions from the deal and suffer not at all? A guy who, for the record, had the same thing happen under suspicious circumstances to another of his Brooklyn buildings two years ago? Tough one. Real tough.

I hope they get this guy.

Here are some pictures of my beloved Greenpoint, good and bad:

and what I gather is its homepage, with some good photos and a wonderful "I remember Greenpoint" section

and here is the homepage of Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to saving, among other things, Newtown Creek:

and a short piece from PBS on an organization of underpriveleged kids who go to the boat school in northern Brooklyn and are trying to save Newtown Creek as well. I cry every time I watch this, by the way, it is well worth watching:

EDIT: There are many links to photos in these two posts:

My friends are there and they say it is still going pretty strongly.