The Ancient Grocery Store on Second Avenue

The ancient grocery store on Second Avenue stands apart from the tide of modernity and “progress.” To step inside is to be jolted back to another time, or at least stunned by the fact that such a relic even exists. Not long ago, even well after their time, such places were plentiful around New York. Inertia, indifference, and a dearth of capital spared them the fate of the wrecking ball.

The ancient grocery store on Second Avenue is near a hospital and surrounded by factories, warehouses, and a few side streets with residential buildings. The store inhabits a cozy universe reminiscent of a simpler time, ordered by the neighborhood’s subdued rhythms and a familiar cast of characters. It is local color in tangible form.

The ancient grocery store on Second Avenue is the exception that proves the rule: all good things must come to an end. Sadly, it may be a testament to the inevitability of the bulldozer’s arrival, for today the developer’s indelicate hand routinely lays waste to wide swaths once teeming with powerful memories in the form of old, weathered structures.

The Ancient Grocery Store on Second Avenue is a quiet rebuke to “development,” “cost effectiveness,” and all the other euphemisms for demolition and the obliteration of history. But hey, what’re you gonna do? Nostalgia don’t pay the bills. (You there, with the anti-gentrification T-shirt, GET A FRIGGIN’ JOB!) Impassioned pleas for preserving the past are often heard from people oblivious to economic realities, whose arguments amount to quaint attitudes about quaint things. Still, that doesn’t make the onslaught of turbo-commerce and the plowing under of things rich in character any less depressing, nor does it give pride of place to those philistines in the real estate business who, in the name of "optimizing investment capital,” perpetuate the worst socio-aesthetic crimes.

The ancient grocery store on Second Avenue, radiating wistfulness and charm, is an edifice to the way things were. Maybe you can't put a price on something with that kind of value, but you can probably put a price on what it would cost to preserve it. I don't have that kind of money, nor do I know anyone who does. The ones who do are busy spending it on other things, like “development.”


Piled to the Rafters

City fringes, summer kept
the plow’s accomplice, road salt waits
for snowy season’s call to serve


The Name Says it All

The unintentionally funny generic names of a few small manufacturing companies on Second Avenue suggest a certain immigrant earnestness, and lead me to believe that the quality of their craftsmanship is inversely proportional to their verbal creativity.

Brooklyn was once the fourth largest industrial center in the U.S., employing about 600,000 people in manufacturing jobs right after World War II. Today it’s less than a tenth of that number. But industry lives in Brooklyn, which is obvious from any weekday stroll through places like Gowanus, Greenpoint, and Sunset Park. Artisans, tradesmen, and laborers flood these quarters, representing a manufacturing boomlet driven by a steady influx of both skilled and unskilled labor from all over the world.

To me—a man of the keyboard, a “knowledge worker”—the surviving spirit of Brooklyn’s once imposing industrial economy is intoxicating; the landscape of working factories intermingled with copious decay strikes me as some kind of exotic dreamscape. But whenever I trawl industrial Brooklyn, with my camera and notebook and my ethereal concerns, I am constantly reminded of the working man's enduring place in the real world.


My Canoe Trip on the Gowanus Canal

The Gowanus Canal is a strong Grey God. When she takes you in her arms you know that you have been kissed and spanked—and then you are kissed and spanked again.

—Craig Mullen

Recently I took a canoe trip on the Gowanus Canal, courtesy of Ellie Hanlon, captain of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club. The Dredgers is a nonprofit group whose mission is to introduce New Yorkers to this singular waterway and provide education related to the canal and bordering shoreline neighborhoods. I couldn’t imagine a better guide than Hanlon. She has a near encyclopedic knowledge of the canal and its history. Also, she can discourse at length on key environmental issues and never for a second is it tedious, because she deftly ties it to the immediate surroundings. I’m talking real-time education. Most importantly, Hanlon is passionate about the canal, which she calls the “jewel of Brooklyn.” She is simply a force of nature, like some combination of Rachel Carson, Don King, and Hilary Duff; Hanlon is to the Gowanus Canal what Hemingway was to Key West.

The view from beneath the Union Street Bridge

Gear and electrical system under the Third Street Bridge

The banks of ruin

Canoeing on the Gowanus affords one a matchless perspective of the canal and its environs. To float atop the waterway and actually move through the forbidding industrial zone is to realize the poverty of the peripheral, street-level view. For me the proximity was intoxicating. I passed within inches of crumbling bulkheads I had previously only seen from a distance and luxuriated in the rich tapestry of decay—the unique patterns of damage, the dense mesh of flotsam and jetsam. I gazed in fascination at the undersides of bridges over which I had walked dozens of times, oblivious to the intricate mechanics beneath.

“The Gowanus Canal is magic,” says Hanlon, and I completely agree. I know we’re not the only ones who feel this way. The canal evokes strong feelings within many different types of people, which attests to its complex aura. It is at once indisputably real (like the concrete plants that surround it) and deeply metaphorical, both symbolizing and embodying essential truths—about Brooklyn and the world. And snaking within this tangle of the tangible and ethereal is aesthetics, for the canal is a visually arresting tableau, whose capacity to inspire shows vividly that it contains multitudes.

A canoe on the Gowanus is conspicuous and Hanlon likes to shout “Ahoy!” to curious landlubbers. More than a few people who noticed us made some crack about falling into the canal. (“You’ll have to cut off any body part that touches the water.”) The workers we passed were baffled by our presence and some thought we were daft, though it was all good-natured. Most of the employees of the factories, oil companies, and other businesses along the water probably see the canal as something altogether mundane, with no merit aside from being the place where they earn their living. And for them the idea of aestheticizing such a place, which is to say appreciating its non-commercial aspects, is completely alien. But this is as it should be; they are busy doing the real work that needs to be done there, playing a key role in making the Gowanus a functioning canal. They are integral to the diverse ecosystem that gives the place its character.

Paddling through the fetid water, surrounded by petrochemical odors, it seems unlikely that anything could live in such a toxic environment, but life is all around the canal. On my trip I saw marine life (mostly dead, though), waterfowl, and various indigenous species, like the Coney Island White Fish (used condoms floating on the water). It must be a tough life, though. This was made clear by the sight of a woeful duck in the 11th Street Basin (next to Lowe’s), sick and sluggish amidst the sludge.

The nature of man is to pervert nature. Witness the signature products of this tendency, the industrial revolution and nuclear weapons, where machines—those extensions of man, those alloys of organic and inorganic elements—were put in the service of further “taming” the environment and doing battle with other men. The price of modernity, which some call “progress,” is contamination. There may be ideal ways to handle the toxins essential to industrial processes if not avoid them altogether, but the workings of industry have proven these ideals to be impractical. Businesses and governments take shortcuts to maximize profits or achieve quotas, or ignorance rules and we don’t realize until it’s too late just what it is that makes us sick and how. Behold the Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn’s own piece of this inglorious mosaic of pollution, rotting infrastructure, and the decline of U.S. manufacturing. It ain’t pretty, but in its own way, it’s quite beautiful.


The Iron Triangle (A Road Trip to Queens)

Willets Point, the industrial area near Shea Stadium, is also known as the Iron Triangle. It’s a dense cluster of auto-parts and repair shops lining two narrow, mostly unpaved strips gouged by huge potholes that quickly turn into huge puddles with even the gentlest of rains. The area reeks of toxins, that distinct petrochemical smell so prevalent around similarly contaminated environments (like the Gowanus Canal). The whole place seems strange and anachronistic. With its muddy streets, hardscrabble atmosphere, and mostly immigrant workforce, the Iron Triangle is like a slice of the third world plopped down in New York City.

The mayor’s been making big noises about uprooting the gritty businesses of Willets Point and turning the area “green.” That’s all well and good, but if the area does become “a model for sustainability and environmental stewardship,” where else will you be able find such a bountiful selection of headlight covers? And needless to say, the business owners of the Iron Triangle are none too happy about their future prospects in this potentially “dynamic center of life, energy, and economic activity.”

[The mayor] said it would not be hard for the city to make a case for acquiring the privately owned land through eminent domain . . . After the mayor’s announcement, the city held a hearing . . . Amid loud applause, local business owners made it clear that they did not intend to leave without a fight. Outside the [hearing] a couple hundred people marched with placards reading, “Hands off my business.”

The mayor, dispensing high-flown rhetoric from his seat of power and supported by moneyed interests, projects the aura of a visionary, especially compared to some scrap dealer entrenched in the Iron Triangle. That place is strictly old economy, hardly viable according to modern-day notions of “progress” and “development.” If a battle of wills is in the offing, it seems pretty clear even at this early stage who’s going to come out ahead.

Some Iron Triangle businesses have been there for generations, and however much of an eyesore the place may be, it’s certainly pulsating. It has the feel of a close-knit business community, defined by its familiar faces, familiar rhythms, and some sort of shared purpose (which, for the many newly arrived immigrants working there, amounts to basic survival). The plan to transform the area may already be in the works, but life there goes on. The ice cream and water vendors still peddle their wares daily, weaving around the puddles and gingerly-moving traffic, and the many barker-like figures still rush every car that rolls into the ragged bazaar. If you find this sort of thing appealing, visit the Iron Triangle now, before “development” renders it a pale memory.

Source: New York Times (5/2/07)


Ikea in Red Hook: Globalization Comes to Brooklyn

After years of controversy Ikea has finally arrived in Red Hook, at the site of the former Todd Shipyard. The store looks just like every other one in the chain, but the lively waterfront and the gritty charms of the neighborhood, with its profusion of smokestacks and industrial buildings, give this “big box” a unique frame. I’d be surprised if there’s a more picturesque Ikea setting anywhere in the world.

Come for the furniture, stay for the nautical history

The mercantile behemoth has transformed the grounds behind the store into “Erie Basin Park,” a combination esplanade/open air museum with no shortage of relaxing vantage points. The six-acre park offers a gull’s eye of the waterfront, especially the heavily trafficked barge port across the basin, in the bend of the hook-shaped peninsula from which the neighborhood gets its name.

You can also see The Lady poking up over one of the squat 19th century buildings on a nearby pier, as a steady stream of tugboats and water taxis pass by. Nice touches abound, like spanking new concrete piers that end right before dilapidated remains of the old piers; ropes and bollards and other shipping tools in artful displays; and the visual showpieces of the whole property, those towering cranes—object reminders of shipbuilding’s massive scale.

It was a great experience, transcendent even—until I started shopping.

True to form, Ikea has domesticated the waterfront, substituting a consumer-friendly theme park for a once authentic nautical landscape. But I have to admit, it was a great experience, transcendent even—until I started shopping.

I was right to save the worst for last: two laps around that inhuman sprawl of a store, only to leave empty handed (I couldn’t find what I came for). Never has the word “Exit” seemed so alluring. I’m sure this says more about me than Ikea. I’ve always dreaded shopping—even more than the typical male—especially in large indoor spaces. When I was young and my mother took me to the mall, I would start to feel nauseous before we even got there.

Ikea is a wonder of branding and systemization. More than just a strong business concept, it is the blue-and-yellow face of globalization. The manner in which it has planted itself in Red Hook, integrating vestiges of the old economy—in effect using local color to sell its sleek products—is likely a sign of things to come. Whether you call it “exploitation,” “gentrification,” or “progress," Brooklyn is approaching the brave new world and will soon enter it completely, either by willful passage or dragged kicking and screaming.