The Red Hook Grain Terminal

The Red Hook Grain Terminal hasn’t had a ship dock there in over fifty years; presently, black mould covers its concrete silos like a gloomy shroud.

Its beginnings may be seen in the turn-of-the-century building of the New York State Barge Canal, which at considerable expenditure enlarged and redirected the Erie Canal to accommodate the most recent developments in shipping. The canal was faltering, functioning at barely 10% of its capacity by 1918, and New York City was falling behind the rest of the country in the commerce of grains. A state-run grain elevator on the busy industrial waterfront of Red Hook, Brooklyn, was constructed as a new facility in the Port of New York to revitalise the waterway that was underutilised.

A total of 54 circular silos with a combined capacity of two million bushels make up the majority of the building. A system of moving spouts was used to mechanically lift grain out the ship holds, raise it to the top of the terminal, and then lower it into vertical storage bins. The grain was raised back to the top of the terminal and delivered to departing ships after a purchase caused the grain to fall out of the bins due to gravity.

NYC Red Hook Grain Terminal, abandoned. Will Ellis, 002.
After a rain, a little puddle creates a useful reflecting pool that fits with the location’s tremendous vibe.

NYC Red Hook Grain Terminal, abandoned (Will Ellis 003)
The bottom level has rows and rows of white columns, giving it the appearance of an old temple.

The grain elevator in Red Hook is one of several identical buildings constructed around the nation in the 1920s, most notably in Buffalo, New York. American engineers created a new architectural style, which had a profound impact on European architects, guided by practical considerations and the laws of nature. The American lifts were referred to by Le Corbusier as “the first fruits of a new age” in Towards an Architecture (1928). Their influence may be traced back to the Brutalist movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which dominated post-war rebuilding in Europe with its low-cost, unadorned cement constructions.

Despite being a technical wonder, the Grain Elevator was never a financial success. As grain traffic in the Port of New York rapidly decreased from 90 million bushels per year in the 1930s to less than 2 million in the 1960s, the building soon became out of date in the middle of the 20th century. Due in large part to local union regulations, contractors started to steer clear of the New York Harbour where the cost of unloading grain was three to four times higher than that of rival ports in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.

Will Ellis’s abandoned Red Hook Grain Terminal in New York City
In 1965, the last bushel of grain was removed from the grain terminal.

As shipping techniques changed and went elsewhere in the second half of the 20th century, Red Hook’s industrial waterfront saw a general decline of which the failure of the grain trade made up a minor portion. Many people left the region as the employment dried up, leaving behind a number of empty warehouses and dilapidated docks. One of the city’s earliest public housing developments, the Red Hook Houses housed the majority of Red Hook’s 10,000 inhabitants in 2000. The neighbourhood was infamous for being a crack cocaine hotspot in the 1980s and early 1990s, but things have gotten better over time. Gentrification in the area was slowed down by the absence of significant subways and buses, although indicators are starting to appear more often. Speciality wine bars, cupcake bakeries, artisan brewers and a large IKEA store that built in 2007 on the site of a former graving dock may all be found on Van Brunt Street today.

Over the years, a number of reuse suggestions have been made in relation to the Grain Terminal, however none of the ideas have really resulted in advancements at the location. The structure is located on the grounds of the Gowanus Industrial Park, which also has a bus station and a container port as current industrial tenants. The owner is now seeking clearance for a contentious proposal to use landfill to expand his property into the bay using a mixture of concrete and hazardous sludge scraped from the Gowanus Canal’s bottom.

The Red Hook Grain Terminal watches over the Henry Street Basin like a sorrowful ghost on a widow’s walk as disputes over the property’s destiny are raging.

A word of caution: security personnel monitor the Grain Terminal’s grounds and are tough on trespassers.

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