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Brooklyn Is Burning

In the midst of the building boom, a fire epidemic of a kind not seen since 1977 is raging. Do development and arson go hand in hand?

The Terminal Market Fire on the Greenpoint waterfront, May 2006.   

It was a fire seen all over the metropolis, a dark, spreading plume visible even down at City Hall, should the mayor have looked out his window on the bright spring morning of May 2.

Once upon another kind of New York time, the East River waterfront occupied by the Greenpoint Terminal Market was a shipyard. The U.S.S. Monitor, the doughty little ironclad that fought to save the Union against the Merrimack, was built there. Circa 1890, the American Manufacturing Company, then the world’s leading maker of rope, built its factory on the site. In 1913, the company had more than 2,000 workers and was the second-largest employer in Brooklyn.

More recently, the sprawling fourteen-acre complex of seventeen buildings fell into postindustrial disuse, only to be retrofitted into one last bit of Big City functionality: Along with the rats and toxic mold, the terminal became a sub-rosa Art Land for squatters and punks. People with metal objects shoved through their skin moshed the night away to bands with the word death in their names. Skateboarders gleamed giant cubes through the rusting fun house, then thrashed the “sky bridges” over West Street. It was just so Blade Runner.

Now it was all going up in smoke. It would take ten alarms, 80 pieces of FDNY apparatus, and 400 firefighters 36 hours to bring the blaze under control. It was the city’s biggest single fire in more than a decade, the most extensive department operation since 9/11. When it was over, everyone—firemen, cops, Billyburg photo bloggers, and remaining old-line neighborhood residents alike—agreed on one thing: That was no accident.

No way it could have been anything else. Not right here in the middle of the biggest land rush to hit the fabled County of Kings since Barbra Streisand and Bobby Fischer moved to their own separate beats along the same buffed Erasmus hallways, not when piss-yellow Tyvek towers seem to sprout from every lot along the BQE. And is it any news flash that fire, elemental to the natural cycle of things in the primordial forest, is an equally eternal part of the New York real-estate business? That in the grand symphony of the city, the jackhammer and the siren play an indivisible duet?

The Terminal Market was probably the ¬second-largest single property on the erstwhile low-slung, bum-infested Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront, which had in 2005 been rezoned by the Bloomberg government for “density.” “Density” meant the owner, one Joshua Guttman of Lawrence, Long Island, who bought the tottering complex in 2001 for a paltry $25 million, was free to become really, really rich. Indeed, Guttman, who had once commissioned plans for building 2.6 million feet of luxury high-rises on the site, had recently struck a deal to sell the property for $420 million. (Down from the $481 million he asked on Craigslist, a number that no doubt stood out from the usual massage-parlor come-ons.)

But wait! An unexpected fly in this opulent ointment appeared in the form of the preservationist Municipal Art Society, which strongly recommended that the terminal be landmarked as part of New York’s rapidly dwindling industrial heritage. For a developer like Guttman, landmarking is akin to a mirror in the sight of Count Dracula, since changes (which would include bulldozing an old factory and replacing it with a 35-story luxury condo) to a structure so designated would be subject to approval by committees of flinty-eyed, blue-haired lady do-gooders. Guttman’s $420 million deal fell through. It was shortly after that that smoke began to fill the sky over the East River. (There is no evidence that Guttman is in any way involved. “Mr. Guttman has never been charged with any arson-related crimes,” his lawyer, Israel Goldberg, said to the Times.) And, as one heartbroken would-be preservationist from the Municipal Art Society said, “that was pretty much that, because you don’t landmark a hole in the ground.”

The fact is we’re in a burning season. Uniformed Firefighters Association stats say the 2006 “fire season”—the winter months when items like electric blankets and space heaters are in operation—saw an increase in “greater” blazes (of two alarms or more) of 50 percent over the record year 2005.

The market blaze was only one of the many, many “suspicious” fires to hit the Brooklyn development zones of late. Within three months, from December 7, 2005, to February 24, 2006, there were eleven such fires along Prospect Heights’ “Pacific Street Corridor,” formerly home to single-story factories and flat-fix establishments but now part of the realty zone sandwiched between the escalating rent sprawl of Williamsburg and Fort Greene and the proposed Atlantic Yards megaproject to the West.

Location, location, location. The proximity of the afflicted Prospect Heights addresses raises eyebrows: 1033 Pacific, 1084 Pacific, 1198 Pacific, 1440 Pacific. Other fires were around the corner, at 530 and 600 St. Marks Avenue. Two more occurred at 461 and 658 Park Place, with another at nearby 683 Dean Street.

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