On 3rd Ave and 1st St in Gowanus sits a derelict redbrick power plant that once generated power for most of Brooklyn’s rail transit. The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company that operated the plant throughout its useful life was formed in 1896 and by 1900 owned all of the steam railroad, elevated lines, and streetcars in Brooklyn. The coal-fired plant was conveniently located on the Gowanus Canal where a 1.5 ton clamshell bucket would hoist coal from barges into a receiving hopper. The coal conveyor was capable of moving 125 tons per hour, and provisions were made in the design to double even that capacity. The power station consisted of two main buildings. The now-demolished smoke-stacked building to the north held the boilers and coal storage above that, and to the south is the dynamo and engine building that still stands today, though looking dramatically different inside from its days of operation. Despite the building’s solid industrial build, much of the interior is succumbing to water damage in a slow but relentless decay.
Sometime within the last decade the plant was discovered by runaways who formed a massive squatter community. The group was allegedly civil and had strict rules barring drug use and violence, but it didn’t take long before heroine and other hard drugs worked their way into the scene. In 2006, the Daily News ran an article on the powerhouse and “Straps,” one of two twenty-something year old males who was mainlining heroine as they were being interviewed. He said, “I wake up around 11, go to lower Manhattan to panhandle, drink too much, get fucked up on drugs and go back to the Bat Cave.”
The Central Power Station, known to many as the “Bat Cave,” earned its name from the bats that supposedly lived there before people called it home. The Daily News reported that the squatter’s community was “consumed with a decadent drug culture and vicious fighting.” Squatters there claimed a homeless man was thrown to his death from a window and a junkie who overdosed was carted out to the street in a wheelchair. Once the property owners got word of the underground community, the party was over and everyone was evicted.
Since then, the activity level has been much less but is far from eliminated. On a recent visit with a friend, I crossed paths with a photographer for Vandalog, also with a friend. There’s not a more diverse underground street art canvas I know of in New York City so bumping into a writer/photographer of a well-respected street art blog was naturally the best thing ever. I got the backstory on the Bat Cave’s street art and graffiti scene and was pointed out many pieces I never picked out, even after 6 visits of staring at the memorizing walls. The Bat Cave features pieces by Swampy, kuma, PHONOH, RESKEW, Dart, Never, You Go Girl, Read, inkhead, Goal, Rate and countless others. They all seamlessly blend together to form a single masterpiece, changing with time.
On a different visit, I was surprised to find someone living there. Her name was Kate and although she may not fit the criteria of the typical “bat caver,” because she doesn’t do heroin, she nonetheless had been roughing it there for 2 months. Kate is a citizen of both Scotland and Canada and had been travelling in the U.S. for several months, camping at each destination, and getting around by hitchhiking. When she came to Manhattan though, there was nowhere to camp so Brooklyn was her next move. She hopped on a Brooklyn-bound F train, spotted the powerhouse from the 87-foot high viaduct and knew she found home for the summer. She was pretty soundly set up and managed to find a spot free of old syringes and other things one might not find ideal to dwell in. She told me that raccoons were living in the beams, which are hollow lattice girders, and that they traveled from floor to floor through them. Kate suspended a food box on a bungee cord to keep the raccoons from stealing it, but she still fed them often. This ended up making them comfortable enough to casually come out in total daylight. When I asked her how often people came inside, she told me not so often but a few days earlier a group of guys came in to paint the newly added “END STOP & FRISK · HANDS OFF THE KIDS,” paint job on the façade. She said she was trying to sleep and that “they were making a ridiculous amount of noise for a few hours.” Then a week before that (mid August-ish) she said about 50 people came and threw a glitter party on the first floor! Judging by the hanging bicycle installation on the second floor and the countless other anomalies throughout the infamous power plant, I think this place would provide very entertaining surveillance footage, especially from years past.
Today the defunct 4-story plant has an endless array of artifacts from past dwellers. Many of the smaller rooms populating the perimeter of the interior contain mounds of filth that up close reveal stockpiles of syringes, creepy stuffed animals and hundreds of food wrappers. The walls in each of these rooms are covered with posters and hastily scribbled messages, mostly of the authors’ contempt for the world. A handful were quite funny but the vast majority were in bad taste—at least providing insight into the circumstances of those calling this place home, if nothing else. Getting out of these desolate dorm-like rooms, it was the main engine expanse that is the real attraction of the Bat Cave. What can only be described as the Sistine Chapel on crack cocaine, the wide-open space is naturally lit from massive arched windows just as the Sistine, however the works are not on the ceiling but dominate every inch of wall space. The 30-foot high ceilings instead are set aside for a sea of yellow sound-deadening panels that once muffled the enormous power generating behemoths below.
In a radical contrast of setting, the suspicious powerhouse is only blocks from $1 million brownstones at the edge of Park Slope. The powerhouse will likely either be readapted for residential or office use in coming years, but after reading through all of the building’s contamination concerns listed in the Gowanus Comprehensive Community Plan, it seems demolition may also be a legitimate outcome. The power station, along with the rest of Gowanus, has been on the radar of developers for some time now but in March of 2010 that changed when the canal was federally declared a Superfund Site. Regardless of the “avoid at all costs” designation, with Whole Foods popping up on 3rd and 3rd, the gap between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens will inevitably close into one enormous stroller district dubbed ParkWanus Gardens… All kidding aside though, the negative externalities of over a century of heavy industry have ironically worked to protect the district’s identity. But I feel even as a Superfund, the location is too key to be left just another industrial wasteland.
Explore it while it’s still real.