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The Many Lives of Brooklyn's Industry City


P1050618Where Gumbo Was #348

I was a child in the 1950s when I first became aware of Industry City, or, as we all called it then, Bush Terminal. Traveling on the Gowanus Expressway to visit Brooklyn relatives, we always knew we were halfway there when we passed the huge buildings next to the highway. In those days, they were surrounded also with businesses offering propellor repair, ship's supplies and marine engineering.


But none of that told me that behind the big buildings with the big sign were blocks of piers belonging to the terminal, loading and unloading cargo from all over for storage or processing in those buildings, or that the complex included a railroad system that could handle up to 50,000 carloads a day—or that it was, in fact, the birthplace of the modern industrial park.


All that I learned later, long after that first, or perhaps it was already the second, life of the huge complex was over. Long after it had fallen into disrepair, lost most of its tenants, had its piers filled in, most of its railroad removed. Only, in fact, after developers with a vision not that different from the original builder's, had taken it over and given it a new life.

Congratulations to George G, who was this week's only puzzle solver!


My photos here are from a recent visit to a place that now features a truly eclectic mix of public amenities, warehouses, retail, small manufacturing, start-up and pop-up businesses and a variety of food to buy and eat, but places where it is made to be sold, served and eaten elsewhere. And even a new venue for art and music. Not a bad comeback for a hundred-and-some year old idea!


bush portraitThe whole story starts with Irving T. Bush, a story in himself. Born into a wealthy family that owned an oil refinery on Brooklyn's Sunset Park waterfront, he joined his father in ocean yacht races at 18, sailed a yacht around the world at 19, inherited half his father's fortune at 21, and soon ran a company that owned the rights to market Edison's early movie system, the kinetoscope, overseas.

But after opening the first European kinetoscope parlor in London in 1894, he walked away from the business and began planning to turn the property where the refinery had operated into the world's first, and for many years largest, integrated transportation, warehousing and manufacturing facility. At its peak, over 25,000 people worked at what came to be called Bush Terminal.


MID137-bush_bldgaThe pitch to win tenants was large new buildings with open spaces, unlike the crowded smaller lofts in Manhattan and other parts of Brooklyn; a direct connection to railroads serving Long Island and reaching the mainland through Queens; piers where ships could bring raw materials or finished goods and then take them away, and, not least, proximity to related businesses.

Bush had another ace up his sleeve: He had a 30-story neo-Gothic tower built near Manhattan's Times Square; Bush Tower offered free office and showroom space to Bush Terminal businesses so they could meet and trade with the out-of-town buyers who came to the city to buy goods for stores and factories across the country.

bush terminal bldg

The company also built itself a landmark office building in the heart of Wall Street. It drew rave reviews as a building, but not a few criticisms that a Jacobean manor house was out of place in an area that was filling with skyscrapers.

Bush eventually extended the building by merging it with two behind it, which were redone to match the 'manor.' Sadly, today, a glass box of no distinction is on the spot, housing the New York Clearing House.

During World War I, much of Bush Terminal was used as a Navy base, and its lofts and railroads were busy making, loading and shipping supplies for the war and for the Allies. As with many other places, women got jobs previously not available, including operating positions on the Bush Terminal Railroad. 


Bush Terminal survived the Depression, although with a bankruptcy along the way, and continued on after World War II, but the postwar years weren't kind to the company. First, manufacturing started to shift out of urban areas, then cargo began shifting to larger and eventually containerized ships, and the growth of long-haul trucking started to cut into the advantages of its rail connections.

The industrial feel of the space is evident almost everywhere, and is not just decoration. It is an active small manufacturing district. On the other hand, there are these two elevators. Yes, appearance to the contrary, they are working freight elevators!


By the 1970s and 80s, large spaces were vacant, and some of the outer buildings were torn down, on the south for a shopping mall, on the north to build a federal prison. The piers were filled in (today, there's a park). The northern railyard closed, its tracks on Second Avenue paved over.

Industry City still mixes wholesale, manufacturing and distribution in with on-the-spot retail. LiLac Chocolates, above, is a long-time Brooklyn name; Colson Patisserie, below, has its headquarters in Belgium; its Industry City facility bakes for its two Brooklyn stores and for gourmet markets around the city. Sahadi, a long-time staple of Brooklyn's Arab community on Atlantic Avenue packs, ships and sells nationally from Industry City.


New life came in the new century, with a variety of projects that added artists' studios, facilities for technology companies and more, but by 2012, a third of the space was still empty, and only 2,500 people were working there. That's the year new developers bought the Industry City portion of the Bush property and started the renovations that have revived the area since. By 2017, they were already talking expansion, although nothing has come of that yet.

A small sample of the variety of eating places to be found, along with a cookie store, a Berlin-style döner counter and many more.

Ends Meat, above, calls itself a 'whole animal salumeria' that uses everything it can; Brooklyn Kitchen wants you to 'Eat Real Food' instead of packaged. It calls itself a 'recreational cooking school.'  The very cool retro pen vendor is theirs.


Among the complex's more unusual tenants is a rooftop facility run by the Hospital for Special Surgery as a training center for the Brooklyn Nets NBA team. The building courtyards have been turned into outdoor spaces for music, for eating goodies from the many food stalls or just for chilling, complete with art on the wall and (seasonally) pumpkins and skeletons.

The inner corridors around the food court got their share of spooky as well, but the outdoor displays were the best.


With all the different things to do, see and eat, a map is definitely needed, and it's available all over, showing all the public-facing activities. Meanwhile, upstairs, down the hall...all kinds of business is going on.


And a lot of that business is the reason (other than style) for both the industrial-chic look of many of the spaces, but also the unique elevated sidewalks which are actually at truck-floor height to make loading and unloading easy.


Sometimes, the large and vivid graphics here and there leave you wondering. The first one below is clearly one of the commissioned artworks; is the one below that art or waymarking? 


Games for kids, and not kids: A large room filled with ping-pong tables, Skee-Ball machines and more offers unlimited games for a single price. And Big Alice Barrel Room offers a performance space, art exhibits and an on-site brewery.


Worth a visit? Worth a few. You could spend the day without running out of things to do or buy. N and R trains on the subway will take you there, as well a a number of buses. And you'll never starve!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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