50 Favorite Places #3
Panoramic views, running paths, industrial history, birds: Bush Terminal Park checks pretty much all of my boxes, except perhaps street art and food, and those are readily found nearby. (I’ve written about the first here, and future “favorite places” will cover the second, so stay tuned.)
Brooklyn industry once powered the nation, and Bush Terminal once powered Brooklyn industry. It’s named after Irving T. Bush, a statue of whom gazes benevolently from the former Bush Terminal Company building at the end of 43rd St, just outside the park’s gates. Some years ago, when Eric was a young field examiner for the National Labor Relations Board, his work brought him into contact with Bush’s nephew, a union-side labor lawyer whose name was also Irving T. Bush . . . so I guess I’m related to someone who knew someone who was related to Bush Terminal’s founder. Small world, huh?
In the 1890s, Bush (we’re back to Irving T. the elder now), having inherited a parcel of waterfront property from his father – a minor oil tycoon and major yachtsman who died suddenly after ingesting too much wolf’s bane, because honestly, you can’t make this shit up – began to develop it as a distribution complex. Bush’s great insight was the value of integration, be it of different functions (freight, warehousing, manufacturing) or of different modes of transportation (ships, railroads). From a single pier and warehouse served by one railroad engine and a towboat, the Bush Terminal Company eventually spanned the Brooklyn waterfront from 28th St in the north to 51st St in the south, a mile-long expanse of warehouses, factory lofts, docks and railroad tracks. By the 1920s, the complex employed some 35,000 people – loading and unloading ships and railroad cars; sewing, printing, packing, fabricating and assembling; moving goods into and out of warehouses; and generally servicing and administering the giant operation, which had its own Chamber of Commerce and a private system to adjudicate disputes, with Irving T. Bush serving as the highest tribunal. (Interested in even more Bush Terminal history? Click here for a railroad aficionado’s account, or check out its lengthy Wikipedia entry here. For biographical detail on Irving T. the elder, there’s this fascinating blog post from the NYC Department of Records and Information Services.)
Commandeered by the U.S. Navy in World War I as a supply base (the vast majority of the clothing, food and ammunition send to U.S. soldiers in Europe originated there), Bush Terminal also played a supporting role World War II. By that time, Bush had assisted in the development of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, half a mile further south, which would become the largest supply base for the fight against fascism and the point of departure for 3.5 million U.S. soldiers. Bush Terminal remained under Bush’s ownership, but like most U.S. industry, it converted to the war effort. And with the Brooklyn Army Terminal bursting at the seams, Bush Terminal’s warehouses and office buildings provided the U.S. Army with additional space along the Brooklyn waterfront.
Bush died in 1948, just as his complex was coming under heightened competitive pressure from the growth of giant container ports in areas with more space and cheaper land. In 1956, a dock several blocks north of the present-day park was the site of a horrific explosion that my running buddy Keith Williams has written about movingly (link behind the New York Times’ paywall). Ten people were killed, and almost 250 injured, when sparks from a worker’s blowtorch ignited a pile of foam rubber and then, as the flames from the initial fire spread, detonated 37,000 pounds of industrial explosive stored nearby. Steel beams and other projectiles flew half a mile in every direction, and a mushroom cloud rose above the waterfront. Residents of Cold War-era Brooklyn thought, not unreasonably, that this was the end – not just of Bush Terminal, but of the world.
The actual end was slower. Freight patterns changed, manufacturers left for lower-cost regions, “Brooklyn” and “industry” were no longer synonymous. Bush Terminal Company filed for bankruptcy in 1971 and went out of business a year later, its waterfront properties acquired by the city. Some fell into disuse and disrepair, some retained tenants and continued to support a scruffy but vibrant manufacturing sector (despite narratives about deindustrialization, occupancy rates remained high). More recently, the Industry City complex at the southern end of Bush Terminal has been redeveloped into a kind of post-industrial industrial playground, where tech companies share former manufacturing spaces with purveyors of custom-built racing bikes and artisanal foodstuffs. (Industry City used to be home to an infamous $18 cup of coffee, the most expensive in the U.S., but its “Extraction Lab” closed a year or so ago.)
There’s still quite a bit of manufacturing in the area, from custom-screened T-shirts to novelty items to kitchen fixtures to miscellaneous fabrication shops, like the one depicted with such zig-zaggy exuberance above. Sahadi Fine Foods, legendary importers of Lebanese pantry staples (their fame extended to my childhood home in Toledo), maintains a castle-like warehouse along First Avenue. And as in any self-respecting Brooklyn industrial neighborhood, you can of course find live poultry (El Badia Vivero Halal Live Poultry, 4113 Second Av) and places to have your car fixed (too many to list).
But with no ships to load or unload, the Bush Terminal docks were left to rot and collapse into the harbor. Among birders intrepid enough to venture down dead-end industrial streets and peer through chain link fences, the ruined piers were known to be a great habitat for wintering ducks and roosting gulls.
Finally, in 2014, the area between 43rd and 50th streets reopened as a park. It’s a small park, but it has big views and well-used soccer fields. I love it in the winter for its warm (and sparkling clean) restrooms, in the summer for its reliably functioning drinking fountain – and in every season for its glimpse into Brooklyn’s industrial heritage.
Perhaps that’s what Irving T.’s bronze visage is pondering.