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The Domino Effect

I am willing to take risks, however, I am not interested in being arrested or going to jail. Unfortunately, this means it is unlikely that I will get firsthand the types of photos had by trespassers who visited the abandoned Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg as reported by the Gothamist. The series of illicit photos can be seen in their article. A 2010 media tour did NOT include access to the refinery interior. According to the insurance companies, as reported by the Gothamist,

“the majority of the buildings are filled with large machinery, much of which spans multiple floors. Also, the majority of the buildings do not have solid floors, and instead, machinery is connected to walls and pillars with cat-walks and metal flooring.”

This type of environment is a dream for many a photographer, what some are calling “ruin porn.” I recently toured the area and photographed the property street side, keeping to the outside of the chain link fence.
Incredibly, this massive sugar refinery was in operation for over 150 years and only closed as recently as 2004. The plant was built in 1856, and by 1870 it was processing more than 50% of the sugar used in the United States. Who would fancy that this 11 acre, 5 block, industrial site with its iconic Domino Sugar sign would sit along the East River all in plain view from Manhattan? A large mixed-use residential and retail development is planned for the property. The Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) sold the property to Two Trees for $185 million in 2012.

The image of sugar has been tainted for some time. On the one hand, sugar is synonymous with sinfully sweet goodness; on the other hand, it has over the last decades been pointed to for many health-related ills. Diabetes, obesity, tooth decay, etc. Whether by William Duffy, author of Sugar Blues, published in 1975, Gary Taubes of the New York Times’ article “Is Sugar Toxic,” or by Mayor Bloomberg with his recent ban on large sugary drinks (over 16 ounces) in New York City, the white crystalline substance has been likened by many to a poison.
As I toured the Brooklyn property, I came across a large sign with the classic Domino packaging. The words “Pure Cane Granulated Sugar” brought back memories of the pure white ingredient of candies and confections, not poison. The complex of industrial properties in Williamsburg, like sugar itself, is likely here to stay. That’s the enduring power of The Domino Effect :)

9 Responses to The Domino Effect

  1. Back in the early 80s you would go through this area and have your pick of which woman of the night you wanted for 10 dollars if you were a hotshot. Five dollars if you just needed a quickie with a digital massage. A man who wanted around the world paid the worldly sum or 25 dollars or more to the woman of his dreams. Sometimes she would shootup in the car and leave a needle in the seat where a new passenger sat down on it and found a visit necessary to a hospital. More than likely the needle had traces of blood with this new disease out there which affected blood and sex workers.

    You would drive by once again a few nights later and learn that your previous date was taken to the hospital not for an overdose, but difficulty breathing with a rare and different pneumonia. Welcome to 1982.

    The truckers used these women for their fun and games in the area each early morn and late night and some of the workers at the plant would enjoy the playing of games by these women. Their pimps would beat them if they negotiated too low a price and the women loved when a police officer came by because they gave a freebie for the get out of jail card they were given. Some of the women even left with their police officer friends to go along the waterfront as they enjoyed the notion that they would be protected and possibly saved by this man whose wife did not understand him and his needs.

    Then as time goes on, neighborhoods change and times change there were less and less of the women on the streets and more and more people who were not looking for the sexual pleasure of a 10 dollar experience.

    Some of the women left through means of choice, running away and others were beaten to death or to a pulp unwilling out of fear to name their pimp who did this to them. Others aged too badly and too many succumbed and are forgotten as no one made Quilt panels for them on the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

    One could say for them as they took their IV drugs, AIDS was Another Intravenous Death Sentence while others had their diseases that were sexually transmitted such as HIV, Herpes, Hep B and C and other goodies that affected them.

    Thirty years later their stroll is nothing. It will be revamped into housing for the better to do who will have little idea of what these women went through on or near these grounds for the sake of feeding a baby they could not abort, feeding a habit they could not stop and feeding the desire of what their pimps coveted for every 10-25 to 35 dollars they took in as a little bit of their life was taken from them.

    As the collected gasps of the audience during Lez Mis when people see what Fantine is transformed into to earn money as she sells herself from the members of the film or play audience, they forget that thousands each day in NYC do this to pay whomever just to survive.

    The Domino Sugar Factory provided all kinds of jobs to people. From those who made the sugar, to those who packaged it, to the truckers to those in finance and administration to all over the USA. When this plant closed jobs went with it. And soon the last remnants who struggled on the street will be gone as children play in playgrounds and women go on a bikes at the gym and men work the weight room there. The amenities will be given and what some will spend in their common charges for the apartment will barely be what some of the women who worked the streets received in a few months in salary from their pimp.

    The past will be erased in this neighborhood in a few years as few will be willing to say, the very street they are wheeling their twins on was once a stroll for hookers and pimps and men who were not understood by their wives.

    • pat – wow. Thanks so much for your personal history. Having this for visitors to this site to read adds so much life to the vacant industrial structures.

  2. Pat- thank you for this exquisite and sensitive piece of writing…wow.

  3. I knew a girl who worked this strip. It also included Wythe Ave., a block inland from Domino Sugar. (The company I worked for in Manhattan had moved into a building a few blocks away). She had a trucker customer who would take her to his home when his mother was not there so she could take a shower and change her clothes. She worked as a waitress when she could.

    There is a story to this: A pregnant silver German Shepherd had been accidentally locked for some time in a building that was being renovated – I heard various times, the shortest being two weeks. She survived by drinking water in a constantly running toilet, and ate her puppies after they were born. When the workers came back and let her out, she hung around the area (as did a number of strays.) After I saw this dog, I brought her food.

    The hooker was doing the same. That’s how I met her. She took her earnings and brought 8 cans of food a day for the dog. I met the girl occasionally to compare notes, picking her up in my car and dropping her off a minute later. She would ask me to take a little longer so the other girls on the street would not know that I was not a customer. Otherwise it would look like I rejected her and she would lose face.

    I told my sister, Jane, about the dog. (I could not adopt it, I already had one of my own and was feeding some that were left in a back yard without adequate food and water. (Another story for another time.) She took the dog. After her recovery this dog turned out to be a very beautiful, kind animal that was the comfort of my father’s later years.

    I lost track of the hooker after that. I hope she managed to find her way out of that life. I don’t know if what she had told me was the truth, but I know she fed that dog.

    • Mary P – I never heard this tale at all. Thank you for the contribution. Apparently the Domino refinery is ripe with history, anecdotes and yarns!

  4. Great!

    Fantastic picture!

  5. Jaime Batista says:

    Wonderful and informative stories to add to your beautiful photos…Sounds like a building (and area) ripe with history as well as human suffering…I would gladly pay to be able to see the machinery and imagine the hustle and bustle that once took place within those towering walls..Nice post Brian..

  6. Jaime – Thanks. I would also gladly pay to see that machinery and interior. Check out this link: http://gothamist.com/2010/03/02/inside_domino.php#photo-1

  7. Brian,
    Did you see this in Curbed?

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