Only a hundred years ago, Newtown Creek, the meandering channel that splits western Brooklyn from western Queens, was a vibrant–if malodorous–working waterfront. A census of “offensive trade establishments” conducted by the city’s department of health in 1899 found no fewer than 20 that fit the bill, including fertilizer companies, manure barges, a degreasing syndicate, and the almost unimaginable “night soil boat and dead animal wharf.”
But the crown jewel in this collection of noisome and toxic commerce was the Laurel Hill Works, an enormous refinery and chemical plant that was once one of the country’s leading copper producers. Established in 1866, the factory eventually sprawled across 36 acres of the creek’s northern bank and ushered in a new era of copper refinery and industrial acid production that fueled the nation’s first telecommunications boom in the late 19th century. At its peak, Laurel Hill employed 1,260 people and processed hundreds of Canadian ore each day. It was also the subject of environmental lawsuits as early as the 1920s when local residents complained that sulfur dioxide fumes from the massive smelter smokestacks were destroying their gardens.
The plant, bought by Phelps Dodge Corp. in the 1950s, was shuttered in 1983 and finally razed last year. Now all that remains is a scarred lot, a noxious residue of heavy metals and an ongoing legal mess.
That was enough for Curtis Cravens. An artist, history buff, connoisseur of urban decay and industrial development manager, Cravens first stumbled across the site eight years ago when a friend led him through a hole in the fence. He became obsessed with the place. He spent hundreds of hours wandering the grounds, combing through the crumbling buildings, taking photographs and cataloging the detritus: laborers’ abandoned clothing, surveillance photos taken by management during mid-century strikes, employee injury records. His fixation even led him to the Phelps Dodge headquarters in Arizona. Cravens also tracked down some former plant workers: Aided by a name written inside a hard hat he’d found, he discovered the owner’s widow in Teaneck, New Jersey.
Cravens’ obsession became a larger artistic and historical project–one that did not fit neatly into a gallery. “It’s a very isolated practice, trespassing for five years on a hazardous waste site,” he admits. “It’s a little loony. But the art gave way to broader urban questions and interests: Does what happened here matter?”
So this winter, assisted by the urban nonprofit Place In History, Cravens put out a small book that compiles many of these artifacts, paired with essays on the technological, environmental and labor histories of the factory. In part, it reads like an elegy for a vanishing industrial age, with technical diagrams of the process of copper refinery, statistics on the production of industrial sulfuric acid and a chronology of this early multinational conglomerate.
But Cravens and his collaborators are careful to point out that part of the goal of publishing the book was to create a living document. They plan to sell the book locally and make it available to classrooms and libraries for free. The aim is to provoke discussion, and perhaps generate ideas about how to revive contaminated areas in a way that also commemorates their past.
Copper on the Creek: Reclaiming an Industrial History is available for $10 from Place in History. Call 718-625-1122 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.