"I really feel like we're going to get caught this time," said LB again.
This had been a constant refrain in our planning. I'd even dressed for jail, with a big, warm sweatshirt that could serve double-duty as a pillow. (The last-- and only-- time I went to jail, I spent 16 hours in a holding tank wishing I had something softer to sit on than the cold concrete bench in the cell.) I thought that we'd resigned ourselves to the possibility of getting caught. But now, with the moment of truth was upon us, we were hesitating again.
After all, LB had a point. We were about to climb a razor-wire topped fence under streetlights, within easy sight of the guard booth. In an ill-advised attempt to slip through the main gate, we'd even managed to wake up the guard who had been sleeping. And since waking him up, we’d been lurking suspiciously along the sides of the building, which was studded with security cameras.
If we made any noise going over the fence, it would carry along the quiet street like clanging alarm bells. Once we were over the once there'd be no chance of running if an alarm did go off-- because getting back over the razorwired fence would slow us down so much that even the most indolent of security guards would be bound to catch us. Not that I could run anyway; I'd broken a bone in my hip a few months before, and the fastest I could manage would have been a quick limp.
Our only hope lay in the possibility that the sleepy guard had nodded off again. But if he happened to look up at the wrong moment, we were doomed.
So what was the goal for which we were risking life and limb? We were trying to get into the Domino's Sugar Factory, on South 3rd St in Williamsburg. Looming over the East River just north of the Williamsburg Bridge, it's one of the best-known of Brooklyn landmarks. The factory has two main sections-- a huge old factory building to the north, and a newer square tower to the south. The lighted "Domino's" sign attached to this tower is the most obvious feature of this factory, which has been owned by the American Sugar Refining Co since the company bought Domino in 2001. The plant, scheduled to close its refining operations in 2004, is a well-preserved relic Williamsburg's industrial past, and we wanted the chance to look at it before the factory becomes yet another converted building of lofts and apartments.
The factory was originally built in 1857, when the company of Havemeyer, Townsend and Company was founded. William and Frederick Havemeyer, the founding Havemeyers from whom the company got its name, had previously been employees of Seaman and Company, which had been the very first sugar processing company in New York, opening its first sugar boiler on Pine St in 1799.
The founding of the factory in 1857 marked the beginning of New York's national predominance in sugar refining, and was the first of a number of such companies in Brooklyn and New Jersey. In 1887 these companies formed the Sugar Trust under leadership of Henry Havemeyer, which ruled sugar production in the states for the next two decades.
New York's pre-eminence in sugar production flowed quite naturally from its position as the most important port in the US. Cane sugar production is a two-step process, with the second step of refining usually taking place in the country where the sugar is to be used. Because almost all of the raw sugar coming into the country came into New York, it was easy for the local refineries-- many under the control of the powerful Havemeyer family-- to monopolize production. By 1907, when the Sugar Trust was forced to disband by the federal government, it controlled 98% of domestic sugar production
But today, nearly a century later, more and more sugar is being produced from sugar beets, and unlike cane sugar production, beet sugar production is a one-step process that is done entirely in the country of origin. This has had a profound affect on sugar refining throughout the country, and in fact the Domino's sugar factory, designed to produce as much as 950 million tons of sugar per year, has been producing only 400 million tons in recent years. This collapse cane sugar refining, combined with NYC real estate prices and labor disputes in recent years at the Williamsburg factory led Domino-- which still runs a factory in Yonkers as well as Baltimore and New Orleans-- to the decision to close the plant.
To prepare for our expedition, I had met LB in the midnight darkness by the East River. In contrast to my jailhouse sweatshirt, he was wearing a full suit, the Jinx uniform. I complimented him on it. "I never compromise," he said.
He had scoped out the place before, and had actually gone in once before by climbing the fence. But I hadn't been particularly anxious to follow the same route; my last encounter with razorwire left me with gashes in both hands. We walked over toward the main gate, surreptitiously pointing out the security cameras to each other.
The guard shack was dark, and the gate had a tiny gap. But as we neared, there was a sound of music in the air. "What the hell is that?" wondered LB, and as soon as he spoke the light in the guard shack popped on. A face appeared, still half asleep. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.
LB recovered from his surprise first. "Is the factory closed down? I read that it was closed down," he babbled.
"No…. What are you doing here?"
"Oh, just wandering around… When is it going to close?"
"Not until January."
We all looked at each other for a minute. "Well," said LB, "Thanks then. Have a good night."
We walked back toward where we'd originally met so that the guard could see us leaving.
"Damn it, I can't believe we did that," said LB. "now he's going to be looking for us, and if he catches us there's no way in hell we'll be able to talk our way out of it."
"We can't back out of it now," I said. "Besides, we already knew what the risks are. This doesn't change anything. We'll just wait a bit and hope he decides to go to sleep again."
The fence was eight feet high and I went up quickly, placing my hands in the spaces between the curls of razor wire. But the wire caught at my gloves as I shifted my grip, and then penetrated my sweatshirt as I lifted my leg over the top of the fence. With my calves trembling from the strain, I held myself awkwardly at the top of the fence, one foot on each side, and tried to pull my trapped sweatshirt loose. The sharp barbs poked through my pants and I felt horribly exposed, huddled at the top of the fence in plain view of the guard shack.
Finally I pulled free and dropped to the ground. I crouched low in the shadow behind a tank as I waited for LB. He was halfway up the fence when a car sped past, and then I heard the squeal of brakes and the sound of the same car backing up. LB had dropped to the ground and I huddled deeper in the shadows while he talked with someone in the car.
Then the car was gone and I lifted my head. Were we bailing? Should I stay hidden or make a break for it? I was waiting for some signal from him but instead I saw him start up the fence again. The razorwire caught at his jacket as it had mine, and again the heartstopping moment stretched on and on as he extricated himself, visible to anyone who passed. Then he was down, crouched low, and in the shadows next to me.
"What the hell was that car!?" I whispered.
"A goddam taxi cab," he said. "He was asking me if I needed a ride. He said he saw me there all by myself and wanted to check if I needed help or a ride."
I said it had scared the hell out of me. "I thought he'd seen you up on the fence."
"Actually, I thought he did too," said LB. "Maybe that's kind of what he was saying, too-- that he'd seen me and he wanted me to know that he'd seen me so I wouldn't do anything stupid or illegal."
"So he might report it," I said. "Should we bail?"
"Hell no. We've come this far…."
We hiked further into the complex, skirting massive tanks and pipes. We were heading for the old brick factory building that stretches along the river on the north side of the complex. A pair of battered wooden doors, left open to leave room for pipes and hoses, was the only access we could see.
Going into the doors mean leaving the safety of the shadows and heading back into view of the guard shack. And no matter how sound a sleeper the guard was, there was good chance we'd woken him with all the clanging of our fence climbing. I huddled behind another tank as LB crawled on his belly past the corner until he could see the shack. "Still dark," he whispered, and we bolted for the doors.
We passed through a couple machine rooms and then we were in the main hall: a cavernous space, stretching hundreds of yards. There was sugar everywhere. Mounds of sugar, piles of sugar, mountains and boulders and drifts of sugar. There were three small bulldozers in the space, apparently for shoveling the waste sugar out of the way. Course-ground sugar, congealed into lumps by heat or humidity, was piled along a wall like waste dirt from a construction project.
Along one wall, there were huge nylon bags marked "SUGAR," each one chest-high. I had LB pose in front to give a sense of the scale while I snapped a photo. Outside again, next to the river, dozens more of the same bags were lined up on the pier.
These huge bags could be lifted only by forklifts. In the early part of the century, though, the same sugar was loaded into 100-pound brown canvas sacks before being loaded onto barges or rail cars for transport to other parts of the country. Seeing the bags reminded me of an incident I'd read about from1896, when the factory's pier had collapsed, and 10,000 bags of sugar waiting to be loaded onto barges had been lost in the east river. Those had been the smaller, 100 or 200-pound sacks that could be moved by hand. The bags in front of us surely weighed thousands of pounds each, but the concrete dock underfoot seemed solid enough to handle the weight.
Despite the technical improvements, though, the transportation methods used have changed very little in the past century. Then, as now, the best way to move goods from Brooklyn to the mainland was via barges. In the early part of the 20th century, this was mostly done by loading the sugar onto rail cars belonging to the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal Railroad, which had its rail yards just north of the sugar factory. In fact, the sugar factory was the main customer of this "pocket" railway, which did not have a direct connection to the mainland but instead drove its loaded railroad cars onto "carfloat" barges. The carfloat barges had train tracks built onto them, and when they reached docks in New Jersey or the Bronx, the railroad cars were driven off and directly onto mainline railroads.
Passing into the next section of the building, we found ourselves in a jungle of pipes, boilers, vats, catwalks, tanks, and hoses. There was a smell of burned molasses in the air, and our shoes left white footprints from the sugar they'd picked up in the first area. This building, we realized, was designed to handle most of the steps of the actual sugar refining, a process that involves cleaning the sugar crystals and creating a syrup, filtering out the unwanted elements, and finally growing clean, pure crystals.
We climbed above the machinery along narrow catwalks, and finally made our way up a spidery ladder to a door almost hidden in the darkness. Stepping outside, we found ourselves on a balcony that had changed little in the century since it was built. The only thing that had changed was the skyline of Manhattan, glittering across the river. Beside us a massive brick smokestack loomed up into the night sky, the smokestack that is visible from the east side of Manhattan as the darker twin to the lighted Domino's sign just south. The ponderousness of the symmetrical, functional architecture gave it a tremendous beauty. In an age before reinforced concrete, construction was a careful process of layering stone upon stone, and the courses of dark brick that rose beside us were a celebration of man's defiance of gravity, and a temple to the strength of the sugar industry in the New York of the 19th century.
Back on the ground, we crept to the final building of the complex, once again passing in view of the guard. I followed LB as quickly as my limp would allow until we were hidden again, hoping that our luck would hold. This section of the pier opened into the packaging and trucking areas. The packaging plant is the one part of the factory that will remain in operation, with a skeleton crew of 60 or so workers, after the refining operations are shut down in early 2004.
The final building of the complex, the 11-story tower that holds the "Domino's" logo, holds sifters and vibrators that prepare the sugar for final packaging. It is connected to the main factory building with two enclosed conveyors, one to receive the sugar and the second to send back the finished product. An inch of powdered sugar covered every surface, and our feet stirred through drifts of sugar. In the silence of the night, it looked like a blizzard of snow had passed through.
On the rooftop of the square tower, two stories above the Domino's sign, we looked out over the river at Manhattan. The buildings gleamed with lights, but the East River was dark. There were no cargo ships in the harbor, no strings of barges in the river, as there had been a hundred years ago, bringing in raw goods from distant nations and carrying the products of New York to the rest of the country. Looking at the factory below us, I felt a sense of melancholy and loss at never having known the New York of a century ago, when all of Williamsburg was filled with the same temples of industry. I love the Williamsburg of today, with its thriving culture and energy; but surely there is something that is lost with every factory closure, something that I've never known but that I miss anyway.
But the view was still beautiful. LB stood at the edge of the rooftop, his dark suit now dusted with white sugar. The Queensboro Bridge glittered above him. "God, I love rooftops," he said. "The feeling of openness, the freedom of it-- there's nothing better."
Sources: Jackson, Editor. Encyclopedia of New York. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995
Shouter, D.C. A Classification of American Wealth: History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America. RAKEN, 2000 (available at http://www.raken.com/american_wealth/trusts/the_trusts3.asp)
Wilson, James Grant and Fiske, John, Editors. Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography. (Entry on Havemeyer, Frederick.) New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887-1889 & edited Stanley L. Klos, 1999. OCR text version of "Havemeyer" entry available at http://www.famousamericans.net/williamfrederickheyemeyer/
McShane, Larry. "Famed NYC sugar plant will close refinery" The Associated Press, 8/21/2003 (available at http://188.8.131.52/focus/f-news/968207/posts)