Urban Relics From New York’s Abandoned Buildings


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Julia Wertz takes pictures of abandoned buildings in and around New York City. This is P.S. 186 in Harlem, which has been vacant since 1975. (Photo courtesy of Julia Wertz)

By Stefani Kim

Brooklyn cartoonist and urban explorer Julia Wertz finds abandoned spaces fascinating, but not for the reasons you might expect.

Although the lore of paranormal activity within abandoned buildings continues to pervade popular reality shows like “Ghost Hunters,” you’ll never catch Wertz prowling deserted hallways for sounds of the undead.

“It’s not real. It’s folklore,” she said, describing her view on the likelihood of spiritual presence in deserted buildings. “I think these places deserve a modicum of respect. It makes it seem like a joke.”

Wertz is serious about the pursuit of abandoned spaces. She mines newspaper archives and books for historical information about these empty buildings before even setting foot inside.

On Wertz’s website, Adventurebibleschool.com, there are dozens of photos depicting the interiors and exteriors of abandoned buildings. These include shots of jagged shards jutting from window frames, a rumpled bedspread littered with paint chips, and walls covered with cracked and peeling paint. These images provide a comparison to the hopeful, sepia-toned pictures from the past on her website.

“I do extensive research on the places I go,” said Wertz, 31, “and to then be able to explore them is almost a form of archaeology, which is enormously satisfying for history nerds.”

Her interest in urban exploring began as a child in Northern California, when she graduated from investigating a drainage pipe in her parents’ backyard to cutting class to hang out at the decommissioned Skaggs Island naval station. By her 20s, though, Wertz was confronting serious illness. In 2003, she was diagnosed with lupus that was followed by years of struggle with alcoholism, rehab and relapse, leaving exploring by the wayside. Between 2007 and 2010, she published two comic books— “Fart Party Volumes 1 & 2,” depicting Wertz’s post-college adventures in San Francisco and New York—and two graphic memoirs based on her life. A third “Fart Party” volume will be published in September.

But the Brooklyn-based Wertz rediscovered exploring when she got sober in 2012. She launched the Adventure Bible School website—named after a camp she attended in childhood—in July 2013, posting pictures from abandoned buildings including schools, hospitals and theaters.

Contemptuous of modern-day ghost hunters who camp out in abandoned mental hospitals hoping to record the unearthly screams of former patients, Wertz visits places like Greenpoint Hospital in Brooklyn and Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey, as a way to record and preserve patient testimonials.

“I’m also a recovering alcoholic, and I see a lot of patients committed for alcoholism and given treatments that were totally ineffective, because alcoholism wasn’t understood or properly treated back then,” she said.

“It’s hard to read [the] files of people who had no business being in an asylum, yet they were still committed and often died in them,” said Wertz.

From digging in dark asylum basements she has discovered and photographed patient memorabilia, like a lithium handbook chronicling a man’s struggle with bipolar depression. One page illustrates a man’s battle between manic and depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder with dueling cartoon thought bubbles, one a superhero, and the other, a man withdrawn and curled up in a ball. Wertz would not reveal how she gains access to buildings or whether she keeps the records she finds.

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A deserted stairwell and hallway at the abandoned Greenpoint Hospital in Brooklyn. (Photo courtesy of Julia Wertz)

Documenting a mental hospital can take time, particularly in a location like Greystone, with its main Kirkbride building sprawling over 675,000 square feet and its history going back to 1876. Wertz recently posted photos she took a few years ago, after a decision was made to demolish the former psychiatric hospital. Some of these photos show odd items like a Greystone patient’s drawing of a skull wearing a Nazi helmet, and a deer carcass dangling from a meat hook. “There are certain places I’ve been to dozens of times, mostly because the size of them means they take multiple trips to photograph,” she said. “And then if I’m looking for artifacts, it can take years of repeated visiting to feel like I’ve really seen and rooted through the whole place.”

One of the most memorable New York City buildings Wertz has visited is Harlem’s P.S. 186, a 100,000-square-foot school that closed in 1975.

“The way the building has aged is pretty spectacular,” she said. “The windows have been missing for years, so there’s a lot of plant growth indoors, which is a bizarre sight in the middle of Manhattan.” 

Her photos show images such as indoor plant growth, schoolbooks with covers made illegible by dirt, and a boiler with a façade that’s faded and peeling.

Earlier plans to demolish and redevelop the school fell through. But in December, the school was acquired by Monadnock Construction and Alembic Development Corporation, which plans to build apartments as well as create a space for the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem on-site.

For the most part, Wertz is content to explore buildings on her own or with a few select friends. She’s not part of the urban exploring community, which she said is, “comprised of males in their teens and 20s.”

“As a female in my 30s, I don’t have much in common with most of them,” she said.

She won’t reveal future exploring trips “since it’d basically be telling you about a crime I’m going to commit in the future,” since she is trespassing.

But she said a book, half-comic, about the places she’s photographed might be forthcoming.

For now, she’ll continue to delve into the past.

“It’s fun to run around in a place you’re not supposed to be and see things you’re not supposed to see,” she said.

Stefani Kim is a student at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Her website is http://www.stefanikim.me/menu.

Deserted NYC is a product of the NYCity News Service at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

Stark Neglect of Properties in Hollis, Queens

Janet Jackson and Ernestine Alston, both part of the Hollis Local Development are working to get five abandoned properties in Hollis developed. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan.)

Janet Jackson and Ernestine Alston, both part of the Hollis Local Development Corporation, are working to get five abandoned properties in Hollis developed. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan)

By Gwynne Hogan

An outcropping of apartment buildings has been decaying for more than two decades along a commercial strip of Hollis Avenue in Hollis, Queens. Cracked windows, crumbling brick and sunken roofs mar the five buildings, each of which contains 20 units. A sixth building, almost identical to the other five, has just a few tenants left. As elderly residents pass away, maintenance workers board up the vacant apartments instead of readying them for new tenants, said Charles Anderson, 63, the building’s janitor.

The abandoned buildings loom in stark contrast to the rest of the neighborhood. A playground, a school, a daycare center and tidy suburban homes buttress the structures from all sides.

“It creates a blight right in front of the block,” Cleveland Dixon, 51, who runs a men’s clothing store adjacent to the apartments, said. “I’ve seen violence. I’ve seen guys fighting and yelling and screaming over there, all kinds of stuff. In one word, it’s terrible.”

Cases like the Hollis Avenue apartments happen all across New York City. Landlords, for any number of reasons, withdraw from their properties allowing lots or buildings to fall into neglect, leaving the neighbors with few options but to stomach the consequences.

But these five buildings tell the story of one land heiress whose neglect is repeated in a number of her other holdings across Jamaica, Queens. Rita Stark inherited more than 40 properties in 1988, according to property records. She has sold some since but still owns around half. And at least 11 of those properties, including the Hollis Avenue buildings, have sunken into disrepair.

Green dots represent Stark’s properties that are in use.

Red dots are those that are abandoned or partially abandoned. In a few of the red properties it was unclear whether or not the buildings was abandoned.

The Hollis Local Development Corporation has taken up the cause. Members are drafting a letter to Stark’s lawyer offering to buy one of the buildings.

“She probably assumes that the pressure is over,” Ernestine Alston, vice president of the HLDC, said. “But it’s never going to be over until we see an improvement in those buildings.”

Stark could not be reached for comment. Her lawyer relayed a message via email that she does not comment on specific properties. Someone from her real estate office confirmed this:

“As a matter of policy we don’t comment on specific properties” she said, preferring not to be named. “But I can say we’re currently involved in efforts to improve our properties.”

Pressure was put on Stark in 2012, when Hollis residents, led by HLDC and a local church, mobilized to get the buildings developed. They picketed in front of the apartments and ignited a short-lived but intense media frenzy. Their efforts managed to compel Stark to trim some brambles and board up a window or two – but little else.

But the HLDC isn’t the only party interested in the buildings.

Marc Francis, the CEO of the Delphine Real Estate Advisory Group, started working in Hollis just over a year ago and offered to purchase the buildings last July. After repeated attempts to get in touch with Stark, he was finally told by a representative from her real estate office  that his offer was not worth consideration.

“If it were the situation that no one was coming forward with offers to redevelop these buildings that would be one thing. However, in the current environment, that is not the case,” Francis said. “This area deserves better.”

Rita Stark owns six nearly identical properties along Hollis Avenue. Five of them have been abandoned for years. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan)

Rita Stark owns six nearly identical properties along Hollis Avenue. Five of them have been abandoned for years. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan)

Neighbors say they’ve seen drug dealers, people urinating behind the buildings, and large families of raccoons entering and exiting the buildings through the basement windows.

And the HLDC is concerned that the abandoned apartments muzzle development along the street.

“I’m not going into any other neighborhood and shop at a place that looks deserted and seedy,” Alston, the HLDC vice president, said. “This is the main reason why we’re pushing so hard at HLDC because we want to make the commercial strip effective. We want people to shop there.”

Burnett Dixon, 68 – father of men’s clothing shop owner Cleveland – has owned the five buildings directly across the street from the Stark apartments since the early 2000s. Dixon has been trying in vain to rent two of his storefronts for the past five years.

Yet Dixon said, “there’s always hope.” He imagines what his business might be like if there was some kind of redevelopment of the properties.

“Oh Lord, a whole new ball game, a whole neighborhood, a whole new everything,” he said.

And while some maintain hope that Stark will sell, develop or renovate, Community Board 12 District Manager Yvonne Reddick is more resigned. The buildings fall within her community board.

“There’s nothing we can do as long as she pays her property taxes, as long as she keeps it clean,” she said.

Gwynne Hogan is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and a multimedia reporter for Voices of NY. Follow her on twitter
Deserted NYC is a product of the NYCity News Service at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

How the Past Comes Down: Demolition at Williamsburg’s Domino Complex

By Ben Brody

Behind a green construction fence near the Williamsburg waterfront, crews are demolishing and gutting 28 buildings from the Domino Sugar Refinery complex, readying it for a $1.5 billion mixed-use development that the city approved in late April.

It’s a familiar occurrence in space-starved and development-hungry New York: Contractors demolish old buildings to make room for new ones. Yet few New Yorkers know about what’s going on around them — the lengthy and expensive process of clearing out hazardous materials before demolition, the salvaging of materials during destruction and the fact that even soil may be removed afterward.

For the refinery, parts of which date to 1884 and which was once the largest in the world, preparatory stages began last spring. Those stages consisted mostly of asbestos and lead abatement.

25 April 2014 — New York City, N.Y. The demolition contractor, Breeze National, may try to salvage materials from the buildings as they come down, including steel and copper. 04/25/14 — Photograph by Ben Brody/NYCity Photo Wire

April 25, 2014 — New York City, N.Y. The demolition contractor, Breeze National, may try to salvage materials from the buildings as they come down, including steel and copper. (Photo by Ben Brody)

Usually, this is the longest and most expensive part of the process, although at Domino, the variety of buildings and their configuration mean that demolition will take about a year, whereas abatement took about three months. (Click photos above to see images of the complex.)

The first thing contractors do as part of a demolition is search for asbestos, said Michael R. Taylor, executive director of the National Demolition Association. The fire-resistant insulator was commonly used through much of the 20th century, until it was banned due to negative health effects, including the cancer known as mesothelioma.

“It’s behind walls; it’s in false ceilings,” said Taylor, who has worked in construction and demolition since the 1970s. “Asbestos was the miracle product of the age. Everyone used it, so you’ll find it in all kinds of places.”

Once contractors think they’ve located all the asbestos, they’ll send in crews to pull it out. The process requires “negative air pressure,” which contractors create with tents and air-filtration systems, to ensure that any asbestos dust can’t escape. Crews wear respirators and wet asbestos fibers to keep them from floating outside of the area.

At Domino, asbestos abatement finished in September, according to dominosugarconstruction.com, a website maintained by Two Trees Management, the firm developing the property. The costs for abatement can vary widely, but prices often begin at $25 per square foot in New York City. The Domino plant is around 90,000 square feet, so that could mean the bill started at $2 million. Two Trees would not comment on the price.

Asbestos isn’t the only concern in the initial stages, says Mark Shaurette, assistant professor in the Department of Building Construction Management at Purdue University. Contractors have to exterminate the buildings, so that critters don’t flee to neighboring homes and businesses when the building comes down, and also have to remove any animal waste so it doesn’t end up in the air or water.

In the case of the Domino factory, which had been shut down for nine years when demolition began, “resident raccoons” had largely kept other vermin at bay, according to Dave Lombino, director of special projects for Two Trees. The city received certification that the site was pest-free in August.

Once this preparatory process, including post-removal testing, is finished, demolition can begin. But that doesn’t mean TNT and big clouds of dust — implosions actually account for less than 1 percent of demolitions these days. They’re also illegal in New York City, and, according to Taylor, they’re especially difficult to do on sugar refineries because the plants were built to withstand explosions. (The small sugar particles in the air tended to ignite.)

25 April 2014 — New York City, N.Y. The demolition will require both hand-held tools, including chainsaws, and diesel-powered machinery. 04/25/14 — Photograph by Ben Brody/NYCity Photo Wire

April 25, 2014 — New York City, N.Y. The demolition will require both hand-held tools, including chainsaws, and diesel-powered machinery. (Photo by Ben Brody)

Instead, Domino will undergo a “full mechanical demolition” that will require handheld tools, including jackhammers and chainsaws, “for wall and floor dismantling,” as well as large, diesel-powered equipment, including an 8,500-pound excavator and a crane with a 189-foot boom, according to documents filed with the city’s Department of Buildings.

Contractors will begin with the easiest buildings to demolish, and then move on to progressively harder demolitions, said Lombino. That meant taking down one building in the northeast of the site in the fall, then heading to the southernmost building, taking that down and working north. The contractor is currently taking down a packaging facility.

Once crews make it to the actual refinery in the center of the complex, which is landmarked and being preserved, they’ll head west to the waterfront and take down the powerhouse. That’ll likely be the most difficult building to demolish because it’s attached to the refinery, and they’ll essentially need to peel it away.

As a building comes down, contractors often try to sell scrap materials, especially steel, which can get them hundreds of dollars per ton, or copper wiring, which can go for 10 times that.

Contractors will drive unsalvageable materials to recycling or disposal sites that can be at nearby landfills or in faraway states that deal with particular hazardous materials, although in port cities like New York they sometimes ship waste.

The final stage will be a cleanup of the site, which could also include disposal of contaminated soil. That year-long process should be completed in the fall.

Taylor, of the NDA, said that’s not an unusual length of time for a business with a “time is money” mentality.

“You’ll be surprised how quickly the building will disappear,” he said.

Ben Brody is a reporter and photojournalist based in Riverdale, New York. You can find more of his work at ben-brody.com.

Deserted NYC is a product of the NYCity News Service at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Striking Mold in Staten Island’s Abandoned Houses

Moldy Houses in post-Sandy from qingqingchen on Vimeo.


By Qingqing Chen

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in April, Deidre McGrath and her husband, Scott, went door to door checking housing conditions on Midland Avenue, on Staten Island. As they approached a vacant house, they noticed a strong, musty smell.

“It’s mold,” said Scott McGrath, covering his mouth. The smell made him sneeze. “We’ve been trying to prove to the city that this is a health hazard, although they don’t really say it is.”

Since Hurricane Sandy, abandoned houses have become a common sight on Staten Island. These houses, which were deluged with seawater and debris, have not been repaired. Eighteen months after Sandy, they are becoming hotbeds of mold.

The McGraths run a nonprofit organization called Beacon of Hope, which they started in February 2013 to rebuild the hardest-hit neighborhoods of Staten Island. When they first started, they spent more than 30 hours a week visiting vacant houses, checking their mold status and looking for ways to clean them up. Deidre returned to her full-time job at Con Edison in February, so the McGraths now spend three hours a week working on abandoned buildings.

When Sandy hit New York City, 650,000 houses across the city were damaged or destroyed. The flood surge overwhelmed the East and South shores of Staten Island, covering more than 16 percent of the island’s residential areas, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Many residents were forced to leave their homes.

Banks have foreclosed on many properties, as homeowners couldn’t pay mortgages after the storm. Others couldn’t afford repair work, which often costs $80,000 to $120,000 at minimum, Deirdre says. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would not fully cover residents whose mortgage packages included insurance. As a result, many Staten Islanders left.

On Jan. 31, 2013, then-Mayor Bloomberg proposed a $15 million mold remediation program, in partnership with the American Red Cross and the Robin Hood Foundation, to treat 2,000 Sandy-affected homes throughout New York City.

Victim of moldy houses

Claudia McKenna, who lives in the middle of two abandoned houses on Midland Ave. Staten Island, complains about the smell of mold. (Photo by Qingqing Chen)

Last August, Rep. Michael Grimm (R) said his office had a list of 60 Sandy-damaged houses that needed to have mold remediation or be demolished. Eighteen months later, many still stand empty. Deidre says that 54 of the homes they have inspected are infested with mold.

Indoor exposure to mold can cause asthma symptoms, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and coughing and wheezing in otherwise healthy people.

“If there’s one building next to another or there’s a very moldy building that people walk past all the time, they can definitely get sick,” said Adrienne Sprouse, medical director of Manhattan Health Consultants. She specializes in physical and mental illness caused by environmental and chemical exposure.

Hurricane Sandy coincided with the expected seasonal increase in respiratory viral infections, which exacerbate asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions, according to the city Department of Health. Some people were exposed to irritants, including dust produced from home repairs, cleanup and debris removal, mold growth caused by wet and damaged buildings materials. Still, the Health Department said it has no evidence to suggest that mold in an abandoned home causes a health risk to neighbors.

Those living near the abandoned houses are not convinced.

“I’ve been sick since Sandy,” said Liam Shea, a Staten Islander living a few blocks away from Midland Avenue, one of the areas most affected by the storm.

He said his 17-year-old nephew had black mold in his lungs seven months after Sandy. “He got that just from being in the neighborhood itself,” Shea added.

“He coughed, had headaches and trouble breathing,” Shea says. After visiting a hospital, they found the problem was a low-level mold infection.

After medical treatment, his nephew got better. Shea is even more concerned about older people and children living nearby, who are more vulnerable.

“At one point, everybody was sick,” Shea said, referring to the time when many neighbors and residents were cleaning up damaged properties just after the storm.

The house next door to his was sealed off with concrete. Despite the cobweb-shaped green and black mold staining a window near the roof, Wells Fargo put out a sign advertising the property.

In the bathroom of another abandoned house, several blocks away, a shrunken roll of toilet paper still hangs beside a washstand covered with dust. The floor is covered with sand that was carried into the house by seawater.

The McGraths’ main focus now is revisiting abandoned properties to see if their ownership and interior conditions have changed since October, while making a new list of mold-affected homes.

“It’s really hard to follow the changing of ownership,” Deirdre McGrath said, adding that some foreclosed properties had been untouched since their last visit.

Working with volunteer groups, Beacon of Hope usually takes two days to clean one house. A dozen workers remove all the furniture and debris before tearing down all the walls and spraying mold killer throughout the building. They have cleaned at least four houses this way, according to Deidre.

“You do at times lose hope and faith that things will change, and you never know if you’ll win this battle or not,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean you give up the fight.”

Qingqing Chen is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and freelance writer. Follow her on twitter.

Deserted NYC is a product of the NYCity News Service at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Advertising, Not Tenants, Pays For 1 Times Square

By Kelly Dickerson

It’s bizarre to think that one building can take in millions of dollars in revenue with just one tenant.

The building at 1 Times Sq. is home to a Walgreens that occupies the first three floors, but from the fourth floor to the 25th floor, giant flashing advertisements stretch up the side of the building. It’s now less of a building and more of a high-rise billboard. The only regular visitors to the upper floors of the building are a maintenance crew that periodically cleans the inside, and the New Year’s Eve ball drop team that oversees the famous drop of the 12,000-pound Waterford Crystal Ball before a worldwide audience of 1 billion people.

Lehman Brothers bought the property in 1995 at a steal for $27 million, according to the New York City Department of Buildings. The inside of the building hadn’t been renovated since the 1960s, when the previous owners stripped the inside down to its bare essentials. Lehman Brothers saw potential in the building not for rent revenue, but as a way to capitalize on the building’s prime location. The company erected a grid frame on the outside of the building and began selling ads. When Jamestown Properties took over 1 Times Sq. in 1997, the building was not up to code standards. Replacing the heating and cooling, wiring, and ventilation would have been extremely costly, said Sandra Hurtado, a communication correspondent from Jamestown Properties. The irregular floor plan also makes it unsuitable as an office space.

“The building is triangular,” said Lynne Sagalyn, professor of real estate at Columbia University and author of “Times Square Roulette: Remaking the City Icon.” “It’s just not made for office space.”

And advertisement is all the revenue 1 Times Sq. needs: the building is valued at over $400 million and has seven advertisements on it, according to the New York City Department of Buildings. As of 2012, the owners of the building said it brings in $23 million of advertising revenue each year. The ad revenue is 85 percent of the building’s total annual revenue, and the remaining 15 percent comes from Walgreens’ rent. Companies are willing to pay a lot for their advertisement to be seen by the over 100 million people that pass through Times Square annually, according to a spokesman for Sherwood Outdoor, an advertising company responsible for securing some of the prime spots in Times Square. Their advertisements often make appearances in TV shows and films that include what has come to be known as the iconic Times Square shot.

The center of Times Square is prime real estate, and Jamestown Properties could make a huge profit renting it out to additional tenants. Rents in surrounding buildings cost upwards of $1,500 a square foot, according to the Times Square Agency. But the problem, other than the enormous renovation cost and irregular floor plan, is filling a building with absolutely no windows. The windows are completely blocked out by advertisements.

The building has a complicated history that led to its conversion into an advertising tower. It was originally built in 1904 to house The New York Times. The company only spent about 10 years in the building, but it started the New Year’s ball drop tradition and made Times Square the official gathering place for ringing in the New Year. The Times left in 1913, but still maintained ownership of the building. The newspaper set up a news ticker in the 1920s that displayed major news headlines of the day. The ticker, locally known as the “zipper,” consisted of thousands of lightbulbs and a conveyor belt to move type. The first headline it displayed announced Herbert Hoover’s victory in the 1928 presidential election.

In the 1930s, Times Square started on a downward spiral and became a hotbed of criminal activity, said Sagalyn. One Times Sq. even had a full-blown speakeasy operating in the basement during the prohibition era. In the 1960s, the Allied Chemical Corporation bought the building from the Times and attempted to make it a tourist attraction. They completed an extensive $10 million renovation of the outside of the building and released a series of ads designed to paint the building as an iconic symbol of New York. But by that time Times Square already had a “seedy reputation,” said Sagalyn. It was the site of many drug deals and home turf to streetwalkers.

The building changed hands several times over the next couple decades and no company that owned the building leased it out to tenants. In 1996, the first billboard that went up on 1 Times Sq. was a Cup Noodles advertisement with jets that squirted out steam. Many companies soon followed suit and some of today’s ads stand over five stories tall. Many people, including lifelong New Yorkers, don’t realize that many of these buildings are mostly vacant. “There’s no one in there? Are you kidding?” said construction worker Anthony Borden, 34. “What a f—ing waste.”

Kelly Dickerson is a freelance journalist based in New York City. You can find more of her work at kellydickerson.me.

Deserted NYC is a product of the NYCity News Service at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.