Once upon a time, 322 3rd Ave., in the heart of Gowanus, housed the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Central Power Station. A hundred years later, it famously sheltered Brooklyn’s transitioning homeless and even, according to some inspired the rock opera Rent, about a group of young, pseudo-squatting artists living in New York. This former industrial entity has witnessed the full evolution of its surroundings. Today, it is slated to become a cutting-edge arts space.
Once home to Coca-Cola, National Grid, and Exxon Mobil, remnants of the old industrial operations can still be found—in its EPA-recognized water contamination and in the skeletons of its architecture. Long after its 1869 construction in the 1990s, the Transit building became a haven for resident homeless, famous graffiti artists, and punk musicians looking to host underground, late-night sets. The top story of the large, red brick building once displayed the full spray-painted tag “End stop & frisk hands off the kids!” Now, all that remains are the words between “&” and “!”
It was during the period when it became a colony for squatters that the building became known as the Batcave. A 2006 New York Daily News article described it in its heyday: “Dozens of kids from California, Long Island, Queens, and a hodgepodge of Midwestern states call the red-brick, graffiti-stained building near the Gowanus Canal home.” The article details claims from tenants that a “homeless man was thrown from a window and a junkie who overdosed was carted away in a wheelchair and left on the street for police.”
In 2012, a philanthropist, Joshua Rechnitz, shelled out $7 million for the Batcave, sealing its doors to drifters once and for all. Graffiti still covers the boarded windows and brick edifice all the way around its overgrown perimeter. In back, shipping containers, industrial pipes, and a foreman’s trailer indicate the site’s status as active. Construction has inched along since the purchase (Harry Jason, a private security guard who has worked on-site for the last two years says developers are still “trying to take the trash out”).
This concealed gallery of graffiti is now slated to become the “Powerhouse Workshop”—a “modern fabrication, production, and exhibition center established to support the working needs of artists,” according to its website. The site says the building’s future incarnation will come with resident workspaces, after-school classes, and stipends for “select artists.”
John “Fishdog,”who preferred not to provide his last name owns a beauty salon with his wife down the block from the Batcave. He does not believe the arts space will change the neighborhood’s vagrancy issue. “Nah. This is where the money’s at,” says John, a marble and wood sculptor, referencing cellphone thievery in the area. Since John moved to the neighborhood six years ago, he says, “nothing really changed,” even in spite of the Batcave’s status as a sealed property. Over the years John says he has prevented muggers from holding up his female employees.
On Wednesday, John says he spent part of his afternoon photographing a smashed windshield on neighbor’s red Jetta that he had discovered along with a note scrawled on a paper napkin. The note said: “From Edna. Please forgive me. I have been raped in the street. I am homeless…I am asking for your forgiveness…I will try to pay for the window shield.”
Ramona Putiel has been working in the CubeSmart Self Storage facility next to the Batcave for two months, and describes the building as “old and creepy looking. Scary.” Putiel says the facility reminds her of a television series. “At night, I walk past it and think the Walking Dead people gonna come out…”
At 496 Carrol St., a block away from the Batcave, Annie Ruggiero and three friends sit on Rose Manzo’s porch sipping Schwepps out of straws. Reuggiero, the youngest, is 56. Manzo is 74, and the oldest of the group is 83 year-old Rafaella “Baby Rae” Anna-Rumma. They have been neighbors on or around the same block for their entire lives. Marie and Rose are sisters-in-law, but Marie says they’ve been “best of friends our whole life before…”
When asked about the goings on in the neighborhood, the women will tell you about an incident from earlier in September in which someone threw Rose Marzo’s porch plants through a neighbor’s window. They will tell you about a reported increase in homeless visitors to the area and about the Super 8 in Park Slope that now doubles as a homeless shelter.
What they will not tell you is anything about the sleepy building down the block, where they say they have witnessed no activity as of late. Ruggiero has moved three times on the same block. “I moved home,” she said, to which all four women reply in unison, “There’s no place like home.”