Lost In History, Vol. 11: SUGAR ON MY TONGUE
On Friday, the demolition began on an iconic, dilapidated, rusted hulk of post-industrial Brooklyn. Red Hook hasn’t looked the same in a while (Ikea, anyone?) but with the imminent disappearance of the Revere Sugar Factory, the waterfront view might look as lost as Manhattanites trying to find Van Brunt street from the Smith-9th El station. Long an astonishing parcel of Red Hook’s industrial past, the simple sight of Revere’s steel conical silo was as shocking for its incongruity as it was quintessentially Brooklyn. Located just off the Beard Street pier, the 800 by 600 foot complex was sold to Thor Equities for $40.5 million in Sept 2005. No one knows what will rise on the site, be it luxury condos or a swatch of retail, like Thor Equities’ Albee Square in the Fulton St mall. One thing’s for sure — Joseph Sitt, the CEO of Thor (a Gravesend, Brooklyn native) isn’t issuing any absolute statements about Red Hook’s resurging future. It makes you wonder about all that sweet stuff, formerly refined within that conical silo . . .
New York City has always been a big sugar town. The first sugar refinery opened in 1730, developed by Nicolas Bayard; during Pre-colonial times, raw sugar was imported from overseas, and NY became the largest sugar manufacturer in the country, thanks to the bustling port and the high population density. Wealthy families with recognizable names — the Livingstones, the Roosevelts, the Van Cortlandts — got into the financial act, and in 1857 William and Frederick Havemeyer opened a factory on the waterfront in Williamsburg; this would eventually become the Domino Sugar Factory. Following the Civil War, the South’s Confederate refineries were essentially demolished; this turned the spotlight on New York’s sugar shacks. According to The Encyclopedia of New York City: “Sugar refining was the city’s most profitable manufacturing industry from 1870 until the First World War: 59% of the country’s imported raw sugar was processed (h)ere in 1872 and 68% by 1887.” Thanks to the conniving, wheeling, and dealing of these wealthy sugar barons, a confederation of sugar manufacturing was formed in 1887, called the Sugar Trust. Even after Big Sugar was deemed illegal by the State Supreme Court in 1891, the Havemeyer clan reorganized the trust and bought out the rest of the competition through the beginning of the 1900s. By 1907 the Sugar Trust accounted for an astounding 98% of national production.
Protracted legal battles for the next 15 years finally ended the concentrated power of Big Sugar. In 1922, the Havemeyers, et al. were allowed to keep their Trust, but forced to hold off any unfair business practices; the forces of the free market economy took over from there: Brooklyn became, by the time of WWII, the source of two-fifths of the world’s sugar supply. In his spectacular new book Sweet and Low, Rich Cohen goes into humorous, personal and minute detail about the rise and fall of Brooklyn’s sugar trad, as well as the family empire behind the artificial sugar sweetener in the classic pink packet. No man was better suited for the record — Cohen is the disinherited grandson of Sweet’N Low’s founder, and comes at the history from an outsider’s perspective with an insider’s connections. Highly recommended for any Brooklyn fanatics/urban history geeks/individuals interested in the rise of America’s dieting craze.
The advent of artificial sweeteners, hand-in-hand with abovementioned dieting craze as well as the collapse of the shipping trade, ended New York’s unadulterated reign as King of the Sugar Hill shortly after the 1950s. The Revere Sugar Refinery, once owned by Antonio Floriendo, a Marcos (as in Ferdinand and Imelda) Family confidant, declared bankruptcy in 1985, and the structure had been rotting into the pier, until this weekend, as contractors started taking the place apart. Soon enough there will be nothing left to notice, and one more piece of Brooklyn’s gritty industrial history will be left only in books and blogs.
by Matt Levy
Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: Brooklyn.