The bitter story of a sugar plant

To be inside a factory on the verge of demolition is like visiting a place of worship emptied by earthquake. The ceilings are high. Unfiltered sunlight washes over everything: chairs that once held people, stray leather shoes, a suit jacket, ink-stained ledgers, bashed-up books. A sapling grows in the arch of a broken, scroll-shaped window.

At the Revere Sugar refinery on the new gold coast of Red Hook, the high ceiling is a silver dome over the South Brooklyn waterfront. Look past the tree growing in that window and see how the Statue of Liberty shines on the water, see the skylines of Manhattan to the north and Sunset Park to the south.

Revere went bankrupt in 1985 and the plant was wrecked by fire some years later. Clearly, no one has come back for cleanup duty in the cathedral built by a sugar king from the Philippines. Now, a real-estate developer from Brooklyn, Joe Sitt, has begun tearing it down.

So soon enough, the ledger books scribbled with notes about fusty boilers and sugar orders that were late in 1982 will be gone. In due time, the signs will all be removed (one, near the exit, warned workers to be careful because “a fire could put us all out of work”).

Sitt envisions six buildings with a fish restaurant, a hardware store and apartments at the peninsula-like site near where Ikea is building its first store in the city and the Civil-War-era warehouse that became Fairway last year.

Sitt sees families and wealthy singles colonizing what has become an icon of post-industrial Brooklyn and a seaside wonderland for squatters and neighborhood ne’r do wells. (One left a poem on one wall: “23 men sailed up from the Red Hook Sisco Bay/They were too busy watching those old flame bars sway”).

Sitt, who is also developing the Coney Island Boardwalk, won’t say if he intends to save any of Revere’s existing structures. So, before he began taking them down, I took a last look inside the old refinery.

Despite the mess, one building in the enormous sugar-making complex is oddly pristine. The 12 x 12 wooden beams that line the three-story warehouse farthest from the shore hasn’t been touched. New lumber shores a creaky stairwell. Workers have tossed several Dumpsters worth of trash out the window of the second floor, leaving the columned storehouse open as the ship decks that were once repaired on the same waterfront basin.

The building is something of an ode to processed foodstuff and the 20th century. Standing there, I felt I was standing in someone else’s future luxury condo. And, indeed, I was.

Joe Sitt has big plans for reinventing some of its more sacred, and faded, spaces. He considers himself a visionary.

This lonely warehouse at the far end of a derelict sugar plant is the place to prove it by incorporating it into whatever Sitt builds. Like the Girl Scouts once sang: Make new, but keep the old.

The Kitchen Sink

Great news! The “No Parking” signs in front of the Sacred Heart–St. Stephen’s School on Summit Street are finally gone. Carroll Gardens residents had been complaining that the bothersome signs remained in front of the school even after it was shut down last year. But Community Board 6 did something about it and the city cut down the signs this week. If you received a ticket there in the past month, CB 6 will help you fight it. … Twenty Smith Street business owners passed the hat and collected $800 to wish a happy new year to the Doe Fund, whose street cleaning program employs homeless men. … A few months ago, we noticed an old synagogue on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill was being converted into a wine bar. Caio Dunson now says he’ll open in April. L’chaim! … The YWCA has finally gotten the $26 million it needs to add 84 studio apartments and rehab the 214 existing units it has for low-income women at Third Avenue and State Street. The YWCA will break ground on the 18-month project by the end of January. … How crazy are we for snow? New York Magazine ran an alert on its Web site on Wednesday after its “Carroll Gardens correspondent” spotted flakes. It’s not just about snow, though; neighborhood bragging rights are involved. The mag’s “Park Slope correspondent” begrudgingly reported no flurries.