The Secret History of Brooklyn's Sugar
by Emily Gallagher
Nov 02, 2017 | 1606 views | 0 0 comments | 59 59 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It being Halloween week, I've been thinking deeply about spooky and scary elements of Greenpoint. Of course, we never need to look far!

I've written in this space about how lucky our community is to have our own local historian, Geoffrey Cobb. He has already written two fabulous books on Greenpoint history, and I have been privileged to take walking tours with him on occasion.

Geoffrey Cobb is currently working on a book about the sugar industry in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. It's called "The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King," and it is already available for purchase on Amazon.

If you are interested in knowing a little more, Mr. Cobb has begun posting excerpts on a Facebook page that you can follow, named after the book.

When I first started to look into the book, I was expecting to wax slightly nostalgic about the neighborhood's industrial past through a halcyon mist of "the good old days." However, the first excerpt I read shocked me.

"For years, they worked twelve-hour days in temperatures that often reached well above 100 degrees and at almost 100 percent humidity. In the days before proper ventilation, early in the morning on the hottest summer days, the workers knew that some of them would die from the searing heat and oppressive humidity.

“On one particularly hot day, there were eight heat-related deaths. On another occasion, one-third of the entire refinery workforce, some 400 workers, fainted with the heat. On another scorching day, more than 600 fell prostrate from the heat.

“Because passing out on hot days was so common, the refinery set up an ambulance system to bring prostrate workers to the local hospital, but sometimes treatment came too late. Strong men who went into the plant were quickly wrecked by the sauna-like temperatures. Outsiders could recognize sugar workers because of their gauntness and pallid skin tone. Sugar workers quickly appeared physically drained and prematurely aged."

The quote goes on to describe the myriad abuses that workers suffered; how they were encouraged to replenish the salt in their system with company beer they had to pay for, which led to alcoholism and poverty and more.

Cobb also mentions that the Havemeyers specifically hired immigrant workers so that they could not report the horrific conditions.

It is interesting to think about these details in the light of the forthcoming Domino Sugar Condominium complex. To call it a "complex" is an appropriate term.

The legacy of sugar in our community is not so sweet, it was an economic opportunity for many, but also difficult, soul-crushing, and sometimes life-destroying work.

We have battled to preserve the Domino refinery building, and it is going to be reinterpreted by the architects in a modern way, akin to St Ann's Warehouse in DUMBO.

It's hard to put a finger on all the feelings this knowledge conjures for me. I simultaneously feel sad that it's gone and glad that it is. I feel confused and conflicted by it's legacy.

Today, many immigrant workers, like those who work at the unmarked garbage transfer facilities, are working in our community under horrific conditions, as invisible to us as the history of Domino. What will we recall of them, 100 years hence?

Geoffrey Cobb is holding a reading of selections from his book on Wednesday, November 15, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the Williamsburgh Library. I highly recommend it.
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