The Derelict Explorers Club 

Urban Archaeology in the Middle of Brooklyn

We spot her: five stories tall, a wreck of a warehouse on a corner plot, nestled up against the elevated train. We’re at Broadway and Gerry, in Brooklyn. This is the other Broadway: the commercial, industrial, derelict Broadway, straddling so many soon-to-be-hip, already-hip, and post-hip neighborhoods. There is nothing at this intersection: Gerry runs three short blocks then gets foreshortened by Flushing Avenue and beheaded by the Marcy Housing project. There’s a mega Food Bazaar across the street, Hasidic row housing down the way and a vacant lot next to our target. Every so infrequently, a J train groans its way into or out from the city. We are climbing the outside of a five-storey building so we can see what’s inside.

Its 11 at night, the sky is overcast and about to open up with torrents of rain. Steve and I survey our way up and in, using a rusted metal fire escape. The prospect is not very reassuring, as rain makes climbing slick and that much more dangerous. Although the building is surrounded by the standard city-built blue scaffolding two stories tall, there is a convenient chain link fence right next to the corner scaffolding. Steve, a photographer, is the experienced one here, so he takes the lead. Up the chain link, over the scaffolding, we pause while a cop car breezes by, waiting before we make the rest of the journey up. Steve smokes a cigarette, and jokes that it will kill him before climbing the Tappan Zee Bridge can.

Most of the steps on the escape have rusted away, so we have to concentrate to balance our body weight on the diagonal vertices of the stair frame. It’s important to understand that the entire rail or support beam could snap and collapse at any point. We make it up the first few treacherous flights; after floor three we are above most of the graffiti, so the last couple flights are more stable — and then, we are up on the roof.
Steve breaks out his impressive digital camera and snaps some pics of the surrounding cityscape. I crawl my way to the corner, dodging the sketchy holes in the tarmac, and peer over the edge onto the El’s train tracks and the traffic below. I make a wish on the next passing J train and creep my way back, past Steve, to the trapdoor by the elevator-gear room and the ladder that beckons down into the building. I salute Steve, he hits me with his camera flash, and I head down and in.

Each floor is a work of decaying art-in-regress. The solid wooden floors, where they haven’t buckled in a frozen wave, have rotted clear through to the next level down and beyond. The walls are slimy with ancient wallpaper and decades of paint, peeling off in scads. The ceilings, where they exist, are rusting hulks of framework, stamped tin plates, sprinkler systems and electrical pipework all imploding in upon itself. Some of it becomes a precious sculpture park — a simple two-by-four suspended in mid-air by three electrical wires; a full sheet of stamped tin, rusted so far down from the ceiling to the floor in a lopsided arch. We find pigeons  in delicate newspaper nests, tiny eggs staying warm by the windshafts. Floor follows floor of more and more rot, hollowed-out empty wood and fallen beams everywhere, a striking world of debris brought on by time and gravity. But there are only so many pictures one can take of a dead and dying building. After making our way down to the ground floor and listening to some girls loudly gab their way across the street, we know there are more adventures for us in other buildings. So we head back up to the roof and carefully clamor down the fire escape, the scaffolding and the chain link fence, happy to get back to solid ground.

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