“We found her in the winter,” he tells me over chocolate cake at Park Slope’s Tea Lounge.
It was the time of year when New York reminds you it’s on the same latitude as Russia; when the wind reminds your skin it’s alive. January 2001: Zachary Edminster and a few other teen runaways were mobbing through North Brooklyn alongside the fetid Gowanus Canal when they came upon an abandoned powerhouse, a red brick hulk that seemed to have been forgotten by time. Five Vietnam vets living in the alleyway warned them against going inside.
“I wouldn’t follow Christ into a hellhole like that,” one said. The kids didn’t listen. They had come looking for shelter. Instead, they found a home. “We named her ‘the Batcave’ because that seemed to have an appropriate amount of moral ambiguity,” Zach says.
After two semesters at the Bronx High School of Science, Zach had stopped coming back to his mother’s apartment in the West Village. The only one who was ever home was a cat named Peppermint.
“I spent $120 cash on a wakeful night in a Chinatown motel and then I was broke on the curb the next morning, spanging [begging for spare change] on the Bowery, sleeping under trees in Central Park, eating out of dumpsters, setting garbage cans on fire,” he says.
It was dirty, he laughs, but he discovered a freedom in the filth, a release in the depravity, a kindness in the free bed of the pavement. Besides, it was shelter, and it was free, two oft-forgotten privileges of property ownership, especially meaningful to a homeless kid just lookin’ for some headspace.
The Batcave is notorious, an abandoned hulk born as a coal-burning powerhouse in the days of Brooklyn’s relative youth, back when the Gowanus Canal was still known more commonly as “Lavender Lake” for the ever-changing color of its surface, thanks to the dye companies along its banks that poured their leftover product into its waters on a daily basis. Changing with the times, the powerhouse was eventually converted into a substation, used as a central port of power for the trolley system. As that service too became nonexistent, the building found itself abandoned, dark and defunct. And to think, it had once been responsible for creating light.
In 2001, Zach was part of a community that would come to reclaim the building. While he remembers the first winter as lonely, with rarely more than three people in the building at a time, the word soon spread. Kindred spirits would flock, regenerate the industrial relic, grow its family as big as the building itself, which was quite a feat. The Batcave is visible for miles around, with “OPEN YOUR EYE GIRL” tagged in massive letters on the cornice, the building’s anachronistic red brick body standing out as a blight or a beauty (depending on the beholder) in the Brooklyn skyline.
Local kids know the building well, many having experienced her womb-like innards back when security was more lenient, circa 2013 and earlier. Online, Googling “Gowanus Batcave” will get you a slew of ruin porn, pictures of the building’s gutted insides, full of graffiti and natural light and things left behind by past residents. But while photos of the Batcave are easy to find, her stories are much more deeply obscured.
They found furniture on the street, brought friends from other squats on the Lower East Side, fixed up the office-like plasterboard cubicles on the top floor into bedrooms, got comfortable. A squatter electrician came through and jerry-rigged 400 feet of extension cord from the Third Street Bridge to the building.
“We could either power a TV or a single light bulb,” Zach says, “but we had to pick.”
Come Christmas Eve, about thirty to forty travelers, junkies, broads, bums, and runaways were watching “Pirates of the Caribbean” on that ridiculously fat box of a television when it went out and everybody yelled. “We looked outside, and they were raising the fucking bridge. It had cut the power,” Zach tells. They started throwing bottles and bricks and smashed a dumpster, shouting over the flying glass shards, dancing and singing.
“This one kid, Katelyn, she really truly lost it,” Zach recalls. “Put a pickaxe through the TV while everyone laughed and laughed.”
At the end there was a pile of sleeping bodies on the basement floor, worn from their antics, held down for a moment by the weight of sleep.
For the first three years, there was a no-junkie law: Cyphe your pot, drink your booze, maybe have a bump every now and then, but strictly no H. “The Batcave was a home then,” Zach says with reverence, “not a shooting gallery. We were tryn’a keep her quiet, for the greater good, ya’ dig?” The law was a reactionary measure, an attempt at self-policing following an overdose that first winter.
“We saved the kid with CPR,” he says.
It was manic at times, sure, but without hard drugs and surrounded by street family, nobody was much complaining. There was the night a seventeen-year-old kid named Flash decided to rip his braces out with a set of pliers to celebrate Easter.
“It was four in the morning and the Batcave was dry so he got drunk off some vanilla extract at the bottom of the community cooler.” Zach smiles at the memory, then asks, “Have you ever seen someone get drunk off vanilla extract? It’s somethin’.”
Flash used a puddle’s reflection to get the angle right, then aimed, pulled and ripped – one bracket two bracket three bracket four – ’til his mouth was orthodonture-free, his teeth outlined in blood. “Someone decided to parade him around the building on an orange crate up onto the roof.” They greeted the dawn, rolled a fattie, and listened to the birds and the breeze and the BQE as their smoke rings dissipated in the general direction of the Verrazano.
In 2004, Zach went away. He hid his acoustic guitar under the Batcave’s stairs, guarded by a note that read, “This is all I got,” and skipped town. “I found my way down to New Orleans and stayed awhile,” he says. After a few months in NOLA, he lost two friends to the needle and decided to head home. He found his way back to the train yard and caught a ride on the back of a grain hopper, the heat sweating the tears out of him and then slapping them into the breeze.
“When I got back,” he says, “the guitar was gone.”
His friends were gone, too. In their place, seemingly every homeless person from Tompkins Square Park had moved in, buckled down for autumn, and they had brought their friends. The Batcave had become a heroin den, complete with dark vibes, soiled mattresses and “Rape White Girls” scrawled in the grout of the third-floor backroom. OD-ing heads would be pushed out onto the street in shopping carts for EMS to find after the third phone call to the precinct about a body in the street, covered in blood, not moving.
Zach left. Moved on. Let go. Two years later, everyone was evicted. “That was the most fun I’ve ever had,” he says.
Today, the building is owned by millionaire philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz, slated to become an art gallery of sorts. No one’s lived there in years, and visits by urban explorers, locals and curious shoppers at the new Whole Foods across the street are met with increasingly tight security to keep trespassers and lawsuits far away.
“It’s cathartic, talking about this,” Zach says as we’re finally kicked out of the Tea Lounge after a four-hour interview. “Most people don’t ask, or care.”
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Hannah Frishberg is a fourth-generation Brooklynite and journalist. She’s currently working on a book about the Gowanus Batcave, detailing her own experience with the building as well as all the stories — from substation to squatter to soldier burial ground — that have unfolded inside the notorious abandonment.
Will Ellis is a freelance photographer, video editor, and the founder of AbandonedNYC.com.