Volume 76, Number 50 | May 9 -15, 2007

Talking Point

Farewell to Superior Inks and that old funky mix

By Kate Walter

I love my temporary river view now that I can see the Hudson from my desk. The large boxy obstruction is gone. That’s the only good thing I can say about the destruction of the Superior Inks building on the corner of Bethune and West Sts.

Superior Inks was the last remaining working factory on the Greenwich Village waterfront, a relic from the period when New York Harbor was a bustling commercial port. The loss feels personal because this plant was my neighbor.

During the decade I’ve lived on Bethune St., I paced my day to the rhythms and sounds of Superior’s work hours. When the fence was unlocked and the loading dock gate rolled up every morning at 7, that was my alarm clock. Depending on the time of year, the gate went down between 6 and 8 every night. When they shut it, I usually turned off my computer.

My three large windows looked out onto the four-story structure and its busy loading area. Superior manufactured lithographic inks and other pressroom supplies. Originally erected in 1919-’21 as a bakery for Nabisco crackers, the two-toned brown-and-tan brick building with its dual smokestacks reminded me of the old textile factories in my hometown of Paterson, N.J. The setting sunlight reflected beautifully on the bricks, casting a reddish glow that bathed the block, especially in the long days of summer. The doorway, with its arch and sleek silver lines, recalled the art deco period of the 1920s when the building was constructed.

Now all that’s left of this beautiful industrial architecture is a tiny bit of wall on W. 12th and West Sts. and that will be coming down, too. Heroic efforts by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation could not save the structure from the almighty influence of The Related Companies, which will be erecting luxury condominiums with a 15-story tower on West St. and townhouses along Bethune St. My new neighbors will likely be investment bankers and attorneys — wealthy people. I’m an unrepentant bohemian, a writer and teacher, holding out in a rapidly changing neighborhood. 

When I first moved to Westbeth, directly across the street from Superior Inks, it took some adjusting to the static of workers shouting across the lot and delivery trucks arriving too early and idling under my window in the morning. Much of the ruckus was work related. But what drove me crazy was the loud yelling in the yard on warm evenings when the men were hanging out after their day ended. I was writing, windows open to get a river breeze. They had been noisy all day. Enough was enough. I needed quiet to concentrate.

Yet Superior was a good neighbor. Any time I contacted a manager about a disturbance — like the laundry guy who arrived at 5 a.m., clunky motor running while waiting for them to open — the management was responsive. They even had a policy that trucks coming for pickups could not play their radios while waiting in the lot. When Superior Inks moved out at the end of last year, I thought they’d have a party or something, but they seemed to go away without a whimper. All of a sudden, the fence did not open, the blue-collar workers disappeared — yes, they actually wore blue uniforms — and the parade of delivery vans stopped coming.

During the past few months, I witnessed the demolition crews arrive with their equipment. First they draped the fence in black, like a funeral bunting. Then they took down the chimneys brick by brick. Next they crane-lifted machines to the roofs and began the jackhammering that drove everyone crazy for weeks. Photographer neighbors took parting shots and documented the destruction. Over the years, various Westbeth painters had preserved Superior Inks on canvas.

I miss the familiar rumble of the gate closing every night signaling the end of another weekday. I actually felt disoriented when this sound went away. I didn’t know when to quit work. I even missed the yelling in the yard.

Last week, as I tossed my file of correspondence with Superior Inks, I thought of the Joni Mitchell line, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Except on Bethune St., they already closed down the parking lot on the other corner and put up a 12-story apartment building. That destroyed my big sky view. I used to see all the way to Chelsea.

When I moved here in 1997, after two decades in the East Village, I was surprised by the changes in this once-seedy fringe district. But nothing could have prepared me for the past few years. I’m still in shock from Richard Meier’s three glass towers on the waterfront. The irony has not been lost on me that the architect’s big break was almost 40 years ago when he was commissioned to convert the old Bell Labs into Westbeth Artists Housing, where I live.

Westbeth opened in the early ’70s, a residential oasis among the factories, the first Village housing west of Washington St. The area was a grimy waterfront with sex and drugs and prostitution on the piers and in the warehouses. Desolate and far from the subways, the neighborhood did not even have a supermarket then. Today, we’ve got Gristede’s and Dag’s with its own sushi bar. Westbeth is still an oasis but now among million-dollar condos.

The demolition of Superior Inks cements the end of an era. The Far West Village has changed completely from industrial to high-end residential, spurred by the development of Hudson River Park. The funky mix is gone; the edginess has vanished; the queer piers are gentrified. As this transformation continues at warp speed, it feels scary, like I’m an imposter — a struggling writer who slipped in among the rich folks in this now-tony neighborhood. I wonder how long I can pass. I’m going to savor my river view. It won’t last long.


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