Will Ellis photographs abandoned places in New York in his book, Abandoned NYC. (VIDEO)

Searching for Hidden Treasures in New York’s Abandoned Places

Searching for Hidden Treasures in New York’s Abandoned Places

Behold
The Photo Blog
March 30 2015 11:13 AM

Searching for Hidden Treasures in New York’s Abandoned Places

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The main floor of the “Jumping Jack Pump House” in Brooklyn.

Will Ellis

In the years since he started photographing tombs, theaters, and other forgotten spaces, Will Ellis has gotten used to rising early and staying out late. Those are, after all, the best times to trespass without being detected.

But we’re still a bit bleary-eyed when we meet him outside the subway station in Brooklyn. He hasn’t told us where we’re going exactly—the building, unlike the other places he’s photographed for his book Abandoned NYC, isn’t widely known and he wants to keep it that way. All we know is that it will likely be dark, cold, and probably a little dangerous.

After squeezing through a few fences, clomping through a few snow piles, and sliding between a dilapidated door, we navigate the pitch-black ground floor, stepping over large patches of ice and duck under low-hanging machinery. But the building’s treacherousness isn’t the main draw for the urban explorer; it’s the feeling of history here that excites and mystifies. Ellis says he’s not entirely sure what the building—which he refers to as the “Jumping Jack Pump House” for its hulking, defining architectural feature—once produced. But traces of its former users, including a magazine pinup glued onto an overturned locker, are all around, not to mention the graffiti tags and beer cans of more recent visitors to the space.

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The Staten Island Farm Colony was constructed in the 19th century to house and rehabilitate the city’s poor. This was the last room standing in a collapsed dormitory now slated for demolition.

Will Ellis

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The Harlem Renaissance Ballroom was a notable meeting place for the movement’s movers and shakers in the 1920s. It once hosted the greatest jazz performers of the age, as well as the nation’s first all-black professional basketball team.

Will Ellis

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The Gowanus “Batcave” was the home of a thriving squatter community in the early 2000s. Today it’s being renovated into artists’ studios and exhibition space.

Will Ellis

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It’s that feeling of unexpected discovery that has kept Ellis constantly seeking out places like this. He finds other locations, including a demolished Staten Island castle, an abandoned MTA powerhouse turned squatter settlement, and a Harlem public school, online, sometimes following the footsteps of urban explorers who’ve preceded him, posting the results to his blog, AbandonedNYC.

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North Brother Island in the Bronx was the site of a historic hospital for contagious diseases. After being abandoned for half a century, it’s now a wildlife preserve.

Will Ellis

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In Queens, a population of pigeons has inhabited an abandoned ward at Creedmoor State Hospital for decades. Dropping stalagmites accrue under popular roosts on the top floor.

Will Ellis

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Dawn breaks in a crumbling classroom of P.S. 186 in Harlem. After 40 years of neglect, saplings sprout from the upper floors of the school.

Will Ellis

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Paint peels in the now-demolished packaging plant of Williamsburg's Domino Sugar Refinery. The factory operated on the Brooklyn waterfront for nearly 150 years before shutting down in the early 2000s.

Will Ellis

Inside the pump house, Ellis unpacks his camera and takes several exposures on his tripod of the same scene. Back in front of his computer, he’ll overlay several shots to create one image that’s well-exposed. He’s looking to capture both small details and vast scenes to paint a full picture of the interior. As he was in many of the places he’s photographed, he’s looking for “those little nooks and crannies,” the gaps in walls and boarded up windows, where the light is doing something magical.

While Ellis is just one of many photographers in New York City fascinated by architectural neglect, he distinguishes his work from the oft-criticized “ruin porn” of his peers by focusing his efforts on education. Many of the buildings he’s photographed have since been destroyed or renovated, and he wants his photos to help future New Yorkers remember them.

“I hope some people will stick around and learn some things about the history of New York that they didn’t know, because a lot of this isn’t going to be recorded in the textbooks. It’s local history, local urban legends and stuff like that. So it’s rewarding to be able to preserve that.”

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Grossinger’s Catskills Resort was once a favored upscale destination for Jewish New Yorkers. A summer at Grossinger’s is said to be the inspiration for the movie Dirty Dancing.

Will Ellis

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The Freedom Tunnel under Riverside Park once held a vast homeless encampment known as “the mole people.” Amtrak evicted the residents and reactivated the line in the 1990s, but the tunnel remains a mecca for graffiti artists.

Will Ellis

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Letchworth Village is located just an hour’s drive from New York City in Thiells. It was founded in 1912 to house the city’s developmentally disabled as a “state institution for the epileptic and feeble-minded.”

Will Ellis

Previously on Behold:

Jordan G. Teicher is the associate editor of Slates Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.

Anne Marie Lindemann is a former associate producer and editor for Slate Video.