As New York homes became equipped with residential gas lines, starting in the mid 19th century, gas companies erected all over the city monstrous gas tanks, round towers that dominated local skylines and established their immediate surroundings as industrial. They “were built to provide constant pressure in residential gas lines during high demand,” the Times explained, in 2001, when the last tanks (in Greenpoint) were torn down. “Fluctuations in gas flow in homes can cause pilot lights to go out, causing risk of explosion and poisoning.” Manhattan had a whole “Gas House District,” dominated by the Gas House Gang, a real street gang before it became a sobriquet applied to the 1934 Saint Louis Cardinals.
The areas around gas houses were among the least desirable to live, polluted industrial zones one comic from the 1950s posits as the antithesis of the penthouse, that representation of upper-class sophistication. Still, almost every neighborhood had such gas tanks in the 20th century; they were essential components of the modern infrastructure.
Bay Ridge’s were located on almost an entire city block between Eighth and Ninth avenues, 65th and 66th streets, across from what became Leif Ericson Park. By the time they were dismantled, the tanks were the Bay Ridge Towers of their day, about 25 stories tall and visible from everywhere: they show up in an old photograph of the Kallman Home, which became Adelphi Academy, on 86th and Ridge, and another of McKinley Park, from Fort Hamilton Parkway and 78th Street. The tanks would have been familiar and recognizable to everyone.
But they had not always been so large. The first gas tank in the area was built in 1892; it was relatively small: 104 feet tall and was 98 feet wide, thus creating approximately 500,000 cubic feet of capacity. The second was three times the size and built ca. 1906, when the application was made “for the erection of a structure of this character near the Shore Driveway.” (The tanks appear on a map from 1907–1912.) All such tanks were controversial; the borough president encouraged in 1906 passage of a bill that would prohibit “erection of gas tanks or other unsightly and malodorous structures within three thousand feet of any park, boulevard or driveway in New York.” The headline in the Eagle: “GAS TANKS, BAD NEIGHBORS.” In 1908, Flatbushers fought new gas tanks as an eyesore and nuisance.
The location of the Bay Ridge tanks, particularly the later and larger one, was particularly irksome. Local civics and city planners envisioned what they alternatively called the Bay Ridge Parkway and Shore Road Drive as a greenway beginning at Fort Hamilton Parkway and 66th Street, then winding west all the way to the waterfront, where it would turn south and follow present-day Shore Road. (The project was completed from the coast to Fourth Avenue; the neglected section between Fourth Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway became Leif Ericson Park in the 1920s and 30s.)
That the Kings County Lighting Company had decided to build its hideous gas hulks adjacent to what was supposed to have been a majestic parkway was outrageous. In 1909, the city planned to fix it. “Under the plans of the Park Department officials for the extension of the driveway there will be hidden from view the unsightly gas tanks, erection of which caused so much complaint several years ago,” the Eagle reported. “These great reservoirs, which are between Sixty-fifth and Sixty-sixth streets, will be blotted from sight by a succession of mounds flanking the driveway”—that is, the road would be sunk, hidden within hills, so you literally wouldn’t be able to see the tanks. (This road was eliminated in the 1930s during the construction of Leif Ericson Park as we know it today.)
By 1910, however, little work had been done on the future Leif Ericson land. The Eagle bemoaned “a scattering conglomeration of objectionable structures, with the Kings County Lighting Company gas tanks serving as a fitting background to the whole unsightly aspect.” They weren’t just ugly—they were icons of ugliness.
And yet they remained, because if people wanted gas, they were necessary—and people wanted gas. In 1922, there were 48,000 gas meters in use in the Bay Ridge section (likely significantly larger than our present conception of the neighborhood’s boundaries); by 1931, that had more than doubled, to 98,000 meters.
With rising demand came the need for more capacity. The original two tanks could hold 1.5 million and 500,000 cubic feet; in 1924, the Kings County Lighting Company announced it would build a third tank, with a capacity of 5 million cubic feet—two and a half times the original two combined. In the previous two decades, however, the area near and around the gas tanks had developed considerably; the local gas-house district may have been undesirable, but there were only so many places to live—and various other amenities had made what we’d now consider northwestern Dyker Heights appealing. These new locals vigorously fought the new tank, led by the McKinley Park Civic League. “The fact that already there are two tanks at the point in question was one of the strongest arguments advanced by the lighting company,” the Eagle reported. “It was pointed out that three gas tanks could hardly be much more unsightly than two.”
“We must build a holder to supply the community with gas,” said [the] secretary of the Kings County Lighting Company…“People don’t seem to realize that this is one of the fastest growing communities in the country. And the people want gas.”
Critics countered: “The odor in the neighborhood is bad enough as it is.”
In 1924, the Kings County Lighting Company also built a showroom, still standing on Senator and Fourth (currently undergoing renovations to become a medical building operated by NYU Langone), where it showed off its gas-powered products on the ground floor, while the upper floors provided office space to its employees. In 1940, a scrolling sign, the kind seen previously only in Times Square, was installed on the building, the first ever seen in the area, with a message recommending the use of gas for heat.
Two decades later, the increasing popularity of gas again necessitated more capacity: the Kings County Lighting Company decided in 1949 to build another 5-million-cubic-feet tank, like its sister also 118 feet tall. Local residents again fought the company, organizing themselves into the Landlords and Tenants Association of Bay Ridge, though they lost again, and the new giant tank was built.
“The organization charges that the illuminating gas storage tank would be a blight to the area, lower the property value and be a safety hazard in time of war,” the Eagle reported.
People were afraid of the safety risk the tanks posed. In October 1949, for example, “The Bay Ridge Blackout” caused the tank’s airplane-warning lights to go off; a police emergency squad set up a spotlight to shine on it, so planes wouldn’t crash into it and blow it up.
In Bay Ridge-native novelist Gilbert Sorrentino’s 1995 book Red the Fiend, set on 68th Street during the Depression, the title character is tormented by his grandmother, transforming him from a troubled kid into a budding psychopath—and the gas tanks are the object of his doomsday fantasies. On one New Year’s Day, “Red looks out the window past the roofs to the Kings County Lighting Company’s gas tanks huge and squat on the horizon and wonders if they will ever blow up. Gone, everything gone in a flash.” Later, he’s on the roof with his mother and grandparents: “The four of them in the muggy heat, beneath the stars, the lights of the huge gas tanks on the horizon, out toward Coney Island, blinking red and white. If they ever blow up, everybody will be blown to kingdom come. Not just Red. He likes to keep this in mind.”
And yet, in the 1930s, there were serious plans to build a school here: PS 264, on the west side of Eighth Avenue, between 65th and 66th streets, where “small, innocent children” would have attended school under the “constant threat of the largest gas tanks in the world,” as Republican Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia put it in 1929, “in a dense, throaty voice.” He accused local Democratic leader and Tammany boss John McCooey of personally profiting from the land deal for the school, which raged for years as a local political scandal. (You can read rundowns here and here.)
“It’s pretty bad when politicians mulct [?] city money. That’s pretty bad. That’s human nature, though. But how about when they try to put up a city school…blocks away from a gas tank, just for the sake of a few thousand dollars gain?
“Why, you know what happens when water boils over and the gas escapes in your own home, even for a few seconds, the whole house is filled with the odor. And you cough. Well, just imagine thousands of school children, year after year coughing like that. Nero was a kind-hearted Christian compared with that.”
(PS 264 is now the school on 89th and Fourth, aka the “Bay Ridge Elementary School for the Arts.”)
Later, it was suggested a Boys’ Vocational High School could be built there instead—even though the site was “entirely hemmed in by heavily trafficked streets, garages, slaughter houses, industrial plants and gas tanks,” as the Eagle reported in 1930.
A local reverend, however, objected to the apocalyptic language used to describe the area. “The property fronts on one of the finest stretches of park-land in this borough,” he wrote to the Eagle, referring to Leif Ericson.
“Not half a block away on the same street a church was recently erected that cost in the neighborhood of $100,000 [almost $1.8 million, adjusted for inflation], and another church will be erected nearby within a year.
“It is true that we have a couple of gas tanks a distance away, but that does not in this particular instance mean slum condition and gangster hangout. The property surrounding the school site…is first-class property.”
Regardless, what became known as the “gas-house site” remained undeveloped. “The site, amidst gas tanks and other obnoxious industries, is totally unfit for a school,” as another letter writer put it. It eventually became the baseball field affectionately known to locals as the Dust Bowl.
In 1951, during the Korean War, the original Bay Ridge storage tank was dismantled for the defense effort, so its 750,000 tons of scrap iron could be recycled. At the time, it was the end of an era, the end of a familiar landmark. The second tank, from 1906, which held 1.5 million cubic feet, must have been torn down shortly thereafter, though I can’t find a record of it. (Probably after the Eagle stopped publishing in 1955!)
The two 5-million-cubic-feet monstrosities stood until 1968. “The storage holders are the tallest structures in this part of the borough,” the Home Reporter reported, “and have long been a familiar point in the Brooklyn skyline.”
The units [to be demolished] are the two gas storage holders, their gas compressors and boiler house…The combined capacity of the two holders is 10 million cubic feet, only a minute portion of the 6,540 million cubic feet required to meet peak-day requirements. [Emphasis mine]
The utility said there was little likelihood that any of the facilities to be retired would ever be needed for emergency purposes because of the multiplicity of transmission mains through which it receives its supply of natural gas.
The company also said that savings estimated at $230,000 a year would accrue to it through reductions in operating expenses and taxes as a result of the removal of the facilities.
A company spokesman said this week that there are “no plans at present” for the vacated land which is owned by the gas company.
Fifty years later, that’s still true—today, the site is a weedy, fenced-in field, mostly unused, though still owned by Brooklyn Union Gas. (Part of the former gas-tank site is used by the Parkville Youth Organization as the John C. Gallo Baseball Fields.) In 2007, the state department of environmental conservation ordered BUG/Keyspan to “investigate and, if necessary, remediate the Site due to possible presence of coal tar and associated hazardous substances…which were or which may have been disposed at the Site in the past.” It’s unclear what the result of this was.
(Before the introduction of natural gas in the mid 20th century, gas was produced using coal. “Because the gas contained moisture and coal particulates, it would undergo a cleansing process before it was pumped into storage tanks,” one website explains. “Nevertheless, by today’s standards, the gas remained ‘wet’ and still contained a significant amount of coal particulates. Both the moisture and the particulates would drop out of the gas while stored and accumulate at the bottom of the tanks. This accumulation is known as coal tar.”)
The Verrazano Bridge had opened to traffic just a few years earlier. After the gas tanks were torn down, the Bay Ridge-area skyline drastically changed, kicking off the second Great Transformation in modern Bay Ridge history (the first having been the transition from farming community to urban neighborhood in the early 20th century). The Bay Ridge Towers went up within a few years, followed shortly by the Shore Hill retirement home—both now visible, along with the tower of the bridge, from all over the neighborhood, from vantage points where once, for most of the 20th century, the tallest visible structures would have been the red-and-white gas tanks of the Kings County Lighting Company.