Rat poison-mercury-vapor-radioactive-lead dust factory?
April 25, 2007 7:40 AM   Subscribe

What is the best, least expensive way to research the industrial history of a factory building in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn, NY?

I have the chance to rent space in an old factory (for art studio/work, not living) but given the nature of the Gowanus Canal and the area's industrial history, I wonder about the past uses of this building. For instance, several blocks away is a building that still has the sign (I presume) from its past life: The Kentile Company. (I believe that Kentile made asbestos laden floor tile among other things.)

I have had several studios over the years, all in old factory type buildings, but the Gowanus area, while improving, does seem to have had a more hardcore past.

I was wondering what resources might exist for discovering where any given building falls on the range of, say: a cardboard box factory (the usual landlord favorite), to: a rat poison-mercury-vapor-radioactive-lead dust factory (my worst fear).
posted by R. Mutt to Grab Bag (7 answers total)
Well, a great start is just Googling the address and then scanning through the pages and pages of results. That's how I found records of the many people who had lived in, died, or been born in my last apartment (in Brooklyn) over the last hundred years.
posted by hermitosis at 7:43 AM on April 25, 2007

Try popping the address in to www.propertyshark.com. I used this site a lot for my work in rating buildings for insurance purposes. PropertyShark is one-stop shopping for public info on properties. You can see previous owners, HPD violations, flood maps, work permits, construction dates, etc. Happy hunting!
posted by digiFramph at 8:07 AM on April 25, 2007

Best answer: Local historical societies are cheap to free, and the people who work there generally love to help and have oodles of information in their heads and know where to go for whatever they don't know. The Brooklyn Historical Society should be able to help out with records of who has been in there, company-wise, etc.

Since you're specifically looking at environmental issues, you might also talk to the EPA. For relatively recent tenants, you can search the Toxic Release Inventory (here), which companies have to file when they use certain types of environmentally hazardous substances (well, really, anything). The EPA also keep a list of places that have been subject to clean-up (here) due to environmental contamination. This search can be expanded to your neighborhood, instead of just the building.
posted by whatzit at 8:44 AM on April 25, 2007

Best answer: Place in History, which is a neighborhood history group based in Brooklyn, has done a lot of work on the Gowanus Canal area over the last 15 years or so. I'm sure they could point you toward reseach sources.
posted by judith at 9:28 AM on April 25, 2007

Couldn't you just drop down to City Hall and look at the Grand List (do they have a Grand List in cities? I've only ever lived in small towns) and see who owned the property? It, and the property tax filings, ought to all be public information.

If you go at a time when the clerks aren't busy, and you act friendly, you ought to have all sorts of information there. At the very least you ought to be able to figure out when the building was constructed and who owned the property or paid taxes on it through its lifetime; then you could just Google the names of the owners to see what they made.

Also, librarians are usually very helpful. Again, when they're not really busy with other things, I'd find the oldest reference librarian at the local library and give them an idea of what you're trying to find out -- I'll bet they can point you in the right direction.

Sounds like a fun project, actually.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:08 AM on April 25, 2007

This might not produce the sort of information you're looking for...but Christopher Gray, a godfather of NYC building history, wrote up this guide to researching the history of a NYC building. Looks like lots of legwork.
posted by Brian James at 11:10 AM on April 25, 2007

Your local library should have old city directories - Probably Polk or Haines. These will tell you (depending on the available collection) names of businesses operating at the address over the years. Some info here.
posted by Big_B at 11:51 AM on April 25, 2007

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