For decades, a derelict powerhouse loomed over the banks of Brooklyn’s toxic Gowanus Canal, its mysterious halls hidden away and accessed only by intrepid teenage squatters, graffiti artists and urban explorers.
Now, the doors to this historic structure, known as the Batcave, have opened to the public with the official launch of Powerhouse Arts on May 19. This 170,000 square foot arts fabrication facility connects the old Brooklyn Rapid Transit Power Station, a 119-year-old landmark, to a new six-story building designed by internationally renowned architects Herzog & de Meuron, with PBDW Architects.
The complex was funded by $180 million from its founder, Joshua Rechnitz, and houses a ceramic studio, print shop and public arts workshop, with spaces for metal, jewelry, textile and wood work expected to be completed within a year. Fees to access these spaces will be kept below market rate, Powerhouse Arts president Eric Shiner says, subsidized as part of the nonprofit's mission. The center, whose annual operating budget is more than $12 million, will be supported by donors and by renting out its two large halls for public events.
“Nothing like us really exists, especially at this scale, with so many fabricating workshops under one roof,” Shiner said. “We are very affordable, and we want to stay that way, so that artists have one less thing to worry about in their life, with rising rents and everything else that's happening in the city.”
For anyone familiar with the earlier history of the space, the reopening might seem surreal. From 2002 to 2006, the building housed the squatter community known as the Batcave. The space hosted illicit parties, punk shows and queer raves until 2012.
Traces of a transgressive history remain
Powerhouse Arts retains visible markers of the Batcave’s transgressive history. Hundreds of graffiti pieces were cleaned up and left in place throughout the complex, giving it a unique aura. One of the Batcave’s founders, Ellery Neon, was invited to be part of the opening festivities.
“It’s unbelievable, it kind of all feels like a surreal beautiful dream,” he said. Neon, an artist who also goes by the pseudonym Hugo Gyrl because of his graffiti tag You Go Girl, started the Batcave with a friend and threw numerous parties in the space while covering its facade with political graffiti.
“It was 2002, I was 17, and I kind of ran away from home, and ended up looking for somewhere,” Neon said. “I found the building, and me and my friend moved in, and we called it the Batcave. It was a pretty successful community for a while.”
Neon lived there until 2004, by which time the commune had grown to 30 squatters. They made a home inside the crumbling, leaking building without heat, water or electricity, fending off wild dogs, tapping a nearby drawbridge for power and running a bike-repair shop.
After Neon left, the squatter community devolved into heroin and violence. The residents were evicted in 2006 by the building’s previous owners, but Neon returned to host parties and paint massive messages across the rooftop, such as “No More Corporate Bullshit” and “End Stop And Frisk!” According to Neon, those graffiti pieces were what drew Rechnitz to the building, which he purchased in 2012 for $7 million.
Before developing the site, Powerhouse Arts completed a lengthy cleanup at a cost of more than $20 million. The coal-fired power plant had been built in 1904, and provided electricity for Brooklyn’s trolley system and subways until 1972. It was declared a New York state brownfield site in 2005, and was primarily polluted by polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Cleaning up the Batcave
The Powerhouse Arts team worked with the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency to clean out underground coal tunnels, removing approximately 8,375 tons of PCB-contaminated soil and 4,700 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil. The cleanup was completed in 2017.
“We’ve heard from multiple contractors that it was the go-to dumping ground in Gowanus,” said Paul Parkhill, the CEO of Gemini Arts, the Powerhouse subsidiary overseeing the cleanup. “There are monitoring wells in the site, we monitor air quality on an ongoing basis and we will have to for a long time to come.”
Restoring the powerhouse, one of the last historic structures remaining on the Gowanus Canal, involved extensive renovation, including a new roof and floors: the building was open to the elements for decades, with snow and rain flooding its interior. It was officially designated a Landmark in 2019, after a campaign by the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition helped save five buildings near the canal. Demolitions have sped up since the neighborhood was rezoned in 2021, and entire blocks sit empty. Two luxury apartment buildings are currently rising next to Powerhouse Arts.
For the grand opening, Powerhouse Arts commissioned Neon to create a new mural on the walls, honoring the building’s past. During the opening events, hundreds of prints based on his mural were handed out to visitors. He was recognized onstage at a private benefit and gala hosted by Open House New York, where 400 dinner guests honored the building's designers and architects.
When Open House New York hosted an open house over the weekend, 825 local residents wandered through the complex. Neighborhood parents who’d never seen the inside of the mysterious Batcave brought their children to run through the halls.
“There's always a part of me that's a little sad that it's not my secret hideout anymore, but it's great that people get to use it,” said Neon, who hopes to bring his drag wrestling event Choke Hole to the Powerhouse. “I don’t expect it to be a community punk rave bike shop center. I expect it to change, I expect it to be different. But I do hope that they can have some of the same energy of trying new things, experimenting and letting people be creative in a real way.”
This story has been updated with additional details on the building's architects.