The hulking Red Hook Grain Terminal has loomed over the mouth of the Gowanus Canal since 1922. Following the decline of the industry it was built to support, its concrete silos have been abandoned for nearly half a century, a relic of Brooklyn’s industrial past.
One Saturday in late September, however, music throbbed from within its walls and the grounds, usually dark and rubble-gray, were bathed in pulsing neon light. The event was called Elements, an eight-hour art and music festival on the eve of the fall equinox. Organized by BangOn! NYC, an event production company that specializes in what it calls “one-of-a-kind themed nightlife spectacles,” the bacchanal opened up a space that is otherwise strictly off-limits.
The repurposing of derelict buildings for hedonistic ends is a neighborhood tradition of sorts. Farther up the canal, an old power station that has come to be known as the Gowanus Batcave was a hub for squatters in the 2000s, and even in the years since the owners caught wind and evicted the unwanted tenants, a smattering of punk bands have taken up their mantle and thrown thrashing parties in the graffitied space.
The Grain Terminal grounds, however, were packed with thousands over the course of the night, and unlike at the Batcave, the party was sanctioned by the property owner and staffed by security.
At the gates on Columbia Street, a line of shuttle buses discharged their passengers and then pulled away to pick up the next load from the subway station. Groups of colorfully attired 20-somethings paraded towards the entrance, snapping photos of the venue on their iPhones and taking furtive swigs from flasks until they were corralled into lines by uniformed staff holding bushels of electric blue wristbands.
Once through security, they diverged, some towards the behemoth grain terminal, its soot-dappled walls lit up with a swirling yellow projection several stories high, and others towards the pier, where a dance floor was germinating beside a mammoth docked ship.
A few guests dressed with a maritime theme, roving the grounds in life vests or sailor caps. Bikinis were de rigueur for the female performance artists, who danced on stage or drew crowds who watched as they swirled flaming spheres around in choreographed arcs.
Stalls set up next to crumbling brick walls and blown-out windows advertised shaved ice and face painting, and women walked away with Technicolor swirls on their temples. Against a grimy backdrop, a photographer snapped photos as a mustachioed man struck a pose with someone dressed in a fuzzy black cat costume.
On the ground floor below the terminal’s 54 silos, a crowd of 30 or so donned identical headphones and danced between rows of graffitied stone columns. It was the silent disco, an event organizer explained, and if you wanted to hear what everybody was listening to, you’d have to get in line for a pair of headphones.
No accessories were necessary, however, at the water stage, as the dance floor on the pier was called. There, thumping electronic music boomed out over the water, and the hull of the ship became a screen for kaleidoscopic projections. A disco ball was suspended from a crane that jutted out from one of the upper decks, secured with the kind of curved metal hook that Red Hook has adopted as a neighborhood symbol of sorts.
At 9 p.m., the crowds’ eyes seemed to collectively raise skyward. High above the festival, near the top of the 12-story building, an aerial performer dangled against the convex wall of a grain silo. Music played as the orb of light around her rippled like a tidepool. Crowds perched on crumbling logs and colossal dump truck tires to watch the spectacle, erupting in a round of applause when she bounded down to the ledge below.