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Smokestacks Along the Hudson: The Gansevoort Destructor Plant

Once burning much of New York City’s refuse, the Gansevoort Destructor Plant was a looming fixture of the skyline along the Hudson River. John T. Krawchuk photographed the plant, which has since been demolished, in the 1990s as part of his masters thesis, On The Edge: the West Village Waterfront. The plant appears in the collection of photos he donated to us, The John T. Krawchuk Collection: The West Village Waterfront in the Early 1990s in our historic image archive.

Gansevoort Destructor Plant (demolished) on Gansevoort Peninsula, west of West Street. Image by John T. Krawchuk.

The plant was already decommissioned and operating as a parking garage for the Department of Sanitation by the time Krawchuk photographed it. Now just a memory, the plant is a symbol of the dramatic change and urban renewal that has taken place along the Hudson River waterfront in Greenwich Village.

Garbage incinerators have their own fraught history in New York City. As the population grew rapidly in the 19th century, waste disposal became a pressing public health issue. The solution was to begin incinerating the garbage collected for placement in landfills. The first garbage incinerator in New York City (and in the United States) was built on Governors Island in 1885, and was followed by several others, including the infamous 215th Street Incinerator in Inwood and the Gansevoort Destructor Plant. 

An illustration of the first garbage incinerator in the United States on Governors Island.

Constructed in 1953, the Gansevoort Destructor Plant was part of an era of public improvement projects that heavily impacted the infrastructure of Greenwich Village. The Washington Square Market was demolished to make room for the plant, which needed to be strategically located on the waterfront. Inside the destructor plant, garbage from all over the city was consolidated — between 780 and 1,000 tons per day, an incredible processing rate at the time. The incinerated refuse was then shipped out on a barge to Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island. 

The West Washington Market in the 19th century.

The pollution produced by incinerators had a horrendous impact on air quality. While burning waste was once thought to be a solution to the public health hazard of waste, by the mid-twentieth century, climate scientists and public health researchers were alerting the public to the human and environmental impacts of waste materials being released into the atmosphere. In 1970, the Federal Clean Air Act was passed. The act gave a set of safety standards through the EPA that regulated major sources of air pollution, such as incinerators. The enforcement of the act (and its subsequent amendments) led to the closure of many incinerators and other major polluters that could not sufficiently reduce their level of pollution, including the Gansevoort Destructor in 1980. 

View of Gansevoort Peninsula looking south in 2023. Image: John Hill, World Architects

By 2023, the change in appearance of the Gansevoort Peninsula was inviting yet also startling: Gansevoort Peninsula had re-opened as a man-made beach, which surrounds a small athletic field. The new peninsula is part of Hudson River Park, perhaps the most significant urban improvement project along the lower Hudson waterfront in recent years, along with the transformation of the High Line. 20 million juvenile oysters were seeded in the natural saltwater marsh that surrounds the peninsula, which will help restore water quality for the species who live in the marsh. Amidst the development of the new park was a rejected proposal to re-activate the plant as a waste transfer station (though not as an incinerator). Such a proposal only goes to show how long and complicated the process of urban development can be.

Want to see more images of the bygone Greenwich Village waterfront of the 1990s? Check out the entire John T. Krawchuk Collection: The West Village Waterfront in the Early 1990s of our historic image archive.

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