Closing: How gentrification led to losing Brooklyn’s last machine shop | Story & Photos

10 mins read

Brooklyn, blue collar workers at a machine shop mainstay, built careers and familial ties. Now, they collect memories in the final days before it shutters.

For years, Red Hook was a violent and drug-plagued neighborhood best avoided. Richards Street served as a divider between New York City’s second largest public housing project to the east and the industrial businesses to the west.

On the west side, the ruckus of machines and tools rang through Goltens’ marine machine shop at 160 Van Brunt for 60 years. A hive of mechanics and workers toiled for long hours as they rebuilt engines and drive systems of ships, as well as, tankers stranded throughout the world. Even when quiet, an air compressor would hiss through the workshop.

Over time, like much of New York City, crime went down and newcomers purchased vacant properties. On July 3, 2014, Goltens went silent, the building sold to LIVWRK, a developer with plans to convert the industrial space into office and creative spaces. For the employees of Goltens – many of whom spent their careers covered in the building’s grease and grime – the closing hurt. Not because they lost their jobs on April 4, 2014. Not because they lost their income. Because they lost their family. 

The end of an era

Sigurd Golten founded the company in 1940 with its first shop on Carroll Street. As business grew, the company eventually bought the 100,000 square foot Red Hook building in 1945. Goltens expanded further and now operates in 25 cities in 15 countries, remaining a family-owned and operated company focusing on marine repairs, maintenance, reconditioning and engineering components. 

“Goltons is a family business. Its roots are in Brooklyn,” said Roy Strand, the Vice President of Goltens Americas and Goltens Europe and the grandson of the company’s founder. “We’ve been in Brooklyn almost 75 years, but when we looked at the economics and the long-term viability of where we were doing business, we decided it was time to consolidate our operations. It was a tough decision.”

Since 2014, the same guys who spent decades  mending and repairing damaged ship parts, have been dismantling their second home. For years, the nearby container port kept the shop busy, but with lower volume and market forces, Goltens, became a casualty. Its closing, marks the end of an era, the final chapter of Red Hook, Brooklyn’s commercial maritime industry. It marks the neighborhood’s continued industrial decline and the neighborhood’s accelerating gentrification.

Edik Fishman, a jack-of-all-trades with 17 years of Goltens experience, decommissioned the machine shop’s electrical system. While he slowly climbed the studded, grease-caked stairs to the light-soaked second floor, the 70-year old, with a grey, stubbly beard and smears of grease on his cheeks, paused to impart words of advice. “Have more than one child. Who does my son have after I am gone?” he lamented. “He is alone.” 

Family forged in sweat

For the employees of Goltens, shuttering the facility is like losing kin. On some nights, when second shift would finish, rather than head home to their families or to neighborhood bars, the guys stayed together at the shop.

“Friday nights was poker night,” said Sandro Morelli, 66, who originally worked on the night shift. “We would wash up, have sandwiches and play poker until the morning. Just a friendly game to stay together with the people you were working with. Those [nights] I miss.”

Morelli worked for Goltens for 48 years. He started in 1966 at Noro Incorporated, a non-union shop in New Jersey. His job moved to the company’s unionized Red Hook facility on Van Brunt in 1968, where he worked until retiring as the machine shop supervisor in January 2014 and was temporarily brought out of retirement to help close down the shop.

Morelli remembers his first day on the job like it was yesterday. “When I first came here and walked through that door at 9:30 in the morning, everybody in the place spoke a foreign language. We thought Brooklyn was part of America, but we came over here and we couldn’t understand a damn thing. That’s how it started,” he joked.

“Most of our workforce was from other countries,” said Shari Umland, 45, the human resource manager who worked for Goltens for 25 years. “We had a big diverse background of employees in the shop.” 

The general manager’s Croatian, the service engineer is from Spain, the business development manager is from India, and other workers are from Ukraine and South America. In the 60s, the employees were Scandinavian: from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. In the subsequent years, came the Italians, followed by Greeks, and lately, “a lot of Russians,” Morelli said. Over time, as workers retired they’d be replaced by employees from new countries.

But finding qualified mechanics proved a challenge as the remaining staff approached or surpassed retirement age in their 60s and even 70s. 

“We weren’t able to find the type of engineers we needed. Nobody’s going to school for this – it’s such a specific type of engineer. That’s why a majority of our workforce was international,” Umland said. Goltens provided workers of all backgrounds and nationalities an opportunity to grow professionally. The company found it common for an employee to start at the bottom and work their way into a management position, such as with Ivo Sisic, 64.

“I’m devastated,” Sisic said with a Croatian-clipped accent. “When you spend 42 years here, that’s all your best years. Now it’s over. It’s over.” 

With a 55-minute commute from Long Island, Sisic would arrive at Goltens at five am or ten after five at the latest. He worked his way up the ladder and, when the workshop shut down in April, he ran the facility as its general manager. 

“I would say in the 90s things started going down and down and down,” Sisic said. The 70s boomed with 120 ships docking every day in New York Harbor.

Today, that number reaches 13 ships on average, Sisic shared. The decrease in the number of ships docking in New York, coupled with newer and bigger vessels that require less maintenance, meant less work for Goltens’ mechanics. In response, the company slowly trimmed their workforce down to 20 employees; the number they let go on April 4, 2014.

‘We thought Brooklyn was a part of America, but we came here and we couldn’t understand a damn thing.’

Not all of Goltens’ business came from New York Harbor. The company routinely sends crews throughout the world to repair ships. Juan Cadabel, 70, originally from Spain, serves as one of the service engineers with experience working on fishing boats, container ships, passenger ships, and tankers. He routinely traveled to repair vessels and he knows how tough working on ships can be. “Four days I [worked with] no sleep,” he said. “This is my record. Day and night.”

Ships still need repairs but, in today’s market, they “come in the morning and leave in the evening and [there] is no time to do anything,” Sisic said. “An owner will not repair the ship in New York. They will repair the ships in the Far East where it is much cheaper.”

Repairs cost a fraction of the price in places like Singapore and China, where Goltens also operates, Sisic shared. “We were only surviving on emergency repair. If the ship cannot leave, we can repair it. That’s how we survived through the years,” said Sisic.

“It’s a sad commentary on the maritime industry. It has struggled for the last 30 years. Goltens was always a bedrock of the industry. With Goltens gone, it leaves an empty space in the New York Harbor and in the United States,” said Dean Couphos, the operations manager, and number two at the Red Hook facility, with 35 years of ship repair experience, including eight years at Goltens.

“It’s sad because this is where they started. This is where they made their money to get to where they are now,” Morelli confessed.

In the United States, Goltens owns facilities in Miami and relocated much of the machinery to a workshop being built in Houston. Lathes, drilling machines, drills, Babbitt machines, and even a 40-foot-long grinding machine were packed up and sent to repair shops throughout the world: Rotterdam, Oslo, Singapore, Vietnam, Miami, and Houston. Everything leftover was scrapped, thrown out, or sold at auction.

Moving beyond Sept. 11

But not Morelli’s toolbox, for mechanics, tools hold the key to their livelihood and prosperity, and for Morelli, a window into the past. His toolbox was full of gifts. Tools from retired Goltens employees given to him as “something to remember me by,” Morelli said. “A few of them I took home. A socket wrench just to remind me of the people I was associated with for so many wonderful years.”

Like any family, the crew at Goltens had its share of tribulations. Taped to the back of a door in the upstairs office are photos of downtown Manhattan taken on September 11th, moments after the towers were attacked. 

“On the roof, we had such a beautiful view of the Twin Towers,” Umland said. “I was sitting at my desk, listening to the radio when one of the planes hit. I went out onto the roof with a colleague. We saw the buildings just falling. There were military [soldiers] outside in gas masks. It was snowing from all the debris from the buildings coming down. It was surreal,” she said.

The shop stayed closed for the rest of the week but, when it reopened, Umland, like all New Yorkers, proved her resilience and returned to the roof. “I couldn’t believe the buildings were not there,” she said.

Hurricane Sandy also took a toll on Goltens. “We took a beating with the storm,” Morelli said as he pointed to a mark six-feet-high on the wall. The garage, full of reconditioned parts, sat underwater along with all of their machines. Luckily, they salvaged and repaired most of the storm-damaged parts and machines and continued using the space.

In the past few years, the shop caught the film and music industry’s attention. The Americans filmed an episode there. The movies, Analyze That and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, both shot there, as did a Duncan Sheik video. Morelli was an extra in both movies.

Today, the space lies empty, a few odds and ends scattered around waiting to be tossed out.  A piece of paper from 2002 lists the employees and their seniority. Signs nailed to the grease-stained brick walls promote workplace safety. The machines are all gone.

“Now it’s like a cave,” Sisic said “We had so much machinery here. [At one time] we were running 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. It was always noisy from hammering, machining. Now it is like a ghost.”

For 60 years, the ruckus of machines and tools rang though Golten Marine’s now empty machine shop at 160 Van Brunt Street in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. A hive of mechanics and workers toiled for long hours as they rebuilt the engines and drive systems of ships and tankers stranded throughout the world. On July 3, 2014, Goltens went silent, the building sold to a developer who later converted the former industrial space into a Tesla dealership, creative workshops and a bakery.

For the unionized employees of Goltens, shutter­ing the facility was like losing a family member. On some nights, when second shift would finish, rather than head home to their families or the neighborhood bars, the employees would stay together at the shop. 

Golten’s workshops have been stripped of most tools, sinks and even walls. Abandoned safety equipment like goggles and fire extinguishers were scattered throughout the cavernous facility. 

A birds-eye view of Golten’s employees in the facility’s main workshop. With the large machinery removed, it was up to the few remaining employees to sift through decades of tools, paperwork and memories.

An empty loading bay already partially cleaned. The former space housed tractor trailers delivering and picking up supplies and machines. Today, the same space is a former Tesla dealership that has been carved into a charging station and still-functioning automotive repair shop.

Edik Fishman, a jack-of-all trades with 17-years of Goltens experience was tasked with decommissioning the machine shop’s electrical system. 

Walls throughout Goltens workshops were lined with signs that reminded employees about safety and often reinforced the importance of looking out for fellow coworkers. After Hurricane Sandy flooded the Goltens facility with six-feet of water, employees banded together to salvage the machines and parts and reopen the workshops.

A photo in the Goltens office showing its Manhattan views on September 11, 2001.

A photo in the Goltens office showing its Manhattan views on September 11, 2001. “On the roof we had such a beautiful view of the Twin Towers,” said Shari Umland, the Human Resources manager who worked at Goltens for 25-years and occasionally brought her son to work with her. “I was sitting at my desk, listening to the radio when one of the planes hit. I went out onto the roof with a colleague. We saw the buildings just falling. There were military [soldiers] outside in gas masks. It was snowing from all the debris from the buildings coming down. It was surreal,” she said.

Pressure from developers and Red Hook’s overall gentrification made Golten Marine’s workshop’s million-dollar Manhattan views a sought-after commodity. In the foreground, a decommissioned crane at the Port of Red Hook sits idle. The port’s 80-acre complex has long been eyed by developers including one whose plan to redevelop the waterfront parcel into luxury housing has the ear of current Governor Andrew Cuomo.

An idle hoist in Goltens workshop. The decrease in the number of ships docking in New York City coupled with newer and bigger vessels that require less maintenance meant less work for Golten’s mechanics. In response, the company slowly trimmed their workforce down to 20 employees; the number let go on April 4, 2014 when the facility officially closed.

Inside the men’s bathroom/locker room was a long aluminum trough sink, large lockers and grease-stained walls and soap dispensers. Once a boisterous hub of workers, the overall silence was deafening.

Dominic Rama, 70 (though his colleagues said he was older), a Golten’s machinist originally from Spain. 

Dominic’s grease-stained hands during one of Goltens final days. 

A deconstructed workshop on the facility’s ground-floor level. “If the old man [Sigurd Golten] knew this was going on, he would be turning over in his grave right now,” said Sandro Morelli, a long-time Golten’s employee. “But what are you going to do?”

Micah Rubin is an award-winning, New York City-based photographer specializing in documentary, reportage, and travel imagery. His images reveal the people, places, and ideas that empower viewers to step beyond their comfort zone and into the enormous—yet intimately intertwined—world we share. Micah’s visited 58 countries at last count—with assignments that have sent him throughout the world. Highlights include multiple trips to India, Myanmar’s desolate Mrauk U temple complex, Costa Rica’s “Alcatraz,” and Colombia’s sleepy, colonial island town of Mompox.

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