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"How sweet it was..."

May 5, 2011 12:11 PM | 0 comments

Let us consider for a moment that fount of dietary evil, refined sugar. A cursory search today brings up hundreds of web sites decrying the noxious effects of sugar upon health. One site lists 146 different ways the seductive crystals can make your life a misery, from causing arthritis and asthma to bringing on toxemia and eczema. The industry's apologists back in 1916 thought otherwise. One unnamed English "expert" is quoted as saying, "There have been few more important additions to our dietary, or which have done more to promote the health of the rising generation, than our cheap and abundant supply of pure sugar."

An American authority  thought that "...the prejudice against this most valuable food for children is little better than a superstition."

In the sparring match between sugar's enemies and apologists, currently the enemies are definitely winning on points--but so powerful is the attraction of sugar to its devotees that I'd venture to say the knockout punch will never be delivered.

So as we contemplate the current transformation of the Domino sugar buildings on the Williamsburg waterfront into apartments, let us remember for a moment the years during which the sugar industry put food on the table for thousands of Brooklyn families. The Havemeyer and Elder refinery (later known as the American Sugar Refining Co. and Domino Sugar) had begun life on Vandam St in Manhattan, but a shrewd move to a waterside location in the 1850s laid the foundation for what would become the biggest supplier of sugar in the United States.

In 1882 the Havemeyer factory was completely destroyed by fire, throwing more than a thousand workmen out of employment and consuming about $750,000 worth of equipment and $600,000 of sugar. Havemeyer rebuilt, and went from strength to strength. (Harpers Weekly, Jan 21, 1882. Print Collection.)

By 2003 the refineries were making more sugar than the marketplace could absorb. The plant's closure in 2003 may not rank on a par with the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard or the defection of the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it surely must have felt like another nail in the coffin of the old industrial Brooklyn to its employees and neighbors in North Brooklyn.

The unloading of cargoes from ports all over the face of the globe extends along the Brooklyn waterfront from Bay Ridge to Williamsburg and beyond. At the American Sugar Refining Company receiving wharf at the foot of S. 2nd St., 35,000 bags--or 4,000 tons--of raw sugar is delivered directly to the Domino refinery..." (Brooklyn Eagle, April 8, 1951)

From pier it goes inside plant and...is dumped into huge hopper, inside of which are meshing teeth that breaks up lumps. Men doing the dumping are protected from falling into the hopper by strong ropes tied to their waists. Here the dumping is done by Robert Pope of 812 Putnam Ave. and Dexter Smith, right, of 384 Carlton Ave. (Brooklyn Eagle, Nov 12, 1950)

The American Sugar Refining Co was the largest, but not the only sugar refinery in Brooklyn. Arbuckle Bros. on Front and Jay Streets is pictured here in a Keystone stereoview showing sugar being poured into sacks.

Crystal Domino, exclusive American Sugar development resulting in tablets that sparkle like diamonds--sugar and diamonds are both pure carbon--is fed in large blocks into cutting machine by Helen Barbowski, above, of 96 Wythe Ave. (Brooklyn Eagle, Nov 12, 1950)

Taken over by the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) and Landmarked in 2007, the repurposed Domino Sugar buildings according to CPC plans will eventually provide 660 units of affordable housing, as well as recreational space, jobs and access to the waterfront.