Washburn Wire Factory, Harlem NY

October 19th, 2002 by


The Washburn wire factory in Harlem was the very likely the largest factory in Manhattan. After production shut down, the factory became a haven for drug addicts and the homeless - a vast 'mad max' wasteland where not even the police would enter.


History
Washburn wire produced everything from coat hangers to wire for Amtrak's northeast corridor and wiring for cars. It sat as an abandoned wreck from the time of its closing 1981 until 2004, when all of the buildings were bulldozed to make way for the East River Plaza mall. It employed anywhere from 600-1200 employees during its production peak. In the end it only employed around 250 workers.

It seems the original Washburn wire company shut down the factory in 1976. It was bought by a group of black entrepreneurs under the name 'Harlem Community Council, Inc. who felt it could be made profitable. Their dream of preserving manufacturing jobs in Harlem was noble, yet flawed. (HCC & Washburn are profiled in the November 1978 issue of Black Enterprise)


In mid 1978 Washburn Wire Products Inc a Federally financed minority owned enterprise was established to produce prestressed concrete steel wire strand in Harlem In New York City In 1978 this firm secured a contract to supply this product to Amtrak for use in the manufacture of concrete ties in the Northeast corridor The firm had a rated capacity to produce million pounds of prestressed concrete steel wire strand in 1978 two thirds of this capacity was dedicated to the Amtrak contract Washburn's bid for this business was well below the next lowest bid which was submitted by Florida Wire According to counsel for Florida Wire at the beginning of the delivery period under the contract Washburn was not able to meet the quality requirements of the specifications To perform its contractural obligations Washburn purchased prestressed concrete steel wire strand from Florida Wire at the latter s price After a time Washburn was able to meet the quality standards and for a period of about 6 months the company made deliveries to Amtrak from its own production Quality and financial problems continued however and on January 30 1981 the firm filed for bankruptcy In September 1981 the firm's assets were sold in a bankruptcy sale

Source: "Pressurized concrete steel wire strand from Brazil, France, and the United Kingdom" - United States International Trade Commission, Abigail Eltzroth, Howard Gooley - 1982

Between 1981 and 2003, "it had been the focus of a succession of failed development schemes, including plans for a movie production studio."
Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/29/nyregion/retail-center-is-proposed-in-east-harlem.html


In the late 1990s, a plan for bulldozing the buildings and creating a mall was hatched. It wasn't until late 2003 that demolition went into full swing. Several years later the East River Plaza opened, with anchor stores such as Target and Home Depot leasing out space.

Adventure: (Original Writeup from 2002)
AHOY, The Harlem factory from hell is on the horizon! But not fer long matey!

This location is well known to anyone who has driven along the FDR drive in Harlem. It's a massive set of 4 tall brick buildings, all long abandoned and all linked via overhead passages which are of questionable stability. Given the economics of the surrounding area, it should be of little surprise this location is both extremely accessible, inhabited by King Cobra swilling squatters, and often used for various (ill)legal activities. It is 5 stories and 4 buildings worth of criminal playground. And while that might scare some, it seemed like home to some of us... well... after we got past the fresh steaming loaf of shit someone laid in the front doorway...

The first floors are the most heavily graffiti damaged, while even one level up you will find surprisingly bare, clean walls with peeling lead paint on them. Only the most hardcore of graffiti cats seem to have bothered climbing high to the rooftops of these structures, sprinting over the piles of used, aids ridden needles that heroin users have discarded in shockingly huge piles all over these buildings. Some areas around and in the steps contain human waste as well - perhaps someone reverting back to animal instinct to mark their territory. (If that was the case, someone shoulda handed them a few cans of rusto. at least it smells better!).

We press onward, examining the open areas which, without windows, are quite breezy and fresh. In the darker, smellier corners are where the squatters lurk, as if they were the C.H.U.D.s of the overworld. Occasionally they'll walk by you and mutter 'be careful' from a distance... as if that was even an optional course of action in a location such as this?

Just about all of the machinery that was in here is long gone. The once busy manufacturing floors have been filled instead with a strange mix of discarded porn, small children's toys, a few books and of course needles. Needles, needles, needles.

Phuntastic as it is, we depart... knowing we may not see it again... you see, the southernmost building is already being leveled, and there's a lot of talk in the news about building a shopping mall on the land... home depot, staples, etc.

And so the urban cycle of gentrification goes... grinding ever so slowly to pave over one more piece of NYC's despicable, unsightly and phuntastic ghetto history. We are probably some of the very few who will miss this place, and the fewer still who weaponized their rigs and tied on large boots to explore this god forsaken place. It's our job. It's what we do.

(Adventure writeup originally written in October 19, 2002, History written up 4/3/2013. Photos from a later visit in 2003).

19 responses to “Washburn Wire Factory, Harlem NY”

  1. Manuel says:

    As teenagers we used those buildings to test or bravery, these wee a dangerous series of buildings for more than a few reasons. I know some scary things were in there and from time time despite this knowledge,I muss the place too.

  2. PegLegGuy says:

    .
    My Mom was raised at 118th St & Pleasant Ave.

    She had 2 brothers that worked at Washburn.

    Tough commute, half a block!

    PegLegGuy

    .

  3. Mickey says:

    My mom worked as a secretary at Washburn Wire Company. She was raised on 116th and Pleasant Avenue. Probably worked there in the early fifties and had lots of great stories to tell.

  4. Mickey says:

    Have pics of her typing away!

  5. Jan says:

    My grandfather and uncle lived in East Harlem and worked at Washburn for many years. Does anyone know what the average pay was for Washburn workers in the 1940s and 1950s? Also, any knowledge of the working conditions? Thanks for any info you can provide.

  6. Frank says:

    My father, uncle and grandfather all worked at Washburn Wire. My father from the early ’40’s until it closed. I lived on 116th Street until I was 5 years old.

  7. Control says:

    Wow. I’d love to hear about what it was like working there, etc.

  8. Ron Pagano says:

    My Dad worked there from the early ’50s until his 1st heart attack in 1971. He took the train on Metropolitan Ave, Middle Village (Queens), into work. I’m not sure exactly what he made, except that it was about $20k when he was forced onto disability. I remember him talking about how hot the ovens were, where they heated the steel. He was a ‘wire drawer’, meaning, he drew the wire out of the furnaces and prepared it for spooling. He always talked about how he was making wire for the Verrazano Bridge cables! He was also a Shop Steward, since the union was big back then. I’m proud of the work he did and he was glad to be working with guys he liked. It allowed him to buy his own home, car, nice furniture and go on vacation! Not too many of these jobs left!

  9. taft112 says:

    A school friend and his closest friend lured and murdered a mentally handicapped kid there back in 1992

  10. Chris says:

    Parts of the 1984 movie ‘Exterminator 2’ were filmed in and around that place.

  11. Nancy Waudby says:

    My dad worked for Washburn for 36 years and just passed away in July at the age of 98. Can anyone tell me who I can contact about his pension.

  12. Control says:

    Hi – sorry for your loss – I’m really not sure, hopefully someone else will know. Maybe there is something in his files 9assuming he kept some trace) or his bank would known (should be easy to track down a contact for regular deposits. I would imagine the fund was maintained by a financial services provider (fidelity, schwab, someplace like that). If any of his funds go unclaimed, they’ll be put in an account with the state – http://www.osc.state.ny.us/ouf/about.htm – you’d have to prove to them you’re related, but that seems easy enough. I’m not sure if other states do this (probably) or if it depends where he lived (say, NY vs NJ). In any case it would take some time (up to a year, maybe a bit more) for any missing money to show up there.

  13. Frank Funicelli says:

    Nancy,
    My father worked there from the early ’40’s until its closing. I know that he got a pension from the pension Guarantee Corp (Fed Government) and not Washburn Wire.
    I believe that the Government under wrote the pension because foreign steel (stated reason)
    drove them out.

  14. Frank Funicelli says:

    Chris,

    Yes. Parts of the movie Exterminator were filmed there.
    My father who worked there helped them with facility support.

  15. tom taylor says:

    I have a spool of wire stating it was from the washburn factory. Steel wire about a 6 inch spool. If interested send email

  16. John G says:

    My father, grandfather and brother all worked there. My family was from NYC but in the 60’s relocated to NJ and my dad and brother made the commute everyday. I remember when my dad lost his job in 76 and his pension was a third of what it was supposed to be. At one time it was a solid place to work and my dad raised/supported 3 kids and our mother on a single salary from that once great company.

  17. The Washburn Wire Works was also a location for the cult classic film, “The Last Dragon” in 1984. The fight sequence at the end of the film was shot there. As a member of the crew, I can tell you it was a miserable place to film.

  18. Ann Napoli Fitzsimmons says:

    my grandfather worked there. They lived on E 117 near Pleasant Ave.

  19. Gus Voulgares says:

    Back in the 70’s I hauled many a load of spooled wire from there to Detroit. The door you had to back into was a real pain for a semi with a 40 ft. trailer. Almost everything I hauled out went to Detroit with some going to West Jefferson, Ohio. the man in charge of loading was an old irisman named Grady.

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  • About The Author

    Bad Guy Joe

    Bad Guy Joe

    Bad Guy Joe knows more about the NYC underground than anyone else on or below the surface of this planet. He has spent nearly 30 years sneaking into NYC’s more forbidden locations. When not underground, he’s probably bitching about politicians or building something digital.

     
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