HE GREETS YOU, IN HIS WAY, from 30 feet up, bronze turned Statue of Liberty green, against a pink marble backdrop and pedestal, over the entrance to his red brick admin building: Irving T. Bush (1869-1948), man of business, in a business suit and tie, carrying his hat and cane, moving forward, eyes on the future, over your head. He may have nodded a brief hello.
Never heard of him? He rates the statue. Make a list of people who have imagined, built, and transformed New York City, and he should be right up there, even without alphabetical order. He defined Sunset Park, and Brooklyn, in the 20th century. He wrote a book about it.
The business was the Bush Terminal Company, founded by Irving in 1902, a few warehouses and a pier and an idea. Look at it today: as you cross high above the canal into Big Box Land, the biggest boxes ahead are the nearly half-mile of Bush “Industry City” loft buildings in the 30s, higher even than the exalted Gowanus. Then come the older warehouses and surviving piers, and some glimpses of waterfront, from the 40s down into the 50s. All Irving’s, all part of the idea.
Not all is elevated. On the ground, for two miles of 3rd Avenue, you live what painfully separates Sunset Park from its coastline. You might catch a sliver of sunlight between the highway above you and the looming piles to your right, or you might not. Certain smells along the way would turn Colonel Sanders vegan.
Better to cut west at 39th Street, where the real estate spreads out, and see the other side of Irving Country: 2nd Avenue, and the even more mysterious 1st Avenue, once teeming with trade, now all but empty on weekends. It’s a lower-rise Chelsea, waiting to happen. The buildings are bleached out or brown, the streets shining with miles of curving train tracks that lie in wait for bicycle tires. Look for the entrance to Irving’s place at the bottom of 43rd Street.
THE BUSHES WERE BOSCHES, Dutch, in New Amsterdam from 1662. Irving’s father, Rufus T. Bush, made good in the oil business in the mid-19th century, and bought some land at the iridescent mouth of Gowanus Bay when it was all refineries and tankers. Young Irving, who grew up loving ships and playing on the docks below the family home on Columbia Heights, would ride with his father in an old “doctor’s buggy” to inspect the property, down in “a new section of Brooklyn that was emerging from farm lands.” Grown-up Irving would go on to buy an adjacent 150-acre cornfield that may have included the loft-lands and the present Costco site.
Rufus retired in the 1880s, sold his waterfront land to Standard Oil, and bought a yacht. Irving finished prep school, joined his dad on a year-long cruise around the world—don’t we all?—and went to work for Standard Oil, which bored him. Rufus overdosed on aconite he was taking for chest pains.
Irving, now rich in his early 20s, left Standard Oil, and could have lived his days as an Edith Wharton character. Instead he bought back his father’s lot, which Standard Oil was using as an ash dump; Irving saw it as raw material for landfill and piers. (For more on ash heaps of New York, see Flushing Meadows Park—World’s Fairs, stadiums, etc. It’s in The Great Gatsby.) “Bush’s Folly”—why not have the world run through Brooklyn?—took physical form.
The idea, which deserves more than these paragraphs, began with transportation: the Port of New York, by the late 1800s, was so cramped and clogged that it restrained trade. Goods for Long Island and beyond had to pass through lower Manhattan, like goulash through a straw. Irving wanted to bring the output of America—raw materials, produce, manufactures—by train to Jersey, then straight across the harbor on “car-floats,” barges that carried railroad rolling stock, to a new terminus in Sunset Park. The freight cars would be pulled off the barges by Irving’s engines, and rolled to the loading docks of warehouse buildings on-site, or directly for delivery by train and truck. (In the photos of his statue’s unveiling, June 20, 1950, you can see train tracks just a few feet from Irving’s office door. Look both ways before exiting.)
New factory buildings, also on-site at Bush Terminal, would turn raw materials into finished goods, which could be loaded back onto those same freight cars and re-floated across to Jersey rail yards. For the rest of the world, ships tied up at Irving’s own super-long, super-wide piers, to be served by rail cars alongside.
As in the modern internet world of aggregators and resellers and middlepersons, the Bush Terminal Company itself had few employees. But those few created work for thousands locally, many of whom lived, and found their foothold in America, in Sunset Park—as well as uncountable jobs farther away.
Irving grew and built, built and grew, hundreds of acres, hundreds of buildings, more and more track. He helped his friend FDR build and manage the neighboring Army Terminal site when America entered World War I. He advised, he traveled: in Russia in 1927, he told Leon Trotsky that what the Soviet Union really needed was foreign capital investment. Leon may have stroked his beard thoughtfully. Irving came home and wrote his book, Working with the World.
IT'S A BUSINESS BOOK OF THE DAY, not really a memoir, and more artifact than art. Irving is a man writing for men, he has his points to make, and he will make them. But at heart, this is a boys’ book, like a scout manual for future MBAs: “Let’s get down to business by keeping well, clean, and courageous.” By the end, he’s sounding like another boys’-book favorite, Henry David Thoreau: “Turn your back on pessimism, have courage, think for yourselves, be honorable, work hard, and the world is your oyster—open it.” He gets a blurb from Thomas Edison.
We react as we may to a 1928 businessman heralding “the beginning of our Golden Age.” The 1930s—Irving’s 60s—were not such a happy time for him or his company. He fought with his own directors and shareholders as the Bush Terminal Company fell into receivership (but didn’t close down, and yes, he bought it back). He fought with his adult children over money. He had a moment of tabloid infamy, thanks to a Reno divorce, and re-marriage one hour later (to his third and final wife, Marian Spore, a well-regarded artist, collector, and encourager of the arts, who met Irving as they were serving Thanksgiving dinner to the poor. Put that in your tabloid.) Perhaps you know the rest: trucks replaced freight trains; the port business moved across the harbor to Elizabeth; even the Bush name faded, as “Industry City” highlighted the manufacturing side over the near-terminal Terminal.
None of this is in the book, of course, and Irving staunchly resists any attempts to get to know him. He has some surprisingly acute moments, such as, “We have not developed a characteristic musical expression, unless it be jazz,” although he later advises his young men that “you will achieve a far greater happiness [in business] than if you live for the fleeting joys of jazz.” Excuse me while I put on this 90 year-old Louis Armstrong record.
Turn left at Irving’s statue and you will encounter another, newer monument, in the form of Bush Terminal Piers Park. Opened in 2014, it could be a younger sister to Brooklyn Bridge Park, deftly landscaped to suggest what the shoreline looked like before the piers and the sludge. It’s little, but destined, one hopes, to link up with more coastal access north and south (if the creek don’t rise). A nature-jetty reminds us of piers past. Walk out to the end and look back on what Irving hath wrought.
From this vantage and others, you know a change is gonna come to Bush Terminal. The phrase “empty on weekends” may be outdated by the time you read this. The lofts, under renovation, overlook pedestrian plazas. There will be retail, performance spaces, and, you bet, housing. Even Marginal Street may be de-marginalized. Irving says, “Somewhere there is always new growth.”
One more splash of wisdom and we’re done. Listen to Irving: “I do not expect you to be perfect, for you are the sons of imperfect fathers, but do not be fatheads.”
Irving T. Bush, Working with the World (Doubleday, Doran, 1929).
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