I have seen this sign innumerable times, as have millions of New Yorkers, while traveling on the F Train from Brooklyn. I am usually lost in thought, transfixed by the vista of the skeletal structure superimposed over the Manhattan skyline.
There is much more story behind this sign, however, than one might expect. Kentile Floors was founded in 1898 by Arthur Kennedy, with factories in Queens and Long Island before they built this plant on 2nd Avenue and 9th Street along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. At one time, the 8-story sign was illuminated in neon. From the Municipal Arts Society of New York website:
In the post war period, Kentile’s business boomed as Americans expanded into newly-constructed suburban homes. Ads from the 1950s in national magazines such as Popular Science and Life marketed Kentile flooring to the American suburban housewife and encouraged them to save money by installing their own flooring. In these ads, typical housewives, like “Mrs. Richard Lansing” and “Mrs. William A. Loock, Jr.,” demonstrate how they easily installed Kentile flooring with the help of only the instruction booklet.
The Kentile factory in Gowanus employed over 400 people at its peak in the 1960s. However, many of the company’s floor tiles included asbestos, and this led to the company’s eventual demise. Kentile originally celebrated its vinyl asbestos tiles, bragging that they “won’t scuff” and were “greaseproof” and “a dream to clean.” Growing research on the carcinogenic dangers of asbestos resulted in Kentile phasing out the use of the material by 1986, but this did not stop asbestos lawsuits from financially ruining the company. Kentile filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and ceased all business operations a few years later. Today, the Kentile building is occupied by several different manufacturing businesses, and the sign remains a beloved part of Brooklyn’s industrial heritage.
New York City's industrial past has not been immune to the type of problems that have plagued many companies in the United States. Asbestos has not been kind to many a company's finances or its workers' health. New York is often seen as a place where big money and slick lawyers can get someone or a corporate entity out of anything. But whether it is fibers in lungs or lawsuits from the injured, asbestos sticks...
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