Long Island City: out of the shadow of Big Allis

A New York industrial enclave noted for its power plant is reinventing itself as a home for microbreweries and artists.

By Stephanie Cavagnaro
Published 27 Sept 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 16:23 BST
Long Island City by night.

Long Island City by night.

Photograph by Getty Images

There they are: four red-and-white-striped smokestacks. I see them everywhere I go in Long Island City. Towering above Big Allis, their alternating coloured bands remind me of the titular feline in Dr Seuss's The Cat in the Hat. "It earned the nickname Big Allis because at one point it was the largest power plant in the world," says Jon Kielty, motioning towards the chimneys, adding that the nickname refers to the builder, the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company.

Jon, a stocky man with a long beard and backwards cap, is an assistant brewer here at Big Alice Brewing, a nano-brewery and taproom. He picks up a growler (half-gallon bottle) of beer, and I notice a tattoo of a hop flower on his arm as he points to the 'BIG aLICe BREWING' label. "We changed the spelling to 'Alice' to get LIC [Long Island City] in there," he explains.

Jon pours me four beers — a honey wit, a white stout that uses beans from the Queens-based Native Coffee Roasters, a peppermint stout and a jalapeno rye. I take a sip of the latter and widen my eyes. Jon smiles. "We're experimental — we like playing with bold flavours."

Although late to the scene, Queens is now experiencing a craft beer and microbrewery boom that's seeing it rival Brooklyn — particularly here in this rapidly gentrifying enclave. Ageing former factories and warehouses have the space to transform into breweries, apartment buildings and museums.

Among them, the one-time Silvercup Bakery is now home to Silvercup Studios, where both Sex and the City and The Sopranos were filmed. The Noguchi Museum, meanwhile, displays a comprehensive selection of the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi's sculptures and was once a photoengraving plant. And modern art museum MoMA PS1 now displays exhibitions in a Victorian Romanesque Revival-style former school building.

"There are a lot of artists that live in Long Island City," Tomoko Kawamoto, the public information manager at the Museum of the Moving Image, tells me when I visit. "There very famously used to be this art studio called 5 Pointz that was covered in graffiti — it was demolished; they pulled it all down to build condos."

Museum of the Moving Image pays homage to all things film, and sits alongside Kaufman Astoria Studios, which gave birth to movies as old as the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers and TV shows as recent as Orange is the New Black. "I live in Long Island City," Tomoko adds. "I moved there 11 years ago, and at that time maybe there were four high-rises; now there are 10 and plans to build more."

Most of these new-builds now flank the East River behind Gantry Plaza State Park. It's here where an old red curlicue-lettered Pepsi-Cola sign faces Manhattan — it's all that's left from the bottling plant that once operated. This April, the sign was designated an official New York City landmark.

Around the corner, LIC Flea & Food is packed with stalls selling vegan skincare products, records, vintage clothing, and Queens beers and foods — ranging from Ukrainian pirogues to baked empanadas. I buy poutine (a Quebec dish of fries, gravy and cheese curd) and take a seat in the sun. Through a gap in the glassy condos are Manhattan skyscrapers. I look for Big Allis; I can't see her smokestacks from here, but I know they're just beyond the high-rises.

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