2737-42. That was the number Robert Shelton punched into a clock at the Domino Sugar factory for 20 years. “As long as you live. You never forget. That’s my number,” Shelton says. And when he returned to the refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for only the second time since the factory closed in 2004, this time as a volunteer for Creative Time’s installation of Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” “I had tears in my eyes because it brings back the memories.”
Memories of working the dangerous kiln on a shop floor that regularly reached 140 degrees. Of a hazardous but well-paid union job that enabled Shelton to stop working three jobs, buy his first car, and move his family out of the Roosevelt Housing Projects and into a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone. Of friendships made with the diverse group of Polish, Italian, Caribbean immigrants and other African Americans who also worked at the refinery. Of ongoing labor conflict with Domino Sugar Corporation that resulted in the longest strike in the history of New York City.
Today, with its original brickwork, soaring ceilings, stunning sunlight, and East River views it's not surprising that the site will soon be a 35-story residential and commercial “megaproject” in the now very desirable Williamsburg neighborhood. The only other time Shelton has been back to the factory since 2004 was a couple of years ago to advocate for affordable housing in the development. "We don’t want luxury apartments," Shelton says. "Why should someone who has a lot of money come from upstate or from Connecticut and benefit rather than people who have lived there all their life? It has been a long delay because the developers only want to give a small percentage…for regular people like me.”