This post is about a private tour of New York’s historic Brooklyn Navy Yard on Monday, May 22nd from 11am – 1pm. The Brooklyn Navy Yard has been an important part of New York since the before the Revolution – when a small, natural, basin (called the “Wallabout”) in Brooklyn off of the East River provided a protective area in which to build and repair ships. Since that time “the Yard” has evolved along with changes in the City and mirrors every fascinating period. Members, please go to the Sign-Up! tab for meet-up details and to reserve your place (tickets are $45 pp).
IS THIS A JOKE – WHO CARES ABOUT THE BROOKLYN NAVY YARD? You do! Because despite its gritty, industrial-sounding name, it is one of the most historic sites in New York City and has been re-incarnated time and time again with extreme pendulum swings reflecting the city’s fortunes. It’s gone from being a military outpost, to an industrial backwater, to one of the largest employers in the country (70,000 employees during World War II), to crack-central to… wait for it … a cooler than cool neighborhood favored by artists and artisans, urban farms and eco-friendly manufacturers. If you’re interested in the history of New York, you’re interested in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
THE DUTCH AND THE ENGLISH: Before it was the Brooklyn Navy Yard, it was a conveniently shaped “basin” or bay (called the “Wallabout”) naturally carved out of Brooklyn’s East River shoreline. It was recognized very early as a prime spot to dock and load and unload boats. The first deed of sale for the Wallabout Basin was in 1637 when the Dutch were in charge of New Amsterdam and, traders that they were, used this spot for mercantile shipping. From the 1660’s for the next 100 years – until you-know-what – the English (now in charge of New York) also used if for commercial purposes. However, during the “skirmishes” of the revolutionary period, the English Navy used Wallabout Bay as a place to dock prison ships where it is believed over 10,000 Continental soldiers and citizens died. The column monument in nearby Fort Greene, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, is dedicated to them.
THE EARLY AMERICAN ERA: After the Revolution the brand new US Federal government bought the property and in 1801 President John Adams commissioned it as a naval ship yard. The first ship, the USS OHIO, rolled out of there just in time for the War of 1812. For the next 150 years, and every iteration of the nation’s history and shipbuilding technology the Brooklyn Navy Yard produced mammoth, war-fighting ships – from the USS MISSOURI (the first steam-powered frigate), to the USS MONITOR (first iron-clad ship, used in the Civil War) to the USS MAINE (central to sparking the Spanish-American War when “Remember the Maine” became a national rallying cry), to the USS ARIZONA (now a museum settled at the bottom of Pearl Harbor). It was so central to the economy of Brooklyn that it was often referred to as “the Sixth Borough.” The six huge drydocks for which the Yard became famous were created during this period (from 1851-1942). The long, narrow, berths are still unmistakable on any map.
THE EARLY NEW YORK ERA: After World War II, and especially with the Korean and VietNam conflicts, war became less sea-based (more guerrilla and land-based). So, in the early 1960’s, in a cost-cutting move, the Department of Defense decided to close not only the Brooklyn Navy Yard but also other NYC military sites (on Governor’s Island and the Brooklyn Army Terminal) to have naval installations in fewer and lower-cost locations. This was a crushing economic blow to New York which lost over 10,000 jobs and which ushered in a long period of decline not only for the yard but also for the surrounding neighborhood. For a relatively short time, until the late 1970’s, commercial shipbuilding was undertaken at the Brooklyn Navy Yard but even that ceased by 1979. The area became used for cheap, light industrial manufacturing spaces, low cost housing (official and otherwise) and as a hotbed of drug trafficking – especially crack cocaine, a scourge of New York at the time. On a personal note, a friend’s family’s lamp manufacturing company, which had been in that area for several generations eventually closed during this period because of the high cost of insurance and security (after many break-ins) and the difficulty of recruiting workers willing to be in the neighborhood. Their story was not unique for the time or place.
NEW YORK II – THAT WAS THEN THIS IS NOW: In 1981, since the Federal Government could not have cared less, the property was deeded to the City of New York and the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp. was formed. They toddled along for about a decade or so, unable to interest anyone in using the area for actual shipbuilding. But what they were able to do – as Brooklyn was picking up a head of steam – was to refashion it as an urban industrial park. Small, manufacturing businesses were recruited, security was beefed up – and, by NY standards, rents were low. As of today, there are over 330 businesses located there with over 10,000 employees. These include STEINER STUDIOS, the largest movie and television production facility on the East Coast and home to a new graduate film program. BROOKLYN GRANGE has a “farm” on one of the rooftops. There are artist studios, a whiskey refinery and even a modular housing manufacturing company where NY’s award-winning “micro-units” were built. Today, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is the very model for modern urban industrial parks, the adaptive re-use of historic buildings and home to the Green Manufacturing Center, dedicated to the development of eco-friendly and sustainable products and technologies.
THE GOOD NEWS AND THE BAD NEWS: Now, close to 300 years later in a classic NY paroxysm of history-killing gentrification, the real estate industry has re-christened the formerly industrial and none-too genteel neighborhood as … “WALLABOUT.” Good grief. Even though transportation is so-so, the neighborhood is attracting new consumer businesses (such as a Wegmans supermarket), housing is being rehabilitated and new residential developments are being built. Uber-chic restaurants and coffee shops are popping up. But as often happens in New York, when the economic tide turns and there is money to be made the past is often obliterated. The prime example here was one of the most beautiful links to the Navy Yard’s past – 10 magnificent homes on Flushing Avenue called Admirals’ Row – which were torn down about a year ago. What neglect had unwittingly preserved for the last 40 years, boom times can eradicate in an instant. In this case, for a parking lot.
So progress (?) and New York hurtle ever-forward. This is what history looks like. Remember Francie Nolan in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN? The 1917 novel is based in and around the Navy Yard and is a poignant and sometimes painful reminder of working class New York.
Catch this moment in the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s history and join us for a fascinating visit to one of New York’s most precious sites – there’s nothing else like it.