BROOKLYN NAVY YARD - NEW YORK
“The United States Navy Yard, Navy Street, Flushing and Clinton Avenues, better known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, skirts Wallabout Bay, a semicircular elbow of the East River opposite Corlear’s Hook, Manhattan. This busy naval city covers a total of 197 acres, 118 on land, 79 on water, and is surrounded by forbidding brick walls with massive iron gateways.” – New York City Guide (WPA, 1939)
Biking down Flushing Avenue, dubbed the Hipster Highway for its convenient bike connection between the neighborhoods of DUMBO, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint, any sense of neighborhood evades you. Warehouses and auto parts stores are countered by an expanse of quiet industrialism along the East River waterfront. The district now seems to lack the pulsating energy of intensive production in the Navy Yard’s past: from 1801 to 1966, the Navy Yard was one of the foremost shipbuilding and provisioning centers in the nation with a workforce upwards of 70,000 employees during World War II. Now owned by the city and operated as an industrial park, the gates remain and entry is restricted - an anomaly of the street grid with a smattering of competing building styles and orientations, punctuated by half empty parking lots that give the impression of just another industrial waterfront awaiting redevelopment.
“The yard (…) contains four drydocks ranging in length from 326 to 700 feet, two huge steel shipways, and six big pontoons and cylindrical floats for salvage work (…) numerous foundries, machine shops, and warehouses (…) barracks for marines, a power plant, a large radio station, and a railroad spur. (…) Beyond the dull waters of the East River looms the New York sky line, like the backdrop of a stage set.” – New York City Guide (WPA, 1939)
Despite its guarded, dulling presentation to the outside, the Navy Yard thrives. Now one of the fastest growing green manufacturing centers in the nation, the Yard also houses artists, an urban farm, the city’s oldest current operating whiskey distillery (a few years old), woodworkers, architects, a pioneering modular construction firm, and remnants of its ship-centric past operating the gargantuan dry docks reaching inland. The steel hull of Building 128 - just months ago a bygone shipbuilding factory shrouded in caution tape and rust - is slowly shaping into a Collaborative Design and Fabrication Center. Steiner Studios, the largest film studio complex outside of Hollywood and home to the largest sound stage on the East Coast, provides a backdrop ripe for the silver screen: the Empire State Building, the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, and the new World Trade Center building all rise in the distance.
“At the south end, facing Flushing Avenue are the officer’s quarters, two-story buildings of painted brick, scrupulously neat despite their age (some were built before the Civil War), and bordered by gardens, tennis courts, and carefully kept walks.” – New York City Guide (WPA, 1939)
The past and the present meet frequently in New York, but rarely do the past and the future coalesce so nearly as they do in the Navy Yard. Bordered by the crumbling facades of Admiral’s Row and the regally decrepit former hospital, industry is adapting to the constraints and needs of the current environment. The nonprofit development corporation that manages the site has made the rich history of the Navy Yard’s past and present available through BLDG 92, a museum, job placement center, and community space housed in the adaptively reused Marine Commandant’s Residence. It may not look like much from the outside, but the Navy Yard stands in stark contrast to an economy founded on real estate booms and the fluctuations of Wall Street, and is much more impressive and intriguing for it.
Guide Note: While admission to BLDG 92 is free, tours of the Navy Yard itself run to at least $20. I highly suggest a visit to the distillery followed by some slightly illicit exploration of the grounds, by bike if possible.
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JONATHAN TARLETON is a State Guide to New York. He was schooled in Georgia and North Carolina before moving on to denser pastures in Brooklyn. He currently helps out at Urban Omnibus where he researches and writes about the policy, art, peculiarities, and movements that make New York City so enticingly combative. He likes to be outside and to make things, preferably concurrently.
Follow him on Tumblr at jttarleton.tumblr.com.