Wednesday, June 8, 2016


photo by Jim Henderson

One of the most iconic photographs of WWII is the Alfred Eisenstaedt picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day.   Ships and sailing, sailors and ship building, ferries and water taxies have always been a defining essence of New York.  Of course, except for container shipping at the New Jersey ports, all that is sort of “Old New York” now.  Although, just walking past the old Brooklyn Navy Yard I got the feeling of what it must have been like when there were 10,000 people working there and a large Naval presence in Brooklyn.  The old quarters were still standing – the admiral’s house, the officers quarters – although they were just skeletal. 

The 6-block Vinegar Hill area around the Navy Yard has historic status which means you can walk around a neighborhood that looks pretty much the same as it was when shipbuilding was active.  These are relatively small, federal-style houses built in the early 19th century that I could imagine were boarding houses as well as family homes.  The cobblestone roads are still there, for now [it’s easy to trip on them when crossing the street even in sneakers – ask me how I know that]. 

There are some decrepit-looking, small saloons open for business that I could imagine filled with workers and Navy personnel.  I didn’t see any, but there must have been at least one shabby tattoo parlor for men – because it was a man-only, and not very respectable, proof of love of home or profession to have Mother or an anchor tattooed on a forearm in  black ink.  You don’t see those much anymore.

The US Navy Yard at Brooklyn – commonly known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard because you do not think of the federal or state government when you are in the City of New York except at tax time -  has a long history.   It opened in 1806, and until 1966 it was a place where ships were built for the US Navy.  During that 160 years, some famous ships were constructed there:

“Fulton” (1837) first steam-driven boat from Robert Fulton’s design

“Maine” (1875)  as in "remember the Maine” sunk in Havana Harbor starting the Spanish-American  War

“USS Arizona” (1916) sunk at Pearl Harbor

From 1968 to 1979 Seatrain Corporation used the Yard to create container ships, and the Yard was used as dry dock until 1987.  After that, the National Guard was housed there and they let the Brooklyn Navy Yard become a weed-choked 300-acre landmark until the real estate developers turned to Brooklyn. 
photo by Jim Henderson

Now, according to the official site:  Brooklyn Navy Yard is a modern industrial park with over 4,000,000 square feet of space.  Kinda loses its romance, but at least it’s still there.

And 3 of the 40 buildings have landmark status (as does the entire Ship Yard): 

1. The Commander’s House (Quarters A) is a wooden structure designed by Charles Bulfinch who also designed the US capitol in Washington DC.  Admiral Matthew Perry lived in that house.  Not the actor, this man:

2. The Surgeon’s Residence (Bldg. R1).  You can see some really nice pre-restoration photographs of that here:

3. The Naval Hospital, (Bldg 92), a 3-story brick building plus basement constructed of hand-made bricks, was thankfully saved.  It now has a large glass and steel extension building and is called the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center.  You can go there for free and see photos of the history of the Navy Yard  - behind glass, lit with track lighting and you can see and touch a big anchor.  You can listen to 90-second lectures about stuff like how to build a battleship or something.  Personally, I’d like to hear how they made those bricks.

[Reminds me of visiting Ellis Island which is a tour of a very big empty building with extra large photographs. Why not leave the benches that 1000s of immigrants sat on?  Why not leave the desks with reenacting or wax statues of bureaucrats that you could choose to face?  Why not have displays of the medical equipment they used to find excuses to turn people away?  Or a large screen in that room with a movie of people moving through the lines and what they experienced?  Why not some experiential remnants of the will-I-make-it terror of Ellis Island?  Anyway, the Ellis Island Tour is now online and interactive – you don’t even have to go there at all.] 

But I digress - A movie studio makes use of 20 acres of the Navy Yard and, ironically, has a back lot where filmmakers can recreate Old New York. 

There is a 65,000 square foot “farm” on the roof of one of the buildings at the Yard, which is interesting.  I wonder if they change out the soil every couple of years to keep it fertile and how deep it is and whether with a heavy snowstorm that roof will cave in.

 There’s also a place called the Refundry that makes furniture and hires former convicts, training them for working in that industry.  New York has a “Work for Success” program encouraging businesses ($$) to hire former felons and the City of New York is very active in that hiring program.  The former Riker’s prison guard who was convicted of a few hundred instances of selling drugs to inmates is now re-employed by the City of New York.

Post by Alana Cash  

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