Brooklyn Rising

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The Dodgers’ departure resonates so widely because it also serves as shorthand for the arrival of other changes that visited cities like Brooklyn in the era of urban decline and suburbanization. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle succumbed after a seven-week strike in 1955; the borough lost mainstays in beer companies (Schaeffer, Schlitz, Piel’s, Rheingold), typographical factories, and pharmaceuticals (Squibb), while a great overall decline in New York’s shipping business hit the vital outer ring of the city, from Greenpoint to Williamsburg to Red Hook.

By the seventies, largely because of the advent of containerization, which demanded greater trucking highway access than crowded Brooklyn could accommodate, commercial shipping had gone to New Jersey, and the borough’s longshoring population dwindled. But perhaps the most spectacular blow of all was the closing, in 1966, of Brooklyn’s world-famous Navy Yard. The Navy Yard, which employed 70,000 during World War II and 40,000 in the late fifties, was established in 1781 and purchased by the Navy 20 years later; this tremendous shipworks outfitted the Monitor (built nearby in Greenpoint) during the Civil War, then built the Maine in 1889 and later the battleship Arizona , which was sunk at Pearl Harbor, and the Missouri , on whose deck the Japanese formally surrendered. In recent years, though, life has returned to the Navy Yard. Its jutting cranes now signify an active industrial park, with more than 200 businesses, crowned by the arrival of Steiner Studios.

The Walled City

 

The Montero’s Bar & Grill, a sailors’ tavern at the river end of Atlantic Avenue, dates from the postwar days, when Brooklyn was still the busiest part of the world’s greatest port. IF THE CAPTAIN AIN’T HAPPY, AIN’T NOBODY HAPPY reads the sign opposite the bar, and the place’s dark walls are a gloriously evocative clutter of orange lifesavers for the Owls Head or SS Stonewall Jackson , a poster identifying 140 colorful ship stacks that might appear in the harbor, and dusty models of clippers and destroyers. While it doesn’t rank with classic tourist spots like Junior’s diner, Montero’s, especially during Fleet Week each May, when it fills up with young sailors in their starched whites, is a perfect boozy diorama of what Brooklyn so recently was.

The Brooklyn Historical Society often teams up with the New York Water Taxi to give floating lectures on the Brooklyn waterfront. The areas hardest hit by the decline of Brooklyn’s shipping business such as DUMBO, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Sunset Park, and Red Hook—are now in very different stages of recovery or transformation. Going with the quick East River current, my tour first passes the old brick warehouses for tobacco, cotton, and molasses that front the area now called DUMBO, the kind of warehouses that in shipping days made Brooklyn known as the “walled city.” The mere fact of renewed ferry service after decades cut off from the waterfront has allowed development and tourism among the hulks of abandoned factories at the water’s edge. A direct connection to downtown Manhattan seems to be enough to satisfy some buyers, but in picking his spots for new landings along the waterfront, the Water Taxi’s chief business officer, Mark Baker, doesn’t just follow the money but consults old maps from Brooklyn ferry days for guidance. “Whenever we’re trying to determine where to put in a new stop, we look on an old map, and when we find a street called Ferry Street, we know that’s a good place.”

 

DUMBO may be the most dramatic example of resurgence. In the early nineties it was so wonderfully uncrowded (except for its community of artists) that you could hear the sound of the rounds bell drilling in Gleason’s boxing gym from several hundred yards away. Now DUMBO is home to a chocolate factory, experimental theater, nightlife, million-dollar lofts, and a grassy waterfront park where kids fly kites beneath the D train as it lumbers over the Manhattan Bridge, all in the streets that during Agee’s 1930s tour he pronounced the most dangerous blocks in Brooklyn. “Sure, you’d get in a lot of fights,” a veteran of those rowdy days once told me, “but you’d make some of your best friends that way.”

Past Vinegar Hill (the name is an early real estate ploy to attract patriotic Irish immigrants), past the just-closed Domino Sugar plant (established as Havemeyer and Elder in 1880s), our boat reaches Greenpoint and enters Newtown Creek, which, like the Gowanus Canal, once ran shipping into Brooklyn’s manufacturing heart. At its height, the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Jaime Joyce claims, Newtown Creek handled “more tonnage than the Mississippi River.” On our right we pass the site of a shipyard where immense caissons were built for the Roeblings’ Brooklyn Bridge. Back on the East River, south of the Navy Yard, Joyce points out the approximate location of the infamous British prison ships where, during the Revolution, perhaps 11,000 POWs died and were secretly buried by the British in unmarked graves. In 1808, bones of the war dead collected from the shore over the years were entombed near the Navy Yard. They were reinterred in 1873 in what is now Fort Greene Park and later given the nearly 150-foot-tall Prison Ship Martyrs’ Memorial (designed by McKim, Mead, & White).