Although we sometimes forget it today, New York City has always been a city with a bustling waterfront. Afterall, New York is basically a city of islands. One of the most interesting waterfront histories, from my (slightly biased) perspective, is the history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Navy Yard has been an important New York waterfront space since the 17th century – and its importance only grew during the 19th and 20th centuries, as it became a key part of our wartime operations.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard’s history begins long before it was called the “Navy Yard,” back when that area of the waterfront was known as Wallabout Bay. It was one of the first areas of Long Island settled by Europeans – several French-speaking Walloon families purchased land in the Wallabout area in the early 1630s. Throughout the 17th century, the area was farmed by Walloons who leased the land from the Dutch East India Company. One enterprising Dutchman, Cornelis Dircksen, set up the first East River Ferry, from Wallabout to Manhattan, in 1637.
During the time of the American Revolution, from 1776-1783, the British used Wallabout Bay as a place to moor prison ships. These prison ships, the most famous being the HMS Jersey, were hellholes used to hold thousands of Continental Army soldiers and sailors (and sometimes private citizens) who became prisoners of war. Over 10,000 prisoners of war died on these prison ships in Wallabout Bay during the American Revolution. (The Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Fort Greene Park, a subject of a previous blog entry, honors the memory of the thousands that died on these ships.)
In 1801, the Wallabout Bay area was purchased by the United States federal government and, by 1806, the site became an official U.S. Navy shipyard. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was active from 1806, and many important U.S. ships (including Robert Fulton’s steam frigate Fulton and the armored cruiser USS Maine) were built at the Navy Yard during the 19th century.
As you might imagine, the Navy Yard experienced the most development during times of war. The American Civil War, World War I, and World War II all mark major periods of growth for the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Works Progress Administration of the 1930s contributed to major growth of the Navy Yard. In 1938, 10,000 people were employed at the Navy Yard (at least 1/3 of them were WPA workers).
World War II is definitely the “peak” of the Navy Yard’s long history. It was at this time that the Yard earned its nickname, the “Can-Do Yard.” During World War II, the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed 70,000 people, working 24 hours a day to keep our nation’s Navy going strong. In the 1940s, the Navy Yard built essential battleships such as the Iowa and Missouri, and massive aircraft carriers. In addition to the ships being built from scratch, over 5,000 U.S. ships were repaired at the Yard by the tens of thousands of World War II-era workers.
Importantly, the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed large numbers of female and African American defense workers in an era when white men still dominated the industrial workforce. “Rosie the Riveters” went to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as production workers such as welders and assembly workers. By the end of the war, women were employed in nearly every phase of shipbuilding and repair at the Navy Yard. Notably, black women made up a large portion of the female workforce during World War II.
In 1966, the U.S. Navy decommissioned the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and it became a privately-owned space for the first time since 1801. Shipbuilding (on a smaller scale) still took place at the Brooklyn Navy Yard while it was under private ownership during the 1970s.
Today, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is again a thriving industrial space – though it is not used for shipbuilding as it once was. The yard is owned by the City of New York, but it is operated by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, which has created a modern and sustainable industrial park that houses more than 200 small manufacturing businesses as well as other unique businesses such as a rooftop farm, a museum, and a major production studio. BNYDC, and the businesses located in the Navy Yard, have supported some really interesting sustainability initiatives such as building NYC’s first roof-mounted wind turbines, using green technologies for renovations and maintenance, requiring all new buildings and renovated buildings to be LEED Silver, and installing solar-powered trash compactors and solar and wind-powered street lamps.
I highly recommend a visit to the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s excellent museum, BLDG 92. Although it can seem difficult to access, it’s relatively accessible by subway, bus, and bike. Just take the F train to York Street or the A or C trains to High Street/Brooklyn Bridge – and if you don’t feel like walking, BNYDC offers free shuttles from the subway to the Navy Yard! The Navy Yard is also a BIG supporter of CitiBike, and CitiBike stations are everywhere around the area. While you’re there, take a walking tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, led by the expert guides at Turnstile Tours – it is really the best way to explore the yard first-hand. There are tons of great places to eat in the area, once you work up an appetite from your walking tour. I recommend walking over to Myrtle Avenue to try out a local joint – I love The Runner for brunch or Lulu and Po for a cozy dinner.