A trip to the waterfront

One nice feature (for my purposes) of a neighborhood like Fulton Ferry is that it’s small – I didn’t have to pick a few spots of interest in advance.

Another nice feature is that the area retains much of its 19th-century architecture and charm. When the completion of a massive bridge transforms your neighborhood from a transit-hub to an out-of-the-way location, you tend to avoid the demolition and rebuilding that was the norm elsewhere in the 20th century.

A third representation of the Fulton Ferry Historic District, this one from a 1983 Department of City Planning report.

My friend Ted, a historian on spring break, was eager to join me on this trip. We had breakfast at my place in Park Slope, then took the B41 to Borough Hall, where we waited for the B25 – the only direct link to Fulton Ferry. The forecast had called for sun and temperatures in the mid-50s, but the sky was overcast and the air about ten degrees cooler.

The B25 took us down the hill to the waterfront to the place where the Fulton Ferry used to dock. It is now occupied by Bargemusic, which offers concerts year-round. (The new East River ferry comes in one pier to the east.) In a nearby fireboat-house is The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, which promises “only the finest, purest, natural ingredients”.

I was excited to touch the base of the Brooklyn caisson of the Brooklyn Bridge, but due to construction, the area was closed. Bummer. We consoled ourselves with a walk around the garden in front of The River Cafe, which in my head is Brooklyn’s version of the old Tavern on the Green. We found the plaque commemorating Washington’s retreat along the way.

We continued under the bridge on Water Street. St. Ann’s Warehouse is on the right [ETA: it has since moved to Vinegar Hill], along with a Jacques Torres and a few other stores, but that side of the street is not part of the historic district. On the left is a pair of old buildings: the roofless shell of the old Tobacco Inspection Warehouse, which at one point was a way-station for 90% of Brooklyn’s tobacco, and the fenced-off hulk that used to be known as Empire Stores.

The distinction between the two sides of the street is important. St. Ann’s Warehouse is set to lose its space to commercial development this coming May, and it had secured approval from the National Park Service and others to use the old Warehouse as its new base. (The space has long been used for entertainment and shows; this Google Maps image shows a tent in the structure.) Community groups sued to stop this, and a federal judge ruled in July 2011 that the proposal that the space be used by a single organization required an inappropriate removal of the historic location’s protection.

In May 2013, New York Road Runners used the Tobacco Inspection Warehouse for its Brooklyn Half pre-party.

The Tobacco Inspection Warehouse, as viewed from Water Street.

The historic district ends at Main Street. We walked on Main Street toward the water, along an old cobblestone street with a hint of a former alternative mode of transit:

Then we looped back along the waterfront side of the old Empire Stores. This building used to serve as a coffee warehouse, among other things, and has seen some damage. A recent proposal called for the structure to be turned into a mall in the style of Chelsea Market, but as the property was subject to the same July 2011 ruling as the Tobacco Inspection Warehouse, it will be at least a few years before any development can proceed.

The north façade of the Empire Stores building.

It was time for lunch by this point, and if there’s any place that comes to mind when someone says “under the Brooklyn Bridge”, it’s Grimaldi’s. In my research (and perhaps my general ignorance of Brooklyn/foodie news) I had failed to realize a couple important details. First: Grimaldi’s moved in late 2011, from 19 Old Fulton Street to 1-3 Front Street, a larger space a few doors down. Second: Patsy Grimaldi, the 80-year-old legend of the establishment, had retired. No need to fret, though: Mr. Grimaldi plans to return this month in his original space under a new name, Juliana’s (after his late mother).

We were shocked when we arrived around 12:30 to find that we could get a table immediately. Isn’t waiting in line at Grimaldi’s part of the experience, like waiting in line at the original Shake Shack? No matter – hunger trumps irrational exuberance. We split a large pie with pepperoni and black olives. I thought the crust was perfect – just burnt enough to bring out the flavor while keeping the bread moist.

On our way out: Ah, there’s the line! The original Grimaldi’s (and future Juliana’s) is the short building in the background.

Two major stops remained as we digested. The first was next door: 5-7 Front Street, the oldest office-building in New York City, originally built for the Long Island Insurance Corporation in 1834. Its ground floor has housed a restaurant for the last forty years, while it appears the top two floors were recently sold (listing price: $2.8 million).

1-3 Front Street, left, was completed in 1869 for the Long Island Safe Deposit Company. It’s now the home of Grimaldi’s. 5-7 Front Street, its ground floor occupied by Pub One, is the smaller building on the right.

The other stop was across the street: the 1894 Eagle Warehouse & Storage Company building, designed by Frank Freeman, Brooklyn’s greatest architect. The Brooklyn Eagle had razed its offices at this location, which was deemed suitable for the fortress-like structure. (Fun fact: Walt Whitman was editor of the Eagle from 1846-1848.) The building is now residential, which I didn’t realize until I walked in and a couple of doormen gave me quizzical looks.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses building is out of my jurisdiction – this week, anyway.

As far as “official” stops were concerned, we were now done. But I invoked a vampiresque personal rule: if a carousel has a fee of $3 or less, I have to ride it. The new Jane’s Carousel, on the promenade east of the bridge, asks you to “pony up” just two bucks, so it was on.

The carousel was installed in Youngstown, Ohio in 1922. Jane and David Walentas purchased the entire structure at auction in 1984, and endeavored to return the carousel to its original state. This required several pain-staking tasks, including removing subsequent layers of paint with an X-acto knife to reveal the original artwork on each horse. The refurbished carousel was opened at its present location in September 2011.

Of course, there is a music-machine that plays Sousa marches and the like as the carousel rotates. When I rode, I was one of only five – clearly a Thursday afternoon is not prime-time!

Certainly enjoying myself, although more likely wondering where I’m going to be next week. (Photo credit: Ted Parker)

Most of the people I saw on my tour were tourists (like I was, I suppose), with most hanging out on the East Ferry pier. I did see a few kids throwing a baseball in the open grass next to the carousel, and many more were using the Jean Nouvel-designed space surrounding the carousel as a hang-out spot.

This was a fun trip. Here’s a map with the important points marked:

(1) original berth (now home to Bargemusic). (2) plaque commemorating Washington’s retreat. (3) Tobacco Inspection Warehouse. (4) Empire Stores. (5) 1-7 Front Street. (6) Eagle Warehouse. (7) Jane’s Carousel.

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2 Responses to A trip to the waterfront

  1. Sel Hudson says:

    This is pretty interesting on Fulton Ferry. I’ve never been by there. Keith, it must be exciting to visit a different neighborhood each week to discover new things. With summer around the corner, exploring should be even more indulgent.

    • Keith says:

      Thanks, Sel! I’m looking forward to my adventures, and to sharing them with the world. (I can’t say I’m excited about visiting, say, Coney Island in the winter, though!)

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