A walk about Wallabout

I went to the Wallabout area twice this week: on Thursday to visit the museum at BLDG 92, and on Sunday to walk around the neighborhood and to take the guided tour of the Navy Yard.

Most of the old Navy Yard area was purchased by the City in 1967. In recent years, the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation has worked to turn the area into an light-manufacturing industrial-park. There are now 6,000 persons employed on the Navy Yard grounds. (For reference: there were 70,000 at the Yard during World War II, when it was a 24-hour operation.)

BNYDC has great guidelines for development. All tenants must be job-producers, i.e., they can’t use the space for warehousing. Employers must target certain local ZIP codes when hiring. To promote environmental sustainability, all buildings in use must be LEED Silver or higher.

BLDG 92 is a Platinum building, the highest LEED designation. It is a glass-and-steel structure linked to the former home of the Marine Commandant.

The museum is free and well worth the trip. The current exhibit is “Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Past, Present and Future”. It juxtaposes images of the Yard’s past with scenes from today’s complex. There is also a memorial to Tim Hetherington, the Academy Award-nominated photojournalist who was killed in Libya a little over a year ago.

The museum has a game where you try to find eighteen different “booths” that give information about the building’s environmental features. (Hint: use the restroom frequently.)

Unless you work on the Navy Yard’s grounds, taking a guided tour is the only way to get in. There are one- and two-hour options; I chose the latter, and still felt it was not long enough.

Our group of ten had a lot of obscure questions. A guide can make or break a tour, and we were lucky to have Andrew, who switched easily between history, trivia, politics, and science. The driver-in-training had worked on the Yard’s grounds when it was a commercial yard in the 1970s; he had some great stories to share.

Admiral’s Row was still in use by the Navy in 1967, so it wasn’t part of the package of land sold to the City. The Navy did not spend any money on upkeep after it abandoned the buildings. What remains is an eerie example of decay.

The City finally purchased this plot in January 2012. The plan is to tear down all but two of the surviving buildings and put in public goods, including a supermarket. (The area is surrounded by several projects — median income $15,000 — that don’t have easy access to fresh food.)

Since the Hammerhead Crane was torn down in the 1960s, the dry docks are the engineering marvels of the former Naval facility. (The crane could lift 380 tons.) Dry docks work by pumping out the water, leaving the hull dry and easily accessible; atreegrowsinbklyn has a great overview of how they work and what they’re like inside.

Dry Dock #1, left, built between 1841 and 1851, is still in use today. It services tugboats, barges, FDNY fireboats, and other vessels. Dry Dock #4 is out of service but can still be used as a pier.

Structures on the campus range from old and decrepit to brand-spanking-new. Older buildings of interest include the Paymaster’s building (which now houses Kings County Distillery), Building 128 (formerly an engine-manufacturing plant, soon to be a food-processing facility), and a nearly windowless building built during World War II, its purpose still classified.

The new buildings are sleek and forward-thinking — note the turbines on top of Building 25. The street-lamps are powered by both sun and wind, and there are solar-powered trash-compactors all over, reducing the need for pick-ups by two-thirds.

The former Naval Hospital is on the east side of the Yard. Like Admiral’s Row, it was not part of the package sold to the City in 1967. Like Admiral’s Row, it is overgrown and haunting. Feral cats, the descendants of ratters brought in when the in-use hospital was infested with mice, roam the property. A cemetery with perhaps 500 bodies is considered hallowed ground. (Many of the bodies originally there had been moved to Cypress Hills Cemetery, but a subsequent review found that those responsible for the reinterment hadn’t done a thorough job.)

The site reminded me of Doodletown, an abandoned Revolution-era town on Bear Mountain in the Catskills. The buildings here, however, remain. This blog has great pictures of some interiors. (We were not allowed inside for reasons of safety, but this guy is a “guerrilla”.)

A company was filming a commercial in some parts of the hospital, so we couldn’t visit the whole area. Perhaps they were affiliated with Steiner Studios, also based at the yard (and also off-limits)?

Now, for my walk around the neighborhood. My target area was north of Myrtle, between Navy St and Classon Av.

The two sites I had mentioned in my breakdown of Clinton Hill were the former Tootsie Roll factory (at 275 Park Av) and the house where Walt Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass (99 Ryerson St). The former now has luxury apartments, a spa, and a Fresh Fanatic market. The latter is the tallest building in the picture.

Where do we get Tootsie Rolls from? Sugar! Sugar (and its substitutes) used to be a big part of the Wallabout economy.

The area between Park Av/the BQE and Flushing Av has many unused properties. What is used is largely industrial or storage.

I saw some cool art around the area, on buildings both abandoned and in-use. I also saw something that’s intended to be unveiled at The Great GoogaMooga, but I won’t say what it was, because I’m a nice guy.

At the western edge of the area, surrounded by several projects, is Commodore Barry Park. It was a good day for the boys of summer. Also, is four-square now known as “box ball”?

At the eastern end is the much-smaller Steuben Park. Handball was popular here, as it was at Barry. Both parks have their mascots, it appears: Barry has a camel (and an elephant and a turtle), while Steuben has boars.

The area offers two starkly different modes of transportation. On one hand, there’s the BQE running over the middle of Park Avenue; it might be responsible for choking off life to the area between Park and Flushing. On the other, there’s a new bike route along Flushing Av (the closest to the water the route could go). The bike route was heavily traveled in both directions.

Because I went two different times, I tried two different places for lunch. On Thursday, I had pizza at Il Porto. Like I did at Original Pizza in Georgetown, I had a tomato-mozz-basil slice (Sicilian this time) and a white slice. The results were reversed: the former was fantastic, the latter so-so.

On Sunday I ate at Ted & Honey. It’s on the top floor of BLDG 92, so it has some great views. Their turkey club and their special coffee-blend were both delicious, and I highly recommend them. (They have a branch in Cobble Hill.)

If you’re interested in seeing the Navy Yard in its present state, do it soon. Admiral’s Row will be coming down eventually, and the Naval Hospital site will be repurposed for Carnegie Mellon’s future media campus. Of course, the area has been in a state of change for nearly 400 years; why should now be any different?

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4 Responses to A walk about Wallabout

  1. What should be familiar to me, looks new and diffrent when looking through someone else’s eyes. Thank you for giving me a new perspective.

    • Keith says:

      Glad you enjoyed these! It might be similar to proofreading one’s own writing — you skip over things that look familiar.

  2. Pingback: FLUSHING AVENUE, Brooklyn-Queens | | Forgotten New YorkForgotten New York

  3. Pingback: 1900: The Brave and Brawny Black Cats of the Brooklyn Navy Yard | The Hatching Cat

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