June 01, 2009

Brooklyn Navy Yard Tour

Just about a month ago I convinced Edith to play hooky and join me on a bus tour of Brooklyn's Navy Yard. They usually do these for free during Open House NY, but I've usually got some hospital to explore, so I bought a ticket for this one courtesy of the Municipal Art Society, whose tour was cheaper than the one offered by Brooklyn Historical Society and the now-defunct BCUE(!!!).

They picked us up in a new blue bus, reminiscent more of a prison bus than a school bus, but full of excited retirees like myself. I love a good urban tour.

Navy Yard has a long, rich history of shipbuilding and has been transformed into a historical industrial park. In addition to the new facilities (which are surprisingly green), there are lots of old crumbly buildings and even a Civil War-era abandoned hospital (which fortunately has been stabilized). Security is pretty tight given all the workers who still come in and out of the main gates, so the bus tour was the best way in.

Of course it was raining and we couldn't get into a lot of the most appealing buildings, but we got to skulk around the outside of ones like the old Paymaster building (until recently, still used in its state of extreme disrepair by some industrious Hasids).

Paymaster Building #121

Like Red Hook and DUMBO and other waterfront neighborhoods of Brooklyn dependent on ferry landings and boat slips, Navy Yard still has the old trolley tracks set into cobblestone. A little part of me still hopes that Bob Diamond gets to finally realize his dream of bringing those old trolleys back.

It really started to pour while we were poking around outside, so we sought shelter back on the bus and drove too quickly through the rest of the Navy Yard sights, especially the abandoned hospital and a lot of the old residences all boarded up and rain-streaked. We even passed a preserved part of the old Brooklyn Naval Hospital Cemetary, which was dug up in the 1920s to relocate the remains of more than 2000 military service members to Cypress Hills. Unfortunately, as our tour guide told us, they didn't get all of the remains, and some kids playing soccer in the late 1990s kicked a bone instead of a soccer ball. At that point the cemetery was closed to the public and "preserved" as a memorial.

We also whizzed by Admirals' Row, the former home to high-ranking military officials. Those houses, which were particularly spectacular in their hey-day, have been entrenched in a tug-of-war between the National Guard (who owns them), historic preservationists, and neighborhood advocates who want a grocery store for the low income housing projects that face the Navy Yard. The longer they're tied up in appeals and hearings and petitions, the more they are worn down by the elements and will cost more and more to fix up.

Despite a fever and impending thunderstorms, I went back this week to get a closer look at Admiral's Row. It's right off of Flushing Ave near the corner of Navy St., a B61 bus ride down from Williamsburg, and you can see the houses' facades easily from the sidewalk. Overgrown and falling down, there's some question as to whether those houses can even be saved. Part of me loves them the way that they are, only wishing it were safe for me to skulk around inside. (I'm not as brave as some other urban explorers...) Or maybe for them to be preserved as a historic ruin like the smallpox hospital or Eastern State Penitentiary.

Honestly, to look at their shattered windows and piles of rubble, with the sounds of nesting birds rustling in the overgrowth, it's hard to imagine those buildings being anything but razed.

And it's not hard to see why the residents think it's an eyesore. The entire corner of Navy and Flushing is under the shadow of a red brick wall, topped with green overgrowth and these relic buildings looming above. A little farther down Flushing, right across from a playground, the red brick wall is replaced by a black wrought iron fence that doesn't look too hard to climb, save for the barbed wire twisted above it.

It's actually kind of nice with all the greenery, the serene quietude of abandonment, but I would imagine that the locals have a hard time understanding the purpose of preservation when they have nowhere to get fresh produce. And so they ditch their empty bottles of water and orange soda over the fencing, under the barbed wire, and watch it collect on the ground along with the broken glass and window frames.

On most Navy Yard maps, Admirals Row is referred to as "Federal Property," but it's easy to find and is right around the corner from the historic Sands Gate. The B61 drops you off right to the side of it, two stops after it turns right onto Navy. But a word of warning: it's not a very nice neighborhood, so go during daylight and be prepared for catcalls from passing cars.

I've made a mental note to go back and explore the other end of Navy Yard on foot, near the hospital and more "federal property," if I can avoid being rained-on and apprehended by the Yard's security.

More info courtesy of the Municipal Art Society:

Further Reading:
Officer's Row Project (great photos of the delapidated interiors)

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