You know I love history. And stories. And old buildings.
When I heard there was a naval yard from the Revolution still operating in New York City, I was on to it.
Turns out the history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard is pretty revolutionary. For a start, it’s tucked into a bay that you almost don’t notice, where Walloon settlers first landed in the 17th century. And it used to have an island. And a major hospital for naval veterans. And it’s where Sweet n Low is packaged and where both Flight of the Conchords AND Boardwalk Empire are filmed!
Let’s get oriented first:
Yes, I’m talking about that A in the grey area that’s 500 acres in Brooklyn. 500 acres looking at Manhattan.
We found Turnstile Tours had a Tim-friendly bus AND great access to the site, so we spent the afternoon with Cindy, Doug, John and Roger, exploring the site and hearing these great stories.
Don’t worry – I’m not going to relate every one! The Navy Yard’s fantastic museum at Building 92 can do that better than I can.
Cue the montage:
So there are still six dry docks here, the oldest from the revolutionary war. They are used today for ship repairs: ship building per se ended in the 60s. During the Second World War, 75 000 people worked here over three eight hour shifts. That’s 25 000 people clocking on as another 25 000 clock off. The streets near around the yard teemed, yes teemed, with life, servicing the yard, feeding the workers, outfitting the sailors.
Benny and Betty Eisenstadt had a cafeteria nearby that operated round the clock until the ship building wound down after the war. With business dwindling, Benny looked for a new thing, and bought a tea bag making machine. Betty had always thought sugar bowls in the cafeteria highly unsanitary and suggested he package sugar instead. Yep, now you know who to thank/curse when you use/fidget with those packets. Well, Benny went on to package single serves of ketchup, soy sauce, jam, you name it, it’s his fault. But in 1957 he and his son Martin came up with Sweet n Low, and made millions. The packaging business has operated from within in the Navy Yard since the early 60s, when the yard closed.
So the revolutionary future? It’s having a pretty vibrant regeneration and is becoming home to a range of businesses and services. The Eisenstadts have been there for ages. Their neighbour, Kings County Distillery is, it turns out, the oldest distillery in New York State, having been founded three years ago. Yep, 2010. Those pesky prohibition laws about making stuff were still in place until then! The distillery tour and tasting is hilarious – even if you don’t drink bourbon.
Other businesses that have moved in, renovating great buildings, and recycling these amazing spaces include a company making solar powered street lights, and Steiner Studios.
On the roof of a really big six-storey building is an enormous vegetable garden that’s part of the Brooklyn Grange Farm network. And we spied beehives on the roof of another building.
And the island? Here it is in the late 19the century – it was dredged away as the ships being built got bigger and bigger.
And our soundtrack? It has to be the opening number from On The Town – not only my All Time Favourite Musical, but if you look carefully you’ll see it’s set in this very naval yard. Which I hadn’t realised ’til right now. Coincidence? Serendipity?