(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores August 2017.)
You would think three hundred acres of undeveloped Brooklyn real estate could not still be up for grabs. Especially when it is adjacent to a thoroughly gentrified neighborhood and has dramatic Manhattan skyline views. But you would be wrong.
This was once the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The long ago decision to close it forever involved the Department of Defense, Congress, the city government, and several unions. It left lasting scars.
Another long conflict raged about what that valuable piece of land could or should or needed to become. Add in real estate moguls and possibly organizations that prefer to be nameless.
It's Brooklyn. Nothing is obvious.
I considered all this while on a bus stuck in traffic, running late, on my way to a public meeting about the future of this grand spread of formerly public land. I was so late that I would not have time to explore the old docks or see that dramatic skyline view across the river. Damn. You might also think that in New York, with the subway, buses, taxis, and my old, unreliable car, I had a lot of choices for getting from here to there. At rush hour, all of them are bad except the subway. And that did not get very close to my destination.
Trapped on a bus, I could fume about my time being wasted, think about my complicated life, or review my information about this meeting. So I reviewed.
It was always called the Brooklyn Navy Yard, though its proper name was the New York Naval Shipyard. Established in 1801, during World War II it was truly an engine of victory, operating 24/7 to build ships and keep the ones already built in fighting condition. Shipshape, literally.
I was stunned when I learned that sixty-three streetcars a minute stopped at its gates to deliver workers. It held five miles of roads and thirty miles of railroad tracks, a radio station, a hospital, several cafeterias, and a post office for the men—and women!—who worked there. Many of the employees never worked anywhere else.
When the Navy decided in 1963 that it was too outdated to keep open, those people didn't just lose their jobs. They lost their whole world.
This was one of New York's never-ending sagas of land use. I was trapped in my own never-ending saga about land use, writing a history PhD dissertation about how neighborhoods in Brooklyn change over time.
That's why the Yard belonged in my dissertation, no matter what my advisor thought. Maybe what I learned tonight would change her mind.
Even hurrying from the bus, I felt the chilly wind from the harbor but I couldn't see it behind the buildings. I went directly from the street to Building 92, a museum and history center, a handsome modern structure wrapped around the 1857 Marine commandant's residence. I didn't have time to be distracted by the building or its enticing exhibits. I had to hustle upstairs to the meeting space, by then standing-room-only, a mix of Brooklyn types. There were neatly dressed older people; younger ones from the neighborhood, loudly dressed but interested enough to be here; a handful of messy, sleeping bodies, perhaps homeless; and some people with the newest Brooklyn look—lumberjack wannabes.
I spotted my reporter friend, Lisa Wang, who motioned to me to share her seat.
"Look at you! They finally took you off the Chinatown beat?" She hadn't wanted to be the permanent reporter on immigration issues and Chinese restaurants and had fought for a few years to get more varied assignments.
"Now I'm on hipster Brooklyn and the nearby neighborhoods." She sighed but she was joking. "Another stereotype but at least it's a change of scene. What brings you here?"
When I explained, she frowned. "Isn't disagreeing with your advisor like me disagreeing with my editor?"
"Exactly. And here you are, so it worked for you."
I spread out the information sheets handed to me at the door and found a sketched map.