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When the Navy decided in 1963 that it was too outdated to keep open, those people didn’t just lose their jobs.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 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.
Some of the old buildings had been converted to light industry use, including a large film studio. I knew a bit about that. The derelict property was slowly being transformed into a home for all kinds of businesses, yet there was still a big chunk that seemed empty. Then there was where they laid out the adjoining neighborhoods.
Practically next door was Dumbo, once a bustling industrial neighborhood under the Manhattan Bridge—“Dumbo” for DownUndertheManhattanBridge—and then a deserted and scary one, and now home to art galleries in the once-abandoned warehouses. The aged cobblestone streets only added to the charm. Artsy Brooklyn. On another side, though, were several housing projects and not much else.
I was properly oriented when the meeting started. A middle-aged man began, introducing the panel of representatives from the city and the companies investing in the Yard. They would present updated plans. He filled in some history, talking about how the neighborhood in its current form, with the projects, was actually built as housing for Navy Yard workers during World War II.
“In those days, the Yard employed seventy thousand men and women.” Just before he drifted into nostalgic storytelling, he stopped and admitted that the justly proud history had trickled away to a neighborhood now characterized by steady deterioration.
Before the panel even had a chance to start, the audience was talking.
An older woman, dressed in a dignified suit with a snazzy hat, stood up and demanded the floor. She spoke passionately, addressing in turn the panel and the audience, about how her even more elderly neighbors needed her to take a taxi to a completely different neighborhood and shop for them.
“I can still do it, but what happens to them when I can’t? We are talking hardship here! Don’t talk to me about hip Brooklyn. We don’t need it. Art galleries!” She made a dismissive gesture.
“We need services we can get to. No one can afford to move out of the projects, but here we are, in the heart of New York and we might as well be in a desert. How are we supposed to do with no services? Tell me that. Without a supermarket? Without a bank or a post office? We can’t even buy medications, aging as we are and needing them. How can we supposed to live here? In our longtime—in some cases, lifelong!—homes?”
She certainly hit a nerve. Second speaker in and there was already shouting from the back rows, “You tell it!” and “Amen, sister!” and scattered applause.
This was getting interesting. I straightened up, pulled out my notebook, and got ready.
The next speaker, a community organizer, had scathing words about all the promises made and broken as the Yard was redeveloped. “Very nice, very nice that business is doing so well.” His voice dripped with sarcasm. “We are so relieved. But community life is not doing well. It is worse every year. Are we getting more jobs? Why should we believe you now? We can’t wait forever.”
There was a roar of applause and cheers.
The people at the head table looked flustered and even shocked at the intense reaction. They all seemed to be about twenty-three and I could see note cards shaking in their hands. Their pleas of “People, people, we have much more…” were ignored.
At that point a man in the front row got up, turned to glare at the audience and stepped up to the table. He was average height, but with a mysterious air of authority that commanded attention. He wore a suit that looked expensive even from my distance. Sharply barbered silver hair. He was so erect and poised, it took me a minute to see that he was actually quite old, with a deeply lined face. Amend that: lined face that looked carved from rock. When he glared at the audience, everyone calmed down.
I had only a few seconds to wonder how he did that.
“I am taking charge of this meeting, with the permission of your moderator.” He turned to her but he was not asking for permission. She nodded quickly, relieved.
“I am Michael Conti, retired city planner and a consultant on redeveloping the Navy Yard. I’ve been involved with these issues my whole damn life. If there is anything about the Yard I don’t know, it isn’t worth knowing. You think you know what’s needed here? You want to be heard? Then stop acting like children. You are not in charge. And talking about the great old days is for old people. You want things better? Deal with what is, as it is today. Those tough guys who worked at the Yard in the glory days would laugh themselves silly at this meeting.” He paused, seeming to collect himself.
“We’ll have time for questions at the end, but first you local people need to inform yourself about where we are now. Hear the news. Then you’ll have smarter questions. Got that? So listen up.”
And here in Brooklyn, where nobody tells nobody nothing about how to behave? I was astonished to see many audience members nodding and accepting his lecture. The meeting then proceeded smoothly, with speakers and charts and, of course, PowerPoint presentations.
The movie studio would expand, with increased traffic, but also with more jobs for local residents. That was written into the contract. Another large building had added two new tenants doing light manufacturing, with only a small number of jobs to start, but with plans to expand now that they had the space. A tour of the building, a beehive of small businesses, was promised.
And there was going to be a new supermarket, with a pharmacy and other services included. Negotiations were moving forward. An announcement was promised to be forthcoming.
Two people jumped up then at opposite sides of the room, the early older speaker and a younger man.
“Why should we believe any of you? Do you know how many years a supermarket has been promised? Do you have any idea?”
A panelist stood up. “But this time it’s different. We are moving ahead….”
The younger man said, “It’s always been different, every single damn time, but nothing happens and things get worse here while they get better just a neighborhood over.”
There was applause and a lot of murmuring. Lisa showed me her notes. She had written in capital letters: ANGRY ROOM. Yes, indeed.
Conti then stood up again. “Hold your horses. We are in down-to-the-wire negotiations with a major supermarket to move in, right on Navy Yard property on Admirals; Row, where the old houses are now.”
“Wait just a minute!” A new voice boomed out before the voice’s owner even got to his feet. He had a nineteenth-century beard and a checked wool jacket.
“Admirals’ Row? Those are historic houses. Why are they not being preserved?”
Some people booed. The conflict of the meeting seemed to shift to “daily life” versus “historic preservation.” And historian, though I am, I had to agree with those on the side of daily life.
“Have you seen Admirals’ Row any time in the last decade?” Conti sounded increasingly belligerent.
The questioner shook his head. “Only old photos.”
“Then do your damn homework before you ask damn fool questions. Oh, boo-hoo, isn’t it too bad the buildings were so neglected for so long? But it’s too late. They are beyond saving now. Go look. But be careful.” His expression changed to a sly smile. “You might get hit by falling bricks. Or step onto rotting wood and disappear into an old cellar.” He shook his head. “Two years out, there will definitely be a giant supermarket on that site.”
The applause exploded. This was a room full of happy people. Honestly, some were crying. I knew it wasn’t just the store. It was that attention had been paid. I thought about the need to obtain soap and medicine and juice when you are old and ill with no place nearby. Or when you have pack of children and no transportation.
When I was home with a baby and needed milk and diapers, there was a chain supermarket a short stroller-walk away. Remembering that, I was ashamed of dismissing their concerns as trivial, even in my mind.
I leaned over to Lisa. “You want to sneak off to see Admirals’ Row while it’s still there?”
“Nope, I’ve got to hustle and ask these people a few questions before they disperse. See you!” She was gone in a flash, all determination to get a useful quote.
I slipped out and cautiously stuck to the road, hoping there would be enough street lighting to take a look. It was cold, with the harbor breeze adding to the late fall chill. A faint harbor smell—salty, fishy, fuel oil—mixed with the wet, weedy odor of overgrown trees in a neglected patched of woods.
As it turned out, Conti’s taunting suggestion to go look at the derelict buildings was somewhat dishonest. The road was blocked by traffic cones. Perhaps it was in fact as dangerous as he had said. No one was going to be allowed to get close.
On the other hand, traffic cones could be moved. Could I? I probably ought to have asked Should I?
I was now some distance from the museum and it was dark and quiet and a bit spooky. Over there somewhere, a ghostly presence, was the former Naval hospital, filled with lives saved and lives lost.
I walked in the footsteps of how many generations of sailors and ship-builders? Quick math. Eight, at least. A strange feeling, since I could also hear the hum of six lanes of traffic from the nearby Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Was I being foolish? Perhaps. It wasn’t the first time I had been…let’s say, a little impulsive. I relished having a small adventure when my teenaged daughter was not there to see me setting a bad example.
Dim light from the street beyond the fence was almost enough. I could not get very close, but close enough to see the five houses, small mansions by modern standards. I, too, had seen photos when they were graceful nineteenth-century homes for the officers assigned to the base. How many families had lived there, laughed and played and grieved and grown up?
Time to go. The low background noises from the meeting were diminishing. I certainly did not want to get locked in over-night. Hurrying back toward the Yard entrance I took a wrong turn in the dark and found myself deeper in the old, empty part of the property.
There were faint sounds coming from beyond the wooded area. Someone walking. A watchman? I did not want to stay to find out. I would have to explain what I was doing there. Did I have any explanation except curiosity? Nope. Before I could trace my way back, I saw a shadow of a man. He was near. Two men. Whispering with a vicious undertone. A shout and a lifted arm.
And then I heard a loud sound. It was a sharp pop and it was close. Someone ran away through the trees. What had just happened?
My phone light showed me a man on the ground. Michael Conti. Bleeding.
It took me a moment to realize the voice I heard screaming was my own.