Brooklyn’s Biggest Yard

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Standing on the rooftop of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, looking out on the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges spanning the East River, we see water towers, smokestacks and red brick housing below us, and Freedom Tower in the distance. It has been called the best view of New York.

Our tour group–a family from Paris and a young urban farmer wannabe from Queens–is surrounded by an acre of soil in which everything from Swiss chard and hyssop to tomatoes, root veggies and micro greens grows. With beehives and chickens, the two-year-young Brooklyn Grange is the world’s largest rooftop farm, and one of the innovative and creative adaptive re-uses of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The 300-acre site–this year added to the National Register of Historic Places–occupies parts of DUMBO/Vinegar Hill, Williamsburg and Fort Greene. Polytechnic Institute, New York City College of Technology and Pratt University are all nearby.

The development boom at the Yard has brought 300 businesses in design, filmmaking, manufacturing and woodworking, operating out of buildings that have been adaptively re-used or built according to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) Silver standards. Some of the businesses serve the city’s cultural institutions and housing markets, and others are in e-commerce fulfillment, maritime ship repair and warehouse distribution. Emphasizing innovation and sustainability, these businesses employee nearly 7,000 workers. On the horizon is a mega supermarket where Admiral’s Row, the dilapidated townhouses formerly used by naval officers, stands.

Under the leadership of the nonprofit Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, along with support from the City of New York, as well as State and Federal agencies, the Navy Yard is a model for urban manufacturing. The focus today is on the Maker Movement, with its revolution in product design and business development in everything from furniture and home goods to lighting and energy resiliency.

The boom of construction is everywhere. Hang onto your hat as you gaze up at workers on steel girders. There are signs for businesses such at Mercedes Distribution Center and Bower Publishing and on a loading dock are stacks of leather-bound books with Hebrew lettering.

The tour begins at BLDG 92. Signs throughout point to green energy features: Water pipes embedded in concrete flooring warms the lobby. A tank, originally a tunnel made of brick, built more than 100 years ago as part of the Yard’s water system, is now used to store rainwater, saving 68,000 gallons of water per year.

A peaceful garden, reminiscent of the natural meadow grasses growing on the Highline, welcomes visitors to BLDG 92, as does the anchor of USS Austin, commissioned into the Navy in 1965.

BLDG 92 is home to the Brooklyn Navy Yard museum. Its three floors tell the story of the past, present and future of the Yard, from its use by Native Americans to its role in the American Revolution. Here you can view films and other exhibits telling how Henry Hudson explored New York Bay and prompted Dutch merchants and investors to establish Nieu Netherlands, a chain of settlements from Delaware to Albany when the land was tended by indigenous Lenape people.

First opened in 1806, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was once the premier shipyard of the U.S. Navy. During its peak in World War II, the Navy Yard employed 70,000 people. Among the ships built here were the USS Maine, Niagara, Monitor, Virginia, Ohio, Arizona, Jersey and Wyoming.

E.R. Squibb, a Naval surgeon, was appalled by the terrible pain patients suffered, and after being assigned to the Naval Hospital in 1882, distilled a pure and consistent form of ether. The pharmaceutical company he went on to found provided the majority of medical supplies for the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1907, opera singer Eugenia Farrar recorded the first song broadcast over wireless radio from the Yard. Historian and A People’s History of the United States author Howard Zinn came as an apprentice ship fitter and the job enabled his family to move out of a tenement and into Fort Greene Houses before he went on to become a labor organizer.

In 1960, disaster struck. Aircraft carrier USS Constellation was heavily damaged when a forklift pierced a fuel tank, igniting a fire that claimed 50 lives and injured 323. The repair cost $75 million, irreparably tarnishing the reputation of the Yard.

Closed by the federal government in 1966 and sold to New York City the following year, the Navy Yard languished and employment dropped to a low of approximately 1,000 jobs in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s. The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation took over in 1981, with a 99-year lease from the city to manage the property. BNYDC has undertaken the Yard’s largest expansion since World War II and made environmental sustainability, preservation and the celebration of the Yard’s history essential features of the revitalization.

In 2004, Steiner Studios‑‑the Yard’s biggest tenant‑‑opened its 310,000-square-foot facility becoming the largest U.S. film and production studio complex outside of Hollywood. Among the major motion pictures filmed at Steiner Studios have been The Producers: The Movie Musical, The Hoax, The Nanny Diaries, Spider-Man 3, Men in Black 3, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, The Adjustment Bureau, Sex and the City 2 and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. A partnership with Brooklyn College will introduce the city’s first public graduate film school and become the only film school in the country on a working film lot. The school will be located in the Greek Revival building that formerly housed the naval hospital.

Developer Douglas C. Steiner, who owns Steiner Studios, envisions turning some of the smaller buildings on the hospital site into “writing bungalows” that could be leased by production companies, producers and directors. A Hollywood-style back lot where filmmakers could re-create New York locations like Chinatown or a subway car might also attract tourists.

Art star Jeff Koons and Lady Gaga held an ArtRAVE at the Yard last year, and many artists maintain studios here: mixed-media installation artist Bridget Mullen, performance and video artist Wayne Coe, sculptor Susan Woods and textile artist Susan Steinbrock, among many others. BLDG 92 offers a shuttle to tour artist studios.

Kings County Distillery, New York City’s oldest operating whiskey distillery, crafts moonshine and bourbon out of the 115-year-old Paymaster Building. The distillery grows corn and barley at a small farm onsite, and spent grain is recycled as compost and pig feed. Tours and tastings are offered Saturdays. For more information:

Up on the roof, we don’t hear any of the construction noise below as our tour guide tells us about beekeeping classes, concerts, film screenings, wine tastings and sunset yoga in sight of the sunflowers, taller than we are.

Farms are heavy‑‑with 1.5 million pounds of soil, equipment and people on the roof, a strong structure is needed. A roof membrane prevents leaks beneath the lasagna layers of felt and porous rock below the 8 to 12 inches of soil. All that soil had to be brought up with a blower. A “green roof” helps to insulate a building, keeping heating and cooling costs down, and reduces impervious surfaces in a city’s hardscape so that storm water can be absorbed.

Founders Ben Flanner, an industrial engineer, Anastasia Cole Plakas, a food writer and radio host, and urban farmer Gwen Schantz started the for-profit Brooklyn Grange with a Kickstarter campaign. Serving restaurants, farmers’ markets and CSAs, the Grange is providing jobs as well as veggies. The space is available for party rentals, helping to generate income.

The nice thing about farming up on a roof is there are no vermin competing for your precious tomatoes, and most of the weeds that grow are of the edible variety, such as purslane. But the wind on a city roof can blow away all the soil, so clover is planted to keep it rooted. A dragonfly suddenly alights on a tomato. Lady bugs, too, are among the insect-eating insects.

At the farm stand, open only for the Wednesday tours, we purchase honey, ground cherry tomatillos and hot sauce, all grown on the roof of the Navy Yard. Before leaving BLDG 92, we visit Ted and Honey Café for a BBQ quinoa salad and latte. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, along with local Brooklyn beers and coffees, Ted and Honey‑‑a brother-sister team who use their childhood nicknames—cook with seasonal organic produce, meat and eggs from local farms. They even make their own pickles, mustard and ketchup. Sitting in trendy industrial metal chairs, we look out onto warehouses, contrasting the work of today to the black and white mural of workers from the Yard’s heyday.

For information on visiting the Brooklyn Navy Yard museum in BLDG 92, taking a tour and special programs:



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