Monday, April 25, 2011

Back to the Navy Yards

Meet Neil. He's the new Armstrong in my life--just kidding, "he" is just an empty life-sized replica of NASA's Apollo Era A7LB, created by mad scientist/artist/inventor/CEO of the Brower Propulsion Laboratory, Steven Brower. The A7LB is an upgrade of the A7L, the suit Neil Armstrong wore when he became the first man to walk on the moon.

We're over the moon!

Brower's copy of the A7LB looks incredibly lifelike, and cost a fraction of what NASA spent to manufacture the original. On his Web site Brower describes the suit as having "several layers, and a mechanical and air conditioning system that mimics the actual artifacts, although made in my art-poverty-compromise vernacular. I machined all the fittings and fabricated all the plastic and rubber parts in my shop."

Pictured below is the other Armstrong in my life, no relation to the astronaut. Here he's being forced to demonstrate how this sandblaster doubles as a drink cooler. 

Gouache paintings from the BPL-004 Experimental Outsourcing Mission To China, the LIMPER (Limited Intelligence Marginally Produced Exploration Rover), and other models and inventions, including a karate chopping mechanical arm were on display at the Brower Propulsion Lab open studio that took place on April 23, 2011. It was too crowded to take many pictures, but I did get a shot of BPL's "recycled mugs":

The last time I was in The Brooklyn Navy Yards I wanted to take a closer look at the building in the photo below: BLG 128163-A1. Well, wishes do come true since the Brower Propulsion Lab is also in the The Navy Yards right next door. In its heyday this building was at the center of "America's premier shipbuilding facility," but it's seen better days.

This building consists of many terminals and multiple floors, and spans at least a city block--it's so big my friend Bryan noted it has its own atmospheric haze. The terminals needed to be massive enough to accommodate the ships constructed inside them, for scale the most famous battleship built there, the U.S.S. Missouri, is longer than the Washington Monument.

It had rained earlier that day, and the puddles together with the late afternoon light gave the area a nice glow. BLG. 128163-A1 smelled very musty after the storm.

It's fun to imagine this factory up and running, especially during World War II, when female mechanics and technicians reported for duty for the first time ever. At one time thousands of people worked in this building, today broken glass and inoperable bits of machinery are all that remain.

Here's a view of one of the dry docks with the East River and the Williamsburg Bridge in the distance.

Goodbye Navy Yards. I can't wait to visit again.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In the neighborhood...

The guy on the right struck a pose for me when he spotted me taking his picture from the backseat of the Brooklyn Navy Yard bus.

Back to reality on the streets of Vinegar Hill after the Brooklyn Navy Yard tour. It was hard to acclimate to life in the city after roaming the eerie grounds of the campus hospital, where I kind of felt like I was in a gothic horror movie.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Off the beaten path in Brooklyn: The Navy Yards

"When we got to the shop the men told us to go home where we belong in the kitchen and we told them to 'Shut up!'." That's what Carmela said happened on her first day on the job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1941. She was one of the first women trained to weld the deck of the battleship Missouri. It was a man's world, but womanpower was in high demand since so many men were being drafted for World War II. 

The Brooklyn Navy Yard spans several blocks and is about the size of a typical neighborhood.

Our tour guide Cindy had interviewed Carmela along with many of the men and women who worked in the Navy Yards back then and hers was just one of the many oral histories incorporated into the Navy Yards tour Seth and I took last week on April 9, 2011. Ida from the Bronx who was also part of the "female invasion" of this traditionally male workforce said, "Boy, did we learn how to curse...and we liked it." Another woman welder who helped to build the USS Missouri had this to say about being at its christening: "I felt so patriotic, fuhggedaboudit!"

A tug boat on the dry dock. Boats are pulled in onto a lift to hold them straight, then the water is drained so the mechanics can paint or repair the bottom of the boat.

Today unless you work on the dry dock or at the movie studios, rent an artist studio, or have had to rescue your car from the tow pound (like Seth and I did the first week we moved to Brooklyn back in 2001) there's a good chance that you can live in NYC your whole life without setting foot inside the Navy Yard.

View from artist Thomas Witte's studio. Stencils decorate the windows and mimic the cranes that dot the landscape.

That's about to change though. The Navy Yards will soon welcome more visitors when the Brooklyn Navy Yard Museum opens in November of this year. To celebrate Obscura Day, the Brooklyn Navy Yards opened its doors to a small group of Urban Oyster tourists, most of us from Brooklyn, a few from the other boroughs, and a handful of national and international tourists as well.

Machine Shop, BLG. 128163-A1 where women welders worked on World War II battleships. There are plans in the works to restore this factory to its former glory to use for green industry.

My favorite part of the tour was hearing the oral histories and getting a glimpse inside Machine Shop, BLG. 128163-A1, where the Missouri and more battleships were built, but other highlights included seeing the dry dock in action as a tug boat was being painted and repaired, exploring the grounds of the Navy Hospital Campus, which included the grand but crumbling head surgeon's house, the measles ward and the morgue, the nurse's quarters, a monument to the men lost in the Opium Wars, and another for the Merchant Mariners.

The courtyard next to the hospital and in front of the surgeon's home. In the distance is the Opium Wars monument which reads "To those who fell at the capture of the Barrier Forts in the Canton River, China: November 16th, 20th, 22st & 22nd 1856."

There's a lot of history here--way too much to cover in a three-hour tour, but our tour guide Cindy did it in such a way that the really made the time fly and made me wish the tour was longer. An interesting historical tidbit: about a third of the medical supplies used to treat Union soldiers during the Civil War came from the hospital campus. It's a beautiful and eerie place that would make the perfect setting for a gothic horror movie with its old trees, vines, and feral cats fed by the Navy Yard's own Cat Lady.

The chief surgeon's mansion.

I wouldn't be surprised if parts of the Navy Yard were haunted. The remains of runaway slaves and soldiers killed in various wars were disinterred from the Naval Cemetery back in the 1920s, but it was fairly recently discovered that some were left behind. The area where the cemetery used to be is now considered "hallowed grounds" and may eventually be turned into a memorial park.

Seth in front of the Navy Hospital.

During the American Revolution British prison ships filled with American prisoners were docked on the East River--initially on the Manhattan side, but they were moved to Brooklyn outside of the Navy Yards when Manhattanites started complaining about the stench. Cindy told us that the only time the prisoners were able to see sunlight and get a little fresh air was when they were allowed up on deck to throw the dead overboard.

I was totally into Greek mythology when I was a kid, so I loved spotting the beautiful hippocamps encircling the base of the monument to Merchant Mariners on the Hospital Campus.

If you're a history buff or love getting off the beaten path, definitely check out one of the Urban Oyster tours--or the Atlas Obscura Web site for that matter. The photo below is taken from the bus on a street that flanks the Navy Yards. This is part of Admiral's Row. There are plans to restore two of these buildings, but it won't be easy; they're in a major state of disrepair.

The once majestic buildings along Admiral's row, now crumbling and covered with ivy.

One of the other neat things about the tour is that Thomas Witte, an artist who stencils onto glass and other material salvaged from the Navy Yards to create almost photo realistic images, invited us inside his studio. Below is his painting of a scene from the U.S. Navy Hospital and if you click here you can see an image inspired by a photo of Brooklyn Navy Yard's own Rosie Riveters that includes at least one of the women interviewed for the oral histories.

Artwork by Thomas Witte.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Collector's Paradise

Lady Liberty in duplicate.

Many years ago there was a window at the corner at Havemeyer and Grand in Williamsburg that was always filled with the neatest collections. I didn't know much about it--and then it was gone. Well, a couple weeks ago Seth and I happened upon The City Reliquary on Metropolitan Avenue and found out that the person responsible for the window displays on Havemeyer and Grand opened this tiny museum about five years back.

Look closely on the right upper half of this picture and you can see handholds from the NYC subway cars of yesteryear.

The museum consists of a foyer and a small back room that you enter from the foyer through an old turnstile. It's such a cool place. Look to the left to see a cabinet filled with Statue of Liberty souvenirs, including a figurine of Lady Liberty as a hula dancer--to the right is a shrine to the Brooklyn Dodgers and the late great Jackie Robinson, a shelf lined with green glass seltzer bottles, and a tiny cone that you hold to your ear to hear a sample of Sonny Rollins playing sax. Turns out he would practice for hours at a time on the Williamsburg Bridge because as he said in an interview, "I'm a sensitive person and I know that people need quiet in their apartments." It was little bits of information like this that made The City Reliquary so fun. (Seth also wanted me to mention that Sonny Rollins plays the sax at the end of "Waiting on a Friend," one of Seth's favorite songs from the Rolling Stones album Tattoo You. They shot the music video at 96-98 St. Mark's Place in the East Village, which is also the backdrop of the album cover for Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. Who knew? Not me! So, there's a little NYC music factoid for all you rock 'n' roll buffs.)

A shrine to the Brooklyn Dodgers and late great Jackie Robinson.

Some of the other highlights include anything and everything having to do with the subway (from tokens to NY Subway Rail Dust), a carnival attraction revealing the history of burlesque, even a tribute to the 1939 World's Fair. If you love collecting, discovering the unexpected and the odd, if you want a unique perspective of New York's history, here's more info on visiting The City Reliquary.