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.


Sam said...

A fascinating postcard in history that includes current events and hopeful intentions.

Matthew said...

Cool tour, wished I'd been on it. Have admired the crumblies of Adrmiral's Row for years. They say that the remains of the prison ship martyrs washed ashore on Wallabout Bay for years after the end of the Revolutionary War. The Irish have a point about the cruelty of the British (and I'm of British extraction mostly).

Rachel said...

Hi Matthew,
Thanks for posting about your upcoming tours on Backyard and Beyond. The silent Gowanus walk sounds pretty neat, not sure if I'll be able to drag myself out of bed that early for it, but sounds like it would definitely be worth it. The Navy Yard tour was great. I've walked by the perimeter many many times and always wondered what it looked like inside. It's a shame that the "crumblies" (I love this term!) are in such a sad state. Our Oyster tours tour guide mentioned that she has more Navy Yard tours in the works, though probably not as comprehensive and long as the one she gave on Obscura Day. Really, I would have liked to spend more time strolling and less time on the bus, especially around the hospital compound, so I'm hoping they create another tour that focuses on that area. At any rate maybe some of these tours are now listed on the Oyster web site.

Matthew said...

We made the tour so early so that party-arty types could come straight from the clubs. Actually, it is the best time for birdsong, and both jets and dogs are still scarce that early. I just hope it's good weather. Anything over 60 would seem positively tropical.