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Brooklyn: On the Waterfront

Dock workers in front of Empire Stores, 1924 (Brooklyn Historical Society)

By Marian Betancourt

The Brooklyn waterfront has always been a vital part of my life, from living on it to writing about it, so I was excited to see the first (ever) exhibition about it at the Brooklyn Historical Society’s new satellite in DUMBO, the area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.

Waterfront, curated by Julie Golia, the Society’s director of public history, examines Brooklyn’s coastline through stories of workers, industries, activists, innovators, families, neighborhoods, and eco-systems. In this comprehensive multi-media exhibition we learn about the waterfront from its earliest days of small farmers to the 19th century when the population and industry rose at a rapid pace. A time lapse film follows the progress from the ice age to the present and you can examine artifacts recovered in a 1978 dig into the landfill.

The City of Brooklyn, 1879, Currier & Ives

The exhibition occupies 3,200 square feet in a second floor space in the Empire Stores, unique buildings constructed along the waterfront in the 1860s to house coffee, sugar, animal hides and other commodities when Brooklyn was one of the largest commercial waterfronts in the world. And, until 1898 it was a separate city fiercely competitive with its neighbor across the East River. Some treasured remains of the “old” days are on view including a winch and a shoot where coffee beans were passed through from floors above to be bagged and shipped. Goods produced in Brooklyn included Chiclets, Domino Sugar and Brillo.

Waterfront exhibition entrance (Jordan Rathkopf for Brooklyn Historical Society)

Along with a photo display and oral histories highlighting women who worked at the Navy Yard during World War 11, there are safety masks, mitts and overalls that kids can try on. There are sections on oyster fishing, ferry commuting, and a 1798 account book recording the sale of six slaves.

When the Fulton Ferry neighborhood (now known as DUMBO) was designated a historic district, the Empire stores were protected from demolition. However, they remained largely empty except for some brave creative people who rented some of the factory spaces as studios. You can listen, via audio phone, to several of these residents tell what it was like in the 1970s after the area had been abandoned by industry. Deborah Schwartz, the society president, proudly showed me two graffiti covered shutters from 30 years ago that were saved. The restored buildings are now occupied by a variety of restaurants, offices, and stores.

Interior exhibition with winch and factory women (Jordan Rathkopf for Brooklyn Historical Society)

Be sure to visit the History in Motion section, where Kinect technology allows you to insert yourself into one of 10 historic waterfront images. Wave your arms and see yourself waving back from a boat offshore. You can turn this into a 60-second App for your smart phone, the ultimate Waterfront selfie.

The exhibition at 55 Water Street is open from 11 am to 6 pm Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, 11 am to 8 pm Friday and Saturday. Suggested admission is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors and teachers, and free for members and students of all ages. For more information go to http://brooklynhistory.org/dumbo/

Marian Betancourt is a contributor to this Everett Potter’s Travel Report and the author of Heroes of New York Harbor: Tales from the City’s Port (Globe Pequot Press).

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