There are few places left in the city where you can witness a neighborhood’s changing face. The Wallabout is one of them.
Dutch settlers named this area “Waal-bogt” for the bend in the harbor upon which it sits, and that’s still represented today by the way the neighborhood crooks around the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the once-again epicenter of Wallabout.
Once the workhorse of the U.S. Navy and now a bustling business incubator, the yard was America’s major ship-builder until 1966, outfitting fleets in the War of 1812, the Civil War and on through the Korean War. At its height, in 1944, the yard employed some 70,000 workers.
That history gives the Wallabout its unique character — warehouses, light industry and some of the oldest working-class housing stock in Brooklyn. Though mostly zoned for manufacturing, it’s always been a residential neighborhood.
“There are people who have been there ever so long,” said Simeon Bankoff, who runs the Historic Districts Council. “It is a lower-income neighborhood, but there are people who are middle-income and higher who enjoy the scruffiness of it, the homesteader qualities of living there.”
Bankoff joined community leaders in advocating for city recognition of the neighborhood’s working-class character, namely the pre-Civil War wooden-frame houses that were owned by ship captains, pilots, ferry masters and boat builders.
The campaign paid off when, last month, the city approved the Wallabout Historic District, including 55 buildings and wooden-frame and masonry houses in the Greek and Gothic Revival and Italianate styles.
The designation comes at a time when Wallabout seems on the cusp of discovery.
New businesses — restaurants, galleries, a hip furniture store and an organic supermarket — enliven lower Washington Avenue, once the center for candy-making. Gone is the old Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge; in its place, a new retail development is under construction. Some 275 businesses operate in the reactivated navy yard, employing about 5,800 people.
“It’s been a little outpost of commercial activity for a long time … I think it’s slowly evolving,” said Michael Blaise Backer, executive director of the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project, which has advised on development matters. And though he sees potential for a creative corridor drawing from the nearby Pratt Institute, he doesn’t see it becoming another Dumbo.
“There are a lot of great buildings that work well for light manufacturing … and the community board wants it to stay that way,” Backer said. “We need [that] to give jobs to people and attract entrepreneurs in general who might go somewhere else.”
Andrew Kimball, CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Economic Development Corp., said his organization has worked locally to encourage businesses to grow in and outside the navy yard walls.
“There’s been extraordinary growth in the surrounding communities that has been interconnected with the growth of the navy yard over the next 10 years — ancillary businesses that support what’s happening in the yard, whether that’s restaurants or lumberyards,” Kimball said.
And to further relations with the community, the navy yard will open a new exhibition center in the renovated Marine Commandant’s Residence next month, with public programming about maritime history.
The changes are welcomed by pioneers who set up businesses here.
“It’s not [a place] you just pass through any more,” said George Spencer, an artist who bought a 19th-century warehouse on Washington Avenue in 1999. “People are stopping and looking around. People who are further up in Fort Greene or Clinton Hill stroll down here. They thought of it as desolate before.”
His neighbors, Carl Grauer and Russell Boyle, opened Repop, a vintage furniture store here, after being “gentrified out of so many neighborhoods in Brooklyn.”
“We were forced to look off the beaten path,” said Grauer. “We were among the first here, and it was a risk, but there’s a lot of assistance and community between the businesses.” The store just celebrated its fifth birthday.
Zoning and the lack of good public transportation will keep residential development in check. The first posh conversion is the Chocolate Factory, which includes a spa and fitness club — and a smack-on view of the BQE overpass. On the other side of the highway is 163 Washington Ave., a high-rise luxury rental, the first of its type in the neighborhood. Under construction: Navy Green, a development that will combine supportive and affordable housing and 8,000 square feet of commercial space. “It’s been a no-man’s land, but also intriguing to people,” said David Maundrell, president of AptsandLofts.com, which is marketing 163 Washington Ave.
“But if [people] could get a work/live loft where they can do their thing, they would gravitate there.”
Photographer Serge Cashman is one such resident. Priced out of Washington Heights, he moved to Wallabout eight years ago, and got around by motorcycle. Now with improved bike lanes, Cashman — who works in midtown — says he hasn’t used public transit in a year and a half.
He concedes the area isn’t for everyone. But, he said, “at the same time, I kind of welcome that kind of vibe.”
Gil Winter, a construction consultant, echoes Cashman. “I moved out here for the sake of taking on [a restoration] project and testing the water. And I really have made it my home and am delighted to discover I can live here the rest of my life. It’s a real great hub for New York.”