Among the “landmarks” we will study will be those easily recognized as such (the Brooklyn Bridge and the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims), those that can be understood as such (the façade of a sugar refinery, a shipyard, and amusement park rides), and those that might almost be considered anti-landmarks, such as the environmental scourge, the Newtown Creek. Through your daily digital journals, you will create your own series of “virtual landmarks.”
The Newtown Creek
From approximately 1860 to 1960, the town of Greenpoint and the Newtown Creek were home to some of the industrial age’s most energy-intensive and chemically-polluting “black arts,” including glass and porcelain manufacturing, shipbuilding, iron manufacturing and construction, and petroleum refining. This area, which will be studied from the land and the water, is also the site of the world’s largest oil spill; an industrial explosion in 1950 poured more than 17 million gallons of oil and petroleum products into the creek and contaminated a large area of the adjacent neighborhood as well. Studying what the NY Times, in 1886, called “The Unspeakable Creek” will allow participants to see how the fields of urban and industrial history are evolving into the emerging field of environmental history—and how the “landmarks” of this history defy the usual definitions of that term.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard
The industrial age will also be the context of the next landmark studied, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which, during WW II, employed more than 70,000 people around the clock in maritime trades. Not only will a tour of the Navy Yard allow us access to its rich storehouse of archives being developed in conjunction with our partner, the Brooklyn Historical Society, but the tour will enable us to develop our themes of change and preservation. After almost two hundred years of being a site for the construction of ships for the U.S. Navy, the shipyard was decommissioned in 1966. It was later reopened as a New York City-owned industrial park and today houses some 230 businesses employing about 5,000 workers. The Brooklyn Navy Yard site houses landmarked buildings, including the 1807 federal-style commandant's house, designed by Charles Bulfinch, architect of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Some of these buildings have been readapted and others, like the Civil War-era hospital at the site, await renovation and reuse. This development allows us to see an effort to collect, house, and make available the historical collections of the Yard. It also demonstrates how urban landmarks, while giving way to the inevitability of change, can be preserved, adapted, and reused.
The Brooklyn Bridge
More than 125 years after its opening, Roebling’s masterpiece is still serving its original purpose—the movement of pedestrian and vehicular traffic back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge also serves as the central landmark of our program, but more—it is one of the central icons of America. Not only is it a symbol of the triumphs of nineteenth-century engineering skills and architectural accomplishment, it served as a cultural symbol of the twentieth century. Its beauty, its utilitarianism, and the daring and soaring of its design captured Brooklyn and the world, artist and layman—and especially photographers. It is said to be one of the most photographed structures in the world.
The waterfront neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights is a National Historic Landmark and was designated New York City’s first Historic District in 1965. A neighborhood rich in history, it is the site of the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, which was the influential pulpit of the abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, whom Abraham Lincoln came to hear the day before he gave his historic address at Cooper Union. We will visit the church and learn about its role in the Underground Railroad. We will also hear about the century-plus mission of uplift and outreach of the Brooklyn African-American churches that had their origins along the Brooklyn waterfront. Finally, we will spend time at the landmarked building that houses the Brooklyn Historical Society, viewing and using their unique collection of resources for the study of Brooklyn.
The official landmarks of the last site we will visit, Coney Island, are three amusement park rides: the Parachute Jump, the Wonder Wheel, and the Cyclone. A study of Coney Island’s long, gradual ascent to its prominence in the early twentieth century as the “people’s Riviera” will lead to an examination of the forces that drove that development and the countervailing forces that led to Coney’s decades-long decline, a partial result of being superseded by Disneyland, Six Flags, and a host of other local and national amusement parks. What, if anything, of its amusement-park past can be preserved or renewed other than the designated landmarks is an issue still being hotly contested. The current financial crisis might slow the calls for high-end residential development along this waterfront area and create a demand for local amusements for New Yorkers who can no longer afford to travel to amusement parks in Florida, California, Pennsylvania, or Virginia. It would be ironic if Coney Island, which thrived during the 1930s, were to receive a second life during the worst national financial circumstances since that decade.