a view of lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn industrial waterfront
• Where do you live?
Columbia Street Waterfront in Brooklyn. Adding to the picaresque flavor, the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood I reside in was called Smoky Hollow in the nineteenth century -- a bastion of low lifes, ruffians, and ne’er do wells. The “Hollow” was ruled by the notorious Smoky Hollow Gang, whose members were involved in a high profile trial after murdering a New York City police officer on Columbia Street. Brooklyn Daily Eagle issues from the time period report that some members of the gang did reside at my address.
• How would you describe your neighborhood?
I acquired the building in 2000. The building housed a bar on the street level and a rooming house upstairs. Throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the bar was frequented by the longshoreman and shipping crews from around the world that docked at the Brooklyn piers. With the advent of container shipper in the second half of the twentieth century, the shallow port of Brooklyn lost out to the deeper ports of New Jersey that could accommodate the larger vessels. At the same time, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway was erected and cut off Columbia Street from the gentrifying brownstone sections of Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights. Zoned for industrial use but of little interest to industry with the lack of shipping, the area fell on hard times for decades. The port continues to be utilized at low capacity as the neighborhood is now caught in a classic New York City economic and political tug of war with jobs, housing, and forces of gentrification in play.
• How has your neighborhood changed since you moved there?
The surrounding neighborhoods of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens have contributed to the New York City gentrification juggernaut, while the cut off enclave of the Columbia Street Waterfront has stood still, seemingly stuck in time as the forces of jobs and housing battle it out.
• Why did you choose your apartment?
The waterfront benefits from the dichotomy of being in the middle of the city at the same time as being on the periphery. You can enjoy all the city has to offer and escape to the serenity of the New York harbor.
•Any interesting stories about how you found your apartment?
The former owner of the building operated an illegal garment factory in the basement. He was an aging hippie, and he had a business making clothing out of hemp. He had illegally converted the building to residential loft apartments -- his idea was to sell apartments in the building, but in his disdain for the legal system he skipped the technicalities of filing construction permits or condo conversion documents. Over a period of three years, I convinced him to sell me the entire building. It took me four additional years to file permits and obtain a legal certificate of occupancy.
• What do you like/ dislike most about your view?
My view encompasses panoramic views of the New York harbor and the lower Manhattan skyline. The East River and the Hudson meet below the Battery and form Buttermilk Channel, a tidal strait between Governors Island and the Brooklyn Waterfront. Legend has it that centuries ago the channel could be crossed at low tide, and farmers would walk their cows over to Governors Island to graze. I have looked many times, but I have yet to see this occur. The fact that I have not seen this is what I find the most disappointing about my view.
• How has your view changed since you moved into your apartment?
Just the World Trade Center -- I imagine this is not an uncommon response.
•What do you see from your apartment that you find interesting?
They call tugboats the hardest little working boat in the harbor -- and it’s true. They come in crayola colors: blue, red, yellow and they navigate where the bigger boats can’t, getting them out of jams, pushing barges, and putting out fires. Ships from foreign ports dock outside my window in the middle of the night, unload their cargos and depart before dawn. Gigantic cranes lift containers of goods from land to sea. The Statue of Liberty sleeplessly oversees the harbor. Historic Governors Island, once Dutch, then British, now American –- sold to the city of New York for the price of one dollar during a helicopter ride negotiated by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan with President Bill Clinton. The Staten Island ferry lit up like a ghost streaks across the bay in the dead of night. And the skyline of lower Manhattan, burly and self-assured, spectacularly lights up the night sky.
•What various kinds of people do you see from your view?
Tourists on booze cruises. Sailors from far off lands. Doctors on their weekend sailboats. Longshoreman on break from operating the cranes.
•How does your view make you feel?
Humble. And lucky.
•Has anybody outside seen you look out the window? If so, did any interesting story or relationship occur from that?
I think someone changing a flat tire looked up during the photo session and wondered if we could help them.
• How do you think your view will be different in 1 year?
I think it will not change in one year.
• How do you think your view will be different in 20 years?
Eventually, the harbor will be developed for commercial purposes. While it is not viable as a port in the modern age, twenty years is but a blink of an eye in the timeline of New York politics. So my guess is I will continue to enjoy the views of the tugboats and the dramatic lower Manhattan skyline for at least that long.