Until last month, I didn’t realize how little I knew about the Brooklyn waterfront. On March 21, I was privileged to attend a fantastic conference sponsored by City Tech’s  Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center and City College’s University Transportation Research Center  entitled “Has the Brooklyn Waterfront Gone Global – Again?”.  It blew my mind – I learned so much!


The conference was held in a gorgeous courtroom that used to house the NYS Appellate Division in Borough Hall, Brooklyn

The well-attended conference began with a history lesson where we learned that for more than 200 years, the Brooklyn waterfront was a major player in international trade.  Goods were manufactured, warehoused and shipped to and from Brooklyn by people from all over the world.  But then, fifty years ago, the Brooklyn waterfront fell on hard times and economic activity on the waterfront dried up.

The question addressed by most of the speakers was whether the waterfront has gone global once again?  Here is some of what we learned from each of the excellent speakers with links to more information about their topics – see what you know already and what you might like to learn more about:

  1.  Prithi Kanakamedala (curator of the Brooklyn Historical Society /part-time English professor at City Tech) spoke about “Slavery, Trade and the Brooklyn Waterfront”.  She discussed some of the founding families of Brooklyn, including the Pierreponts, who developed real estate in Brooklyn Heights (they essentially created the first suburb in the U.S.) and the Havermeyers who established a sugar factory on the waterfront.  She also described the horrific lives of the slave laborers whose back-breaking work spurred the development of Brooklyn by providing the coffee, tea, spices, rum and sugar that were traded here.
  2. Mary Habstritt (industrial and maritime historian and founder of the Historic Ships Coalition) described “The Industrial Age along the Brooklyn Waterfront”. She listed some of the multinational corporations that were founded in Brooklyn including Havermeyer’s  American Sugar Refining Company  (Havermeyer created a “sugar trust” that controlled 98% of the sugar consumed in the country by the early 1900’s)  Pfizer a  pharmecutical giant (during World War II,  90% of the penicillin consumed on D -Day  was made in Brooklyn) and the American Manufacturing Company (a huge rope manufacturer that employed 2500 people).
  3. Mark Levinson (author of “The Box: How the Shipping  Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger) reported on the fascinating history of how until 1956, thousands of Brooklyn longshoremen schlepped goods onto/off of boats, trains and trucks until everything changed when a trucker, Malcolm McClean, developed shipping containers.  Container use went international ten years later and the docks in Brooklyn were no longer needed because New Jersey won all of the container business.
  4. Michael Marrella (Director of Waterfront and Open Space Planning for the NYC Department of City Planning) noted that Brooklyn has a global identity today. In fact, when French teenagers want to say that something is very cool they say it is tres Brooklyn” !  He listed some of the waterfront areas that have received international attention including the Navy Yard, Red Hook and Industry City.

Building 92 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard houses an excellent museum.

          5.  Thomas Epting (of Uncommon Goods) spoke of his lovely company that sells unique gifts. Cooly, his business is organized as a “Benefit Corporation”, a new-ish type of business entity that is permitted to have a triple bottom line– profit, people and planet.  The makers of all goods sold must sign a Vendor Code of Conduct. Uncommon Goods has a headquarters on the waterfront at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, but it sells its gorgeous wares exclusively online.

          6,  Thomas Outerbridge ( of SIMS Metal Management Municipal Recycling)  described his organization as a global scrap metal company with the largest barge fleet in New York Harbor.  His company has built the largest recycling facilty in the world in Jersey City and its new Sunset Park facility recycles  NYC’s recyclables (although sadly, half of the city’s recyclables still go into the trash).  He also described the Sunset Park Rail Service that uses a floating railroad bridge to transport baled tin cans from  Brooklyn to New Jersey.

         7.  Christopher Tepper (of Jamestown Properties at Industry City) described the huge 6 million square feet of waterfront known as Industry City in Sunset Park. Seventy percent of the area is underutilized, but businesses are moving into the area including artists, designers, and light manufacturing concerns.  He spoke about the need for public and private support to create “innovation economy” jobs in the area.  He noted the need for more bus routes, bike lanes and ferry service to make the area more accessible as well as the need to create a storm barrier for protection from climate change.


Building 220 at Industry City

          8.  Alan Washington (of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership) discussed the “Brooklyn Tech Triangle”that includes Dumbo/Downtown Brooklyn/The Navy Yard and how it contains 500 tech firms with 10,000 employees.  Remarkably, the   triangle contributes 3 billion dollars to the local economy.  He asserted that Brooklyn is not a global player yet because there is  a shortage of space in the triangle for new innovative tech firms.

           9.  Elizabeth Yeampierre (of Uprose) spoke about the need to address climate change locally.  She noted that people of color  should be driving the agenda on climate change and that the current residents of Sunset Park are not so concerned with bike lanes and jobs as they are with being able to afford living in the area once gentrifiers start moving in with their “Starbucks and boutiques”.

           10.  Andrew Genn (of the New York City Economic Development Corporation) reminded the audience that New York and New Jersey are really just one big waterfront and that “greening the supply chain” should be a high priority for all of us.

           11.  John Liantonio (of The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) listed entities owned by the Port Authority (a bi-state agency) including the Red Hook Container Terminal, the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal and New York/New Jersey Rail Bridges . He added that barge and rail transport of goods is increasing lately due to the Port Authority’s Cross Harbor Project that floats rail bridges on barges from Jersey City to Sunset Park.  One rail car carries four semi-trucks worth of cargo!

           12.  Regina Myer (of Brooklyn Bridge Park) displayed beautiful images of the waterfront before and after the creation of  Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Image from

          13.  Philip Orton (Professor, Stevens Institute of Technology) concluded the conference with his talk on “Climate Change, Sea- Level Rise and What Else?”  He noted that sea level rise is accelerating globally but there is a lot of uncertainty about how much the sea will rise in New York City. He estimated a rise between 2 ½ and 5 feet (in the worst case).  He also opined that “100 year” floods may happen every 20-30 years and that there will be a “bad” flood almost every year eventually although most of the city’s inhabitants will be unaffected as the city has a lot of “high ground”.

Did you know that the Brooklyn waterfront was such a vibrant and fascinating place?

I surely did not, but I will be keeping a look out for next year’s conference to learn even more!




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