The history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard began after the Revolutionary War ended and the new nation needed a location for building and repairing its warships. Wallabout Basin is located in a protected bay on the East River and was already a shipbuilding area, so the federal government purchased 40 acres there in 1801. In 1824, the sale of the Schenck Farm to the Navy increased the acreage to over 200 acres.
The Navy Yard consisted of machine shops, foundries, dry docks, cranes, warehouses, barracks for soldiers and a line of homes for officers called “Admiral’s Row”. The Commandant’s home was completed in 1807 and still stands today. In 1838, a hospital was completed and by 1850 was walled in along with a laboratory and a cemetery. In 1864, the surgeon’s residence was completed. During the Civil War, the hospital treated thousands of patients and about 1/3 of the medicine that was used to treat wounded Union troops was produced there. By 1920, the cemetery reached capacity and the remains were moved to the Cypress Hills National Cemetery.
Over the years, many of the ships that live on in naval history were built or repaired at the Navy Yard, including the USS Monitor and the USS Maine and the battleships Arizona, Iowa and the Missouri. During WWll, the Navy Yard employed 70,000 workers and work went on 24 hours a day. In 1966, the Navy decommissioned the Navy Yard and a few years later sold the property to NYC. Since then, many businesses have moved there and a museum has opened. There has been interest in preserving the historic buildings and to have access to areas in the Navy Yard, such as the Admirals’ Row area, now proposed for use as a shopping center and adapting the cemetery as parkland that was lacking in the area.
In 2004, Brooklyn Greenway Initiative was formed to make the waterfront in Brooklyn more pedestrian and bike friendly and create green spaces out of vacant lots. The Greenway consists of 23 NYCDOT capital projects spanning 14 miles from Greenpoint to Bay Ridge. BGI, along with Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp, turned the vacant land that was once the cemetery into a 1.7 acre park consisting of many native plants to attract birds, bees and butterflies and a raised walkway allowing park goers to walk 4 feet above the hallowed ground. There are sitting areas and benches along the path to rest and reflect.
I had the opportunity to be one of the first people in the park the day it opened and had the pleasure of meeting the man who keeps the park looking so good. His name is Khahim Shakir. I had to tell him how impressed I was with what I saw and this pleased him greatly. He is a man with great ideas and pride in what he does. He will take a minute to talk to a stranger as well as make sure his partner, Harry, gets the credit, too, for all the hard work they do maintaining the park as well as the bike paths.
The Navy Yard Cemetery is located on Williamsburg St. West between Kent and Flushing Avenues and is open Wed – Sun from 8am – 8pm. There are many events throughout the year including weekly classes in Tai Chi, Yoga and Meditation.
Brooklyn Greenway Initiative hosts events, tours, public programs, bike tours and marathons. For more information, to volunteer or to donate:
Brooklyn Greenway Initiative
153 Columbia Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231