By Ahmed Abo-Donia
If you ask a New Yorker where he’s from, he’ll tell you “from New York.” But if you ask a New Yorker from Brooklyn where he’s from, his answer will almost always be, “from Brooklyn.”
A borough flooded by diversity and draped in history, Brooklyn is recognized as one of America’s major cities. Its roots go back centuries, and its residents come from all over. But what is it that makes Brooklynites so unique? What makes them identify themselves as “Brooklynites,” before “New Yorkers?”
Let me take you back eighty years ago from today. It’s a crisp March morning and the cargo ships are docking at ports along Williamsburg. The Gowanus is home to huge factories, all bordering the Gowanus canal. Plumes of smoke crowd the air above the factories all along the borough’s edge. Brooklyn is a booming leader in industry and manufacturing.
At the time, many of the country’s top manufacturers called Brooklyn their home. The borough was churning out clothing, appliances, food products, construction materials, steel, leather goods, and many more. The borough had established itself as New York City’s top port and provider.
The people who grew up in Brooklyn prided themselves for being the hand that fed the city. Brooklyn had established its own personality, and so had its residents.
Fast-forward 70 years, and we are at the turn of the century. It’s another crisp March morning, and the waters surrounding the borough are calm and quiet. The ports in Williamsburg are desolate, the Gowanus is deserted, and the NAVY Yards are locked and abandoned. Almost all the factories that once nourished NYC are now bolted shut, useless, and deteriorating.
It is now known that Brooklynites prided themselves on the architecture of the borough. Michael Anger, Junior Architecture major teacher and Cooper Union graduate, explained how the old factories and warehouses that filled the borough created Brooklyn’s landscape. It was the industrial feel that most people were accustomed to.
Anger argued that when he was growing up, “You couldn’t mention Brooklyn without picturing this vast industrial landscape.”
Once the pride of a borough, Brooklyn’s factories are now either in line for demolition or have already been demolished. One notable case was that of the Dutch Mustard Factory in Williamsburg, which was demolished in order for 80 Met, a pricey residential building, to be built. Another notable case is that of the Todd Shipyards, where large sea vessels were constructed and renovated. In a plan to demolish and rebuild, the city approved a plan for furniture giant IKEA to build on this “historically designated” site.
As the years progress, Brooklyn seems to be losing its history. Important sites are no longer cared for by the city, and the initiatives taken by Brooklynites to preserve these historic structures are left unheard and ignored. Brownstones are torn down along 4th Avenue for new high rise condos, the Atlantic Yards are now home to the Barclays Center, and the stone roads of Williamsburg are paved over by developers.
In a recent case, rumors were spreading about the demolition of one of Brooklyn’s most identifiable structures. Overlooking the Gowanus Canal and viewed by hundreds of thousands of commuters each day, the Kentile Floor sign lives on. The Municipal Art Society of New York described how this historic sign belonged to the Kentile floor company, which was founded by Arthur Kennedy in 1898. The industry leader of floor tiles at times, the company reached its peak in the 1960’s. The giant sign has remained long after the factory shut down in 1992. And rumors of its demise recently surfaced.
In a recent article published by the New York Times, the uncertain future of the sign was brought into question. In an act of preservation, the current owners of the factory argued that this sign was very important to them and to other Brooklynites as well. The sign is no longer in jeopardy of demolition, and will continue to top the Gowanus Landscape.
Richard Wanliss, Senior Architecture major teacher and City Tech Professor, referred to the Kentile Floor sign as, “Brooklyn’s crowning jewel.”
“It represents an era where Brooklyn built its reputation, developed its character, and restructured its architecture. In reality, it’s more than just a sign. It’s like a diploma, signifying all of Brooklyn’s accomplishments.”
The history of a city can be told in the details of its architecture. For Brooklyn, the proud stories of industrial leadership and manufacturing legacies are seen throughout the borough. From Greenpoint all along the coast to Bay Ridge, the structures that once provided for a city line the coast.
Many efforts are being taken to preserve what is left of these historic structures. An effort which more and more Brooklynites should join.
With a history as rich as ours, us Brooklynites should take the initiative to protect our sites and landmarks. As Brooklynites we will find a way to progress, renovate, and modernize our borough. But when it comes to the history of this borough, we will never fuhgeddaboudit.