Brooklyn’s Empire Stores and the Future of the Waterfront
Brooklyn’s waterfront is a dynamic space. Stretching from the sandy banks of Jamaica Bay to the notoriously toxic Newtown Creek, its history is defined by its relationship to the shore. Since 2010, Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP)—an 85-acre, 1.3-mile public park along the East River—has drawn new attention to the borough, attracting millions of local and international visitors each year. The Empire Stores, a massive 19th century brick warehouse complex, is one of the few buildings located within the bounds of BBP. Originally constructed in the 1860s, the four- and five-story structure stands immediately to the north of the Brooklyn Bridge in the waterfront neighborhood known as DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Long abandoned and derelict, the Empire Stores has recently undergone a renaissance. Led by BBP and the development firm Midtown Equities, the newly renovated Empire Stores will offer 360,000 square feet of mixed-used commercial, retail, and public space, including a satellite museum for Brooklyn Historical Society.1
The Empire Stores represents New York and Brooklyn’s centuries-long obsession with landfilling, the process of creating land in areas that were once water. For much of the site’s history it was a salt marsh, transformed by landfill into an industrial waterfront block in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The roots of East River waterfront construction stretch back to 1686, when the New York City municipal government sold the first lots of underwater land, or “water lots” to private citizens; these landowners filled in their water lots to construct wharves and infrastructure. By tracing the historical ramifications of these landfilling practices, we can begin to understand the ways in which the contemporary waterfront is a product of ecological and human activity. The waterfront itself has a layered past, one that stretches back centuries and is contained in the buildings that visitors encounter on the park’s edges and in the soil beneath their feet.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, free and enslaved laborers built wooden cribs to construct new landfill, forming a box-like structure out of alternating hand-sawn timbers stacked on top of one another (similar to building with Lincoln Logs today). They would float the crib into position on the river and sink it down with ballast, mud, dirt, and trash, then spread a layer of clean, fresh dirt on top. Over time, the construction of additional wharves pushed the shoreline farther out into the East River, creating the blocks necessary for the skyscrapers and other modern structures along the waterfront today.
The landfilling process brought drastic changes to Brooklyn’s shoreline as marshes, coves, and beaches were replaced with piers and warehouses. Today’s waterfront would be totally unrecognizable to the Dutch and English settlers who sank the first cribs, or, before them, to the generations of Lenape Indians who used the East River’s shores for fishing and seasonal camps. Eric Sanderson and his team at the Bronx Zoo’s Wildlife Conservation Society have made it possible to visualize these changes through their digital mapping project, Visionmaker NYC. Toggling between a contemporary map of New York and a digitally reconstructed view of the landscape in 1609 shows the sheer magnitude of changes exacted on the Brooklyn waterfront over the past 400 years.
The block now occupied by the Empire Stores was part of this landfilling trend. Bounded by Main, Water, Dock, and Plymouth Streets, the site’s physical footprint was created in three landfilling episodes from about 1796 to 1850. Written documentation of these 200-year-old landfilling efforts has proven elusive to historians. But maps filled the gaps in the paper trail by illustrating how Brooklyn’s shoreline expanded over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of these maps show both the construction of city streets as well as the changing topography of the East River waterline.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, archaeological digs uncovered a trove of artifacts in the ground beneath the Empire Stores, bolstering this map research and informing much of what we know about the history of landfilling and industrial construction on Brooklyn’s waterfront.2 When archaeologist Joan Geismar studied these artifacts, she concluded that the majority of these objects were left behind as trash: shoes too worn or too small; children’s toys long outgrown; cups and bowls broken from constant use; and chicken, cow, and pig bones tossed after cooking. Other objects were dropped by warehouse workers and longshoremen: empty plates and bottles tossed at the end of a lunch break; horseshoes and harnesses no longer sturdy enough to pull heavy loads; an iron pulley and rope fragments that facilitated arduous waterfront labors; and other detritus of urban industrial life.3 These items, discarded by Brooklynites from the 18th and 19th centuries, made their way into the fill used to build out the East River shore.
The Empire Stores stand as a vestige of Brooklyn’s heyday as a major 19th- and 20th-century shipping and commercial hub. The building was once part of a fortress-like span of storage facilities that gave Brooklyn the nickname “the Walled City.” Today, juxtaposed against the sleek glass high-rises and residential buildings that have come to characterize the surrounding neighborhood, the Empire Stores are an increasingly rare reminder of the borough’s industrial past, as well as a reminder of how drastically Brooklyn’s waterfront has changed.
Locally, the Empire Stores seek to become a commercial and social hub in DUMBO. Globally, the Empire Stores join a trend of waterfront projects in cities as far-reaching as London and Shanghai as developers invest millions of dollars in adaptive-reuse and sustainable designs. Throughout New York City, the fascination with landfilling rivers and harbors has hardly faded. In 2011, the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University proposed the creation of LoLo (“Lower Lower Manhattan”), a neighborhood created by landfilling the harbor from Lower Manhattan to Governor’s Island.
By looking closely at the archaeology of the Empire Stores site, we can locate the historical origins of this development trend and begin to reconsider our place in this legacy of land making. Landfilling has both preserved and obscured Brooklyn’s waterfront history. Filling in the river and building on top of man-made land has inadvertently protected thousands of historical artifacts. But landfilling has also rendered invisible centuries of ecological transformations, human labors, and urban growth that created the borough we know today. Without this understanding of the past, we risk losing all sense of our natural connection to the waterfront.
The spirit of development and commerce that informed Brooklyn’s landfilling efforts centuries ago remains pertinent to present-day conversations about the borough’s future. The renovations happening at the Empire Stores are part of a broader landscape of development occurring along the waterfronts of New York’s five boroughs. Whereas New Yorkers and Brooklynites in the 1800s sought to create more land from water in service of an industrial and commercial city, 21st-century city dwellers wonder whether their boroughs are developing on perilous ground as residential and leisure-based properties take center stage.
In the years since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which struck Brooklyn and Staten Island with a particular vengeance, New York has had to confront its relationship to the water in a more pressing way. Scholars and scientists have suggested that rising sea levels could engulf the waterfront once again. Climate scientist James Hansen, for instance, caused a media stir with the publication of a study that anticipates sea level rise of 20 to 30 feet. Historian Ted Steinberg has argued that “waterfront development and the quest to expand into the sea with landfill” has increased our “vulnerability to disaster.”
Caught up in all of these cultural, economic, and ecological changes to the waterfront is the notion of value. 18th-century Brooklynites sought to create valuable land from a surplus of water, while 19th-century businesses and factories developed that land to turn Brooklyn into a hub of industry and commerce. By the 1960s and 70s, with the rise of containerized shipping and the close of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn’s waterfront became an abandoned wasteland—cast as a dangerous, run-down area whose economic potential had long passed. But today Brooklyn’s waterfront finds itself in the midst of complex debates about the future of urban growth, and the role that local residents and civic leaders must play in that future. Questions about ecological sustainability, the adaptive reuse of historic spaces, the importance of creating thriving public spaces, and the threat of global sea rise inform these conversations. Studying the past and the ways in which Brooklynites have encountered and shaped the waterfront for centuries tells us a great deal about where we have been and where we could be headed.
Featured image: Brooklyn’s waterfront was a hub of commerce and industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The construction of miles of warehouses along the East River earned it the nickname “the walled city.” Currier & Ives, “The City of Brooklyn,” 1879, lithograph, PGA – Currier & Ives–City of Brooklyn (D size) [P&P]; Library of Congress.
Kathryn Lasdow is Assistant Public Historian at Brooklyn Historical Society, a nationally recognized urban history center dedicated to preserving and encouraging the study of Brooklyn’s extraordinary 400-year history. A Ph.D. candidate in History at Columbia University, she is currently completing a dissertation on the architectural, environmental, and social history of American waterfront infrastructure in the 18th and 19th centuries. Website. Contact.
The author is part of the research and curatorial team at Brooklyn Historical Society currently planning a long-term exhibit on the history of Brooklyn’s waterfront to open in the Empire Stores in 2017. ↩
Ralph S. Solecki, “The Archaeology and History of the Empire Stores, 2-14 Main Street, Brooklyn,” City of New York Department of Environmental Protection, January 1980; Betsy W. Kearns and Cece Kirkorian, “Empire Stores Report: Archaeological Monitoring for Two Trees Management Company,” (Riverside, CT: Historical Perspectives, Inc., 1982). ↩
Joan H. Geismar, “Bottle and Ceramic Analysis: Empire Stores, Brooklyn, New York,” in Solecki, “The Archaeology and History of the Empire Stores, 2-14 Main Street, Brooklyn,” City of New York Department of Environmental Protection, January 1980. ↩