This past summer I had the opportunity to attend the National Endowment for the Humanities workshop, "Along the Waterfront: Changing and Preserving the Landmarks of Brooklyn's Industrial Waterfront." The workshop brought together community college instructors from around the country to hone innovative techniques for documenting and interpreting waterfront landmarks and to engage in discussions about how to create community, place-based history.
Throughout the week, I listened to scholars, architects, preservationists, urban planners and community activists talk about their Brooklyn neighborhood. I toured former industrial plants that had been repurposed as small-scale, cutting-edge manufacturing businesses and walked through neighborhoods where oil refineries, factories and Superfund sites have given way to parks, residential and commercial space. As we walked and talked, we were asked to consider the driving question of the workshop, "When should a city preserve a historic landmark and who should make the decision?"
When I returned to Bellingham in July, I read about the Port Commission's plan to spend $500,000 to knock down the historic Granary building in order to move forward with their plans to redevelop the waterfront.
Constructed in 1928, the Whatcom Farmer's Cooperative used the Granary to temporarily store their eggs and feed, reflecting a national farming trend towards pooling resources in order to penetrate larger markets. Public outcry in response to the news temporarily stayed the demolition, but its future depends on private developers interested in refurbishing the structure.
The Granary building controversy mirrors the debate surrounding the Domino Sugar refining factory located on one of the best East River properties left in Brooklyn. At one time Domino produced over half the country's processed sugar and its closure in 2004 marked the first time in 275 years that there would not be a sugar refining plant in New York City. The building is a history lesson connecting two centuries of New York industrialism to the Atlantic slave trade. It also reveals how advances in chemistry and the discovery of artificial sweeteners lead to the demise of the sugar cane industry. If the building site is redeveloped as condos and boutiques it's not clear what, if any, of the historical integrity will be preserved, but Brooklyn is in the midst of a manufacturing Renaissance with industrial buildings being converted to small businesses that promote sustainability and job growth.
At the Brooklyn Navy Yard we saw this repurposing of a former industrial site. The shipyard that built the USS Maine and the great aircraft carriers of World War II is now an industrial park with refurbished buildings, fully functioning dry docks and four active piers.
We began the guided tour in a portion of the beautifully restored 1857 Marine Commandant's Mansion, traveling through time with a multimedia interactive map documenting the history of the site.
The exhibit was heated with "green" geothermal wells and lit with Duggal's wind-solar lamps. Duggal is just one of the new green industries that is part of the Navy Yard's successful revitalization. "Niche" factories, such as Duggal, represent Brooklyn's transition from an industrial-based waterfront where massive resource-processing factories like Domino Sugar once manufactured for national and international markets, to smaller-scale manufacturing whose skilled workforce makes products for local consumption.
Learning about the extraordinary history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and its evolution from premiere naval industrial facility to leader of the manufacturing and green business sector in New York City, it was impossible not to see all the exciting parallels for mixed-use development at our own former Georgia Pacific site.
Can we do something similar, albeit on a much more modest "Hamster" scale? I don't know the solutions to the complex challenges facing redevelopment of the site, but in Brooklyn I saw what worked. Public and private interests are working together to promote and develop the repurposing of historic buildings to the benefit of everyone.
Preserving some of the history of the Georgia Pacific plant here at the very heart of Bellingham is as fundamental to making sense of our surrounding as it is to the revitalization of our waterfront in the coming decades.
Anna Booker is an adjunct history instructor at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham. She plans to incorporate her interest in environmental history with student-directed research projects on the waterfront. In addition to her selection as a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar, in 2011, Booker was awarded a grant to develop the Western Civilization course for the Open Course Library. The project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Washington State Legislature. To learn more about WCC, go to whatcom.ctc.edu.