We still have ships in Brooklyn. Take your kids to see the high-rise ocean liners tied up at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook. Visit the Shore Road park (immortalized in Saturday Night Fever) underneath the Verrazano at the end of 4th Avenue, and watch the freighters drowsing at anchor, or heading to and from the container ports in New Jersey. Take an orange and black ferry (Portside Out, Starboard Home) from Battery Park to the St. George Terminal on Staten Island and see where the Brooklyn piers were. See The Flamingo Kid, whenever possible. Fleet Week.
Time was, though, we had daily armadas. Teeming, look at the photos, how did they all not collide. The cruise ships went mostly to Manhattan piers, more and more of the freight through Sunset Park. Until one day even more was required, and this tranquil west coast of Long Island, from Owls Head Park to the Gowanus Canal, also shipped more human beings than any American place this side of San Francisco.
Helen of Troy did not launch a thousand ships here, that job went to the much less romantic United States military. The federal government had acquired about a hundred acres at the southwest corner of Sunset Park, roughly 65th to 58th Street, 2nd Avenue to the harbor, the southern tip of what had been the farmlands of South Brooklyn. In 1918, under the direction of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the government began to create a place there to load troop ships heading for Europe and World War I.
Roosevelt in turn “enlisted” Irving Bush, the mastermind of Bush Terminal and Industry City just to the north, to work his magic. If you’ve looked at the Bush complex, you see his influence everywhere here. At the Brooklyn Army Terminal, Bush perfected his art, if art it was. Olmsted and Vaux employed Central Park lessons to create Prospect Park.
Bush’s architect was Cass Gilbert, who, when not designing urban jewels such as the Woolworth Building in Manhattan, seems to have had a thing for warehouses. Can a useful box be beautiful? With the benefit of the open space and long vistas around it, the Army Terminal has its own sort of majesty, like the Hoover factory outside of London. Decorative caps around the parapet also drain the roof.
The plan followed the Bush model: two linked, eight-story warehouses, called A (facing seaward) and B, lying parallel north-south—the biggest concrete structure in the world, at the time. They made a right angle with four long, wide piers. Trains drove directly into the covered space between the warehouses, or met ships right out on the dock. Its own little city, with its own railroad, police, and fire department. With the Brooklyn Navy Yard along the East River, and some other spots, this was the largest U.S. military port on the Atlantic seaboard.
Between wars, the place was still busy. The government used the warehouses to store liquor confiscated from speakeasies during Prohibition. Local people called it the Army base, with troops stationed there to guard the mouth of New York harbor, like those in Fort Hamilton to the south, and Fort Wadsworth across the Verrazano Narrows on Staten Island— all of this just a warm-up act for the headliner to follow.
The numbers attached to the Brooklyn Army Terminal in World War II—more than three million soldiers and 40 million tons of supplies shipped out, employing as many as 55,000 civilian and military personnel—are staggering and misleading. The Terminal was indeed the headquarters of what came to be called the New York Port of Embarkation, but the POE included more than a dozen sites around the harbor, including the Stapleton docks on Staten Island, and the much larger Bush Terminal itself, nationalized for the war effort. The Army Terminal piers played their smaller, useful part, and thousands of Sunset Park people did make that daily walk to and from work. Post-war, the US troops in Europe kept them in business.
Which brings us to Elvis.
Sunset Park, with its ships and industries and constant flow of nationalities, hardly counts as Brooklyn’s sleepiest neighborhood, but dramatic it has seldom been. The greatest single news story here—unless you can convince me otherwise—came after the wars, after Irving Bush and company, and involved a single troop ship, and a single soldier. On September 22, 1958, Private First Class Elvis A. Presley and 1,170 other members of the Third Armored Division boarded the USS General George M. Randall at Pier 4 in the Army Terminal, en route to Bremerhaven, (West) Germany. No world history of staged media events can be complete without it.
Presley had been a best-selling recording artist, and a cultural eruption to rank with Enrico Caruso and Frank Sinatra, for three years. He also scared some people, as a white man who “sounded black,” and had learned from black artists both secular and gospel. His dark hair and perpetual skin-bronzer made him seem vaguely multi-racial, and he played Native Americans in the movies. (He also admired and emulated white singers from Caruso and Frank to Eddie Fisher and Dean Martin, but this failed to calm the agitated.)
His being “drafted” into the Army was a crafted response. Presley would, emphatically, NOT dodge the draft, and every step on his path to service would be very public. It should be said that Elvis was patriotic and even conservative in his weird way; had he really not wanted to go, there were other ways for celebrities to “do their part”. In June 1958 he was inducted, and spent a balmy summer at Fort Hood, Texas, the largest military base in the world.
The induction had been delayed while he finished his fourth movie, King Creole, a big enough deal to open at the Loew’s State Theater in Times Square for 4th of July weekend. (It may still have lingered that September at the second-run, double-feature “nabes” of Brooklyn.) We may daydream a missed opportunity here: King Creole was adapted from an early Harold Robbins best-seller called A Stone for Danny Fisher, about a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who turns to boxing, a woman of another persuasion, and crime. Had the filmmakers not shifted the whole thing to New Orleans, the King of Rock and Roll might have filmed on location… in Flatbush! Coney Island! Junior’s! The Ebinger’s bakeries could have been a life-changer. And September 22nd would have been a kind of homecoming.
Instead he got a train ride on Long Island Railroad tracks from the Sunnyside yards through the Brooklyn Terminal Market and residential neighborhoods, along the border between Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, and right out onto Pier 4 at the Army Terminal. (This renders moot the whole concept of Elvis “setting foot” on Brooklyn soil, the piers being landfill, but never mind.) There he found what his biographer Peter Guralnick has called “a scene worthy of P.T. Barnum [or] Cecil B. DeMille,” featuring a mob of New York reporters who made fun of Elvis, photo ops on the gangplank that had to be re-staged to give everyone their shot, and, perhaps some consolation, a staged “one last kiss” from a specially-selected WAC named Mary Davies, from Albany. The kiss, and Mary, might have been lost in the hubbub had they not been noticed by an aspiring Broadway writer named Michael Stewart, who—with composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams—turned the moment into the Broadway and movie hit Bye Bye Birdie. Elvis and Mary said their farewells and he never came back to Brooklyn, although he finally did give some local (Manhattan) concerts in the 1970s.
You can stand today in something like his footsteps, because Pier 4 has been rebuilt as one of the city’s first “recreational” piers, also serving as a parking lot for the sometime ferry service to Manhattan. (This and other ferries will resume or start up in 2017.) You can listen to his news conference, which was recorded and released by RCA Records as an extended-play album that sold 100,000 copies. You can’t ride that train. Maybe someday a trolley.
I wrote elsewhere that the Elvis-bearing General Randall, sailing down the harbor and out to sea that first day of autumn, 1958, marked the close of the first great chapter of rock and roll. Here it can also feel like the end of something for the Army Terminal and Sunset Park. The military port moved to Norfolk, Virginia; the site closed in stages, through the 1960s and 70s, as did Bush Terminal and the rest of that waterfront, taking away jobs by the thousand. The neighborhood just inland faced an increase in crime and a decrease in economic activity. The City tried to re-establish the garment industry, the printing industry, any industry, on the Army site, with occasional success.
Well, cheer up, because it’s back—never again to be what it was, but like so much of New York, reimagined as something new, or old-new. Trucks roll. Fashion designers and small manufacturers inhabit the Terminal. Jacques Torres, the chocolatier, has 40,000 square feet in Building B. There are theater events, guided tours. At the end of 2016, the 1st Avenue approach to the Army Terminal’s entrance at 58th St. was miraculously repaved, though the train tracks linger. Thank you very much.
R to 59th St. (4th Ave.), Brooklyn Army Terminal
R to 95th St. (4th Ave.), Shore Road Park
B37 to 58th St. & 3rd Ave. or transfer there to B11 for a shorter walk to BAT.
B16, B27,B37, B63 to end, for Shore Road Park.
B61 to Van Brunt & Commerce Sts. for Bklyn Cruise Terminal.
Shore Road bike path: pick up at end of Bay Ridge Avenue after visit to BAT.