BHS DUMBO: Photographer Robin Michals reflects on the Brooklyn waterfront

Robin Michals is one of over two dozen photographers featured in the Brooklyn Historical Society DUMBO exhibition “Shifting Perspectives: Photographs of Brooklyn’s Waterfront,” on view through September 10, 2017. In this post, she reflects on what attracted her to the waterfront as a subject. Click here to learn more about the beautiful exhibition of Brooklyn waterfront photography. 

Robin Michals, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Dry Dock 3, Marcus G Langseth

Brooklyn Navy Yard, Dry Dock 3, Marcus G Langseth, 2015 Archival pigment inkjet print, 14 x 21 in. Courtesy Robin Michals

Robin Michals: The Brooklyn waterfront shares a history with urban waterfronts around the world from Hoboken, New Jersey to Kaohsiung, Taiwan. When technology moved shipping and manufacturing out from the core of coastal cities, the urban waterfront, often with a legacy of industrial pollution, was abandoned. In New York, there have now been several decades of planning and development to reclaim the waterfront for recreational and residential uses as well as to support the working waterfront through the designation of Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (

The Brooklyn waterfront shares a history with urban waterfronts around the world from Hoboken, New Jersey to Kaohsiung, Taiwan. When technology moved shipping and manufacturing out from the core of coastal cities, the urban waterfront, often with a legacy of industrial pollution, was abandoned. In New York, there have now been several decades of planning and development to reclaim the waterfront for recreational and residential uses as well as to support the working waterfront through the designation of Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIAs).

The moment that I tuned into the Brooklyn waterfront was a transformative one. Years of planning were coming to fruition and the waterfront was under active development. Public access began to increase dramatically. In 2007-08, the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint and IKEA with its esplanade on Erie Basin opened. As I spent more time walking along the shore of Brooklyn, searching out every spot with any kind of access to the water, I became aware that there was more than one story here. Brooklyn’s southern neighborhoods from Gravesend to Canarsie, all coastal and severely threatened by sea level rise, had a different narrative, generally about ethnic succession as waves of immigrants moved through. This Brooklyn waterfront is actively used to fish and to swim as free recreation available to all. For many New Yorkers, this waterfront is their primary contact with nature.

Robin Michals, Newtown Creek, 2011, Archival pigment inkjet print, 14 x 21 in. Courtesy Robin Michals.

Robin Michals, Newtown Creek, 2011, Archival pigment inkjet print, 14 x 21 in. Courtesy Robin Michals.

These two stories, the story of Brooklyn’s collapse as an industrial superpower and rebirth as a global brand, and the story of Brooklyn immigrants and working people, creating neighborhoods and communities, are both unfolding along the waterfront. While these two narratives conflict and battles over development are being waged, waterfront neighborhoods now face another serious global challenge: sea level rise. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, making the vulnerability of low-lying areas of the city crystal clear. There are two basic strategies for coping with sea level rise: retreat or resilience. Since few would accept the first option, the waterfront and its communities must transform order to survive. This story is in progress and the ending is not at all clear.
I first became interested in the Brooklyn waterfront in 2007 after going on a tour of Sunset Park with Francis Marrone. Growing up in Manhattan, the Perlwick Hampers sign in Queens was visible from my bedroom window from across the East River, but I had no idea that the container was decimating the shipping and manufacturing industries of the city. I did know that the water in the East River was dirty because, on a family outing to Wards Island, my mother was upset when she saw me with my legs dangling in the water. And as a young adult, I trained my dog on the ballfields of Red Hook, never thinking why so much had been abandoned. Walking around Sunset Park and inside the Bush Terminal that day in the spring of 2007, I finally saw what had always been there but somehow I had ignored.

Robin Michals, Coney Island, November 3, 2012, Archival pigment inkjet print, 14 x 21 in. Courtesy Robin Michals.

Robin Michals, Coney Island, November 3, 2012, Archival pigment inkjet print, 14 x 21 in. Courtesy Robin Michals.

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