It’s no surprise that New York City is directly shaped by the waterways that surround it. Now, a new, long-term exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society DUMBO, Waterfront, is exploring this unique relationship by highlighting the history and significance of Brooklyn’s 131 miles of coastline. It’s the first major exhibition about the topic, featuring stories of dock workers, industries, activists, ecosystems and more.
“So many aspects of Brooklyn’s waterfront history — the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, the On the Waterfront-esque depiction of longshoremen and mob corruption, the industrial powerhouses like Domino Sugar factory — have taken on iconic, even mythic meaning in American popular culture,” writes Julia Golia, a historian and curator at BHS, in a Medium post. “Yet the Brooklyn side of the East River has gotten much less attention from historians than the Manhattan side has, and many parts of the borough’s past remain misunderstood by the general public.”
The exhibit, the result of four years of research, covers a variety of pressing topics ranging from sea level rise to gentrification. This includes sections that explore the history of oysters and sewage in the early 20th century, an installation of 82 archaeological artifacts unearthed beneath Empire Stores, short videos about climate change and an eight-minute film (“At Water’s Edge”) that presents an “epic sweep” of 20,000 years of Brooklyn’s waterfront history.

There will also be a dress-up and play section for younger visitors and a section that allows guests to create 60-second videos starring themselves. Of course, this is just a sampling of the artifacts and installations that will be on view.
It’s only fitting that Waterfront is being presented inside BHS DUMBO in the Empire Stores building, erected between 1869 and 1885, and standing as one of the few remaining 19th-century warehouses that once lined Brooklyn’s coastline. Formerly a storehouse for coffee, sugar and even animal hides, the location is now a “creative hub,” where food, retail and technology all intersect.
Waterfront at BHS DUMBO (55 Water Street, Brooklyn) will be open to the public from Tuesday to Thursday, 11 am to 6 pm; Friday and Saturday, 11 am to 8 pm; and Sunday, 11 am to 6 pm. The exhibit, which opened on January 20, is free with a suggested donation. For more information, click here.
Next, read about the opening of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s DUMBO outpost.