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Columbia Street Waterfront District, severed from Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, showcases a history of struggle.

From the early 1800s to the 1880s, nearly all of the area’s residents were Irish working at the nearby piers. 

Much was unchanged during the world wars until most of the shipping industry moved to Port Elizabeth, New Jersey because it had more land. Massive layoffs and unemployment ensued and the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in 1957 cut Columbia Street off from its more prosperous neighbors. 

During the 1970s, a large infrastructure project was undertaken that for more than a year dug up Columbia Street to install new sewers. The construction blocked trucks from passing through the area and caused local stores to shutter, while some buildings collapsed from their foundations being undermined.

But in the early 1980s, the city named the neighborhood a renewal district and began to tear down unusable buildings while designing a plan for new buildings to be built no higher than three stories.

Photos by Paul Frangipane

How Columbia Street Waterfront District Got Its Name

The name “Columbia” itself dates back to the pre-Revolutionary period when the Founding Fathers were considering the Brooklyn Heights area as the seat of a potential new government. Eventually, they went elsewhere, but the street name of Columbia Heights — after Christopher Columbus — remained in Brooklyn.

South of Brooklyn Heights, it became Columbia Street.

The development of the waterfront in South Brooklyn combined with the neighborhood’s main street created the Columbia Waterfront District.

This neighborhood was an unnamed section of what was once called South Brooklyn — the combined area of the original Dutch towns whose southern border was today‘s Atlantic Ave. Some real-estate agents at the time preferred to call it Cobble Hill West.

Then it was cut off from its neighbors, Cobble Hill, Red Hook and Carroll Gardens, by the furrowing of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, built in that area in 1957, when homes and businesses were demolished and much of the shipping industry moved from the East River waterfront in what Robert Moses contended was “urban renewal” or “slum clearance.”

Some then just referred to it as “West of the Trench,” with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway its border on the east (and the East River on the west).

For some time, the neighborhood struggled through a large infrastructure disruption and became virtually isolated.

But in the early 1980s, the city named the area a renewal district and Columbia Street and the Columbia Street Waterfront District is showing invigorating signs of revival.

Norm Goldstein

Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook. He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism. He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.