Zoom in on Google Maps, satellite view, to the block bounded by York, Jay, Front and Bridge Streets in DUMBO and you will see a little mortarboard ghost floating sadly in the middle of a vast parking lot. It says Public School 7. It is wrong. The school did once occupy part of the block—the southeast corner—but shut down decades ago and vanished from this world around 1990. Somebody’s database—Google’s or more likely the Department of Education’s—needs updating.
Public School 7 was a fixture at 141 York Street for well over a century, set in a dense block of industrial buildings that included the original Boorum and Pease plant, makers of the ledger books that once ran American business (still available under the Esselte Pendaflex name). Designed by James W. Naughton, buildings superintendent for the Brooklyn Board of Education, the school opened in 1882. In his History of Brooklyn (1884), Henry Stiles described the new building as “one of the best . . . ever erected for school purposes in this country—a structure to which the City can point with justifiable pride.” Expanded in 1907 (the neoclassical building on left in photo below), it was a place of discipline and order in one of the roughest parts of New York City. A 1908 report of the People’s University Extension Society (Jacob Riis, board member), notes lectures that year, in English and Italian, on the prevention of childhood diseases. Al Capone was a pupil at the time.
In late 1988, when I took the photos further down on this page, the school had long been shuttered, but was being rehabilitated for housing under the auspices—I believe—of the Brooklyn Union Gas Cinderella program. On a follow-up visit not long after I was shocked to find the building gone. Evidently the entire block was acquired around 1990 by the Watchtower organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, still among the largest property owners in downtown Brooklyn. The group leveled the block not long afterward, including this little gem (notwithstanding its listing on the National Register of Historic Places). Its been a parking lot ever since, sealed behind a corrugated steel fence topped with concertina wire.
The block just south of York Street here, where the above photo was taken, was blown out decades earlier by Robert Moses to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Only a single structure survived the Mosiach onslaught—an industrial building at the corner of York and Bridge Streets trimmed with colorful glazed terracotta. Erected c. 1909 by the Thomson Water Meter Company, it was later famous as the source of Eskimo Pies, the beloved ice-cream treat of a generation of Brooklyn kids.
As for the vast block that was once home to Public School 7 (officially 85 Jay Street)—its been called “the last great site in DUMBO,” with nearly 900,000 square feet of buildable space and a price tag that could run north of $350 million. The property, one of the most valuable and sought-after on the east coast, finally went on the market earlier this month.