On the waterfront: Vernacular recreation at Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal

Daniel Campo, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation defines, documents and explores vernacular recreation. This is the broad range of leisure activities that take place in informal settings. In establishing a definition for this seemingly universal but little-studied urban practice, the vernacular refers to a non-specialized environment, a user-created or user-activated environment, or the recreational use of an environment principally designed or used for a non-recreational purpose. Recreation is used in its most inclusive sense to encompass a range of leisure, social, creative and even some commercial activities. Settings for vernacular recreation are usually constructed with minimal materials or no materials at all, are created without professional expertise and are generally ephemeral in nature. This dissertation focuses one form of vernacular recreation—that which occurs on the urban waterfront. Capitalizing on swaths of vacant or underutilized waterfront land, residents of many North American cities have engaged in both traditional and eclectic forms of waterside leisure in settings that were once the active port. The case study is the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal (BEDT), a 20-acre rail-marine transshipment facility vacated in 1983. With the Midtown Manhattan skyline as its backdrop, BEDT's collapsing piers, eroded bulkhead, remaining building foundations, construction debris and dumped objects became the raw materials for various forms of waterfront recreation, social spaces, playgrounds, environmental art, rehearsal and performance venues, a skatepark and homeless encampments. The central component of this inquiry is an ethnographic analysis of site users. Through interviews and observations, this dissertation sheds light on how and why these environments occur; who creates and uses these spaces and why they choose them over traditional city parks; and how users feel about the informal spaces they create or colonize. This dissertation finds that informal settings support a wider range of recreational uses than traditional urban parks, particularly in waterfront locations. It also suggests that in these settings, users feel free to act in more unconventional, idiosyncratic and spontaneous ways than in the increasingly rationalized public spaces of the city.

Subject Area

Urban planning|Area planning & development|Architecture|Recreation

Recommended Citation

Campo, Daniel, "On the waterfront: Vernacular recreation at Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3125796.