The “Can Do” Generation
It was called the “The Can Do Yard.” The Brooklyn Navy Yard, a sprawling complex that extended over 200+ acres across Brooklyn, produced battleships, aircraft carriers and repaired thousands of ships that served the front-lines of naval combat during WWII.
The Navy Yard produced some of the most famous Naval vessels, including: the USS Arizona, which was sunk by the Japanese during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the USS Missouri, which was the site of the Japanese official surrender and put an end to WWII. At its peak, it was purported that nearly 70,000 New Yorkers worked tirelessly at the Navy Yard which earned it the nickname of being the “Can Do Yard”, for producing beyond what was anyone thought was possible. My grandfather, Abe, was one of those Navy Yard workers in the 1930s.
The work at the Navy Yard was far from the comforts that my grandfather had grown accustomed to as a child. He grew up in an affluent, Brooklyn home with a father who had a thriving business, factory and an array of properties and financial interests. And then the stock market crashed in 1929. With it went virtually all his father’s assets and holdings. His business collapsed, his properties were forfeited and ironically, his father, in order to support his young family, went to work in the very same factory that he had owned only years before.
By the 1930’s, my grandfather had to make his own way in the world with hardly a cent to his name, and he did so without a grumble or complaint. He became a pipe fitter. He began to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard working on some of the most ambitious projects while putting himself through college in the evenings so that he could one day become an educator and a school principal. It was men like my grandfather, who are often described as “The Greatest Generation”, that made America truly great. And what he, and the many others just like him showed us, is that if you want to create change, you can’t sit around and wait for it to happen. You need determination, grit and an unrelenting attitude of “Can Do.”
The Brooklyn Navy Yard, despite all odds, remains today. The Navy Yard was abandoned in the 1960’s, having outlived its useful purpose and becoming a remnant of early 20th century industrialization. However, in 2011, the ship yard began a $250 million venture backed make-over. The 50,000+ sq. ft. machine shop underwent this 5-year renaissance from decaying industrial shell into a high-tech center. And in 2016, what emerged was the New Lab, a “multidisciplinary design, prototyping, and advanced manufacturing space that houses over 130 NYC startups today.” Touring around this massive space this past week, I spotted 3D printing labs, laser cutters, fabrication and electronics shops, and radical technologies that only the boldest imaginations could have envisioned even a decade ago. From Farmshelf, a vertical farming concept that grows plants and produce without any soil, to Waverly Labs, which has created an earpiece that translates 30 foreign languages in real time. The “Can Do Yard” has returned.
The revitalization of decaying infrastructure and the explosion of new technologies is miraculous. And I am quite sure that my grandfather, and his generation, would be inspired and proud of the continued legacy of the Navy Yard. But the next, “greatest generation” will need more than advanced degrees, cutting-edge machinery and innovative ideas. They will need grit and the “Can Do” mindset. After all, anyone can innovate when the conditions are comfortable. To share the advice my grandfather offered me when I became a young adult, “There will always be plenty of people to tell you that you CAN’T DO, but it is up to you to rise to the occasion and show them that you CAN.”
In Memory of my Grandfather, Abraham Seewald.