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Step by Step

There's something in the fog.

While one group proposes a stadium for the Outer Harbor that would be used occasionally, and another group proposes a windswept park, consider what New York has done with its waterfront (Hat Tip to Brian Castner). 

On a gorgeous, late-summer day last month, I traveled with the outgoing mayor and two of his top aides, Amanda M. Burden, the director of the Department of City Planning, and Caswell F. Holloway, the deputy mayor for operations, as they toured the East River to make the case for a waterfront New York that will not only endure, but triumph.

“This is just the beginning,” the mayor said. “We’re leaving in place the bones, the approvals, the transactions that will now let the marketplace go and build a lot of stuff,” a process he sees lasting for decades.

“Back in the days of La Guardia, what’s-his-name tried to separate us from the water,” Mr. Bloomberg said, forgetting (or pretending to forget) the name of the master builder Robert Moses. “He built roads all along the water. … Today, we’re trying to reconnect everybody to the water.”

Our problems, therefore, are hardly unique. This is a typical problem in New York cities that were affected by planning decisions that are in some cases, in hindsight, horrible mistakes. Back then, the water was just a big sewer. It was where we dumped everything and anything that we didn’t want to see anymore. 

The port rallied during World War II. New York Harbor shipped out half the men and one-third of all the supplies sent overseas before the Japanese surrendered aboard the battleship Missouri, itself a product of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Yet soon thereafter New York’s share of general cargo slipped to just 27 percent of the nation’s total. The fight to drive the mob from the docks exploded at last onto the city’s front pages. It became the main focus of the Kefauver Committee hearings, the first corruption hearings to become a television phenomenon, and was soon popularized in books and movies.

Suddenly, the waterfront was fully, luridly visible again. Then it was gone.

SHIPOWNERS accelerated their investments in a new technology, container ships, that required only a small fraction of the same labor force and more space than the city could provide. By the late sixties, not a single freight pier was still in use on Manhattan’s West Side. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, which employed 71,000 men and women during the war, had shut its gates in 1966.

New Yorkers now beheld what would have once been incomprehensible: the empty harbor.

“People will forget this ever existed,” Mr. Bloomberg said, referring to the old industrial waterfront. “And it’s good. I mean, why dwell on the past?”

Why, indeed. American cities move forward by occasionally reinventing themselves. It’s ok to honor the past, but becoming obsessively fixated on ruins and nostalgia porn is reactionary and regressive. 


  • Hank Kaczmarek

    Great article Alan—-You put quite a stir on the pot of Preservationist Gestapo soup this morning. Keep the powder dry.

  • Mike Hibbard

    Despite the fact that Malcolm McLean, inventor of the modern shipping container, was American and was high in the ranks of States Lines and later became the CEO of SeaLand Lines (Now the US-flag portion of Maersk), the shift from breakbulk to containerized freight was the impetus behind the fall of every American working harbor. The fact that only a few steamship lines were either able to wriggle out of their labor agreements and accept containerization as the future or chose to ignore it as a fad led to the death of damn near every US-flagged shipping line, and with them went their multi-port networks of pier houses, warehouses and laborers.

    Of course, this all came to a head in the 70’s, when recession and inflation were already making things hard on lines which usually operated on thin margins. So you get what you had/have in New York Harbor, a place that was once ringed with huge piers at the end of every other street being idled in a 20 year span in favor of a giant slab of concrete and a few cranes built over the stank-assed marshes of Newark.

    So yeah, you are 100% right that nobody wanted anything to do with the waterfront. It was usually a rank and disgusting place, full of drunks, thugs, lowlifes, rats and rot when it was running at full-tilt-boogie, but when it died it just became a decrepit and ugly barrier between the medical waste/sewage-flecked waters of just about any harbor, let alone New York. Environmental groups like Riverkeeper spearheaded efforts to make the water not smell like rancid chemical ass, and all of a sudden people didn’t mind being by it anymore. You didn’t see the Chinamen getting lesions all over their faces from eating the three-legged fish they pulled out of the river. Amazing stuff. Giuliani rounded up all the vagrants and for all I know he put them on a barge and sank it in the Atlantic because they seemed to all disappear very quickly. Bloomberg and his billionaire buddies began making mints on snapping up property for redevelopment and presto, a pretty waterfront park in most of the Boro’s.

    The downside of course, is that many who live and depend on the working waterfront have been all but totally excluded from coming anywhere near the shoreline. South Street Seaport is about to go tits-up from external real-estate pressure and plenty of internal mismanagement. If it wasn’t for deep-pocketed trustees, the Intrepid would be going the same way and may very well do so as its pier space continues to rise in value and they fight to pay off yard debts. Available pier space for visiting boats and ships is limited to a miniscule fraction of what it once was, forcing many to seek refuge in some pretty nasty spots like Newton Creek or over in the Erie Basin. That alone has forced many out of the harbor and into the life of commuters from surrounding areas.

    The biggest challenge is yet to come. Bloomberg is gone after this term, and with him will go the seemingly endless run of financiers who want and can get a slice of the action with minimal fuss from city hall. The next mayor is going to have bills to pay, and the way the race is shaping up it’s looking like money is probably not heading towards keeping the greenways as whitebread as they are now. If the parks start to falter, crime will inevitably spike and the folks who shell out a bazillion dollars for their waterfront condo will more than likely not be interested in walking their 1/4lb dog to a place they are just going to get mugged in anyways. If it gets bad enough, they’ll go elsewhere and with them go their alliance groups and all of a sudden we are back to having a seedy, empty place on the waterfront again.

    Bottom line to this screed is, I suppose, that all this proposed reinvention needs to come with forethought to getting those who use and those who benefit from the park involved in its continued success. There is no reason why Buffalo’s outer harbor cannot accommodate both an active working waterfront and expansive multi-use park space. It’s clear that the future for that land lies in public-use facilities, but it would be a tremendous mistake to ignore the fact that Buffalo was, is and will continue to be a significant Great Lakes port which just happens to sit at the mouth of a major commercial inland waterway.

  • rhmaccallum

    The article starts out with a proposed stadium or a park on the outer harbor.
    Then we get a blurb about NYC, WWII, old shipyards and some statement from Bloomberg about the past is gone and the industrial waterfront will be forgotten.
    Finally some kind of dis on preservation.
    If there is some logical chronology or point to this disjointed piece I fail to discern it.

    • 1. Buffalo is again navelgazing over what to do with a prime piece of windswept, contaminated real estate. We are contemplating two wildly divergent choices, and nothing in-between.

      2. I quote two salient pieces from a recent NY Times essay detailing what New York City did with its waterfront – particularly the East River, which was until recently just a forgotten, dirty, nasty cesspool to avoid.

      3. The key part of Bloomberg’s remarks is that the city didn’t have to look backwards to determine what to do with its waterfront. It was able to not “dwell on the past” and instead set up the infrastructure and planning apparatus to enable private enterprise to develop the waterfront in a way that met demand.

      4. It’s not a “dis” on preservation, per se, but on Buffalo’s obsessive nostalgia, which I believe is wholly counterproductive insofar as it is not helping us envision a future waterfront or city so much as it stifles creativity, growth, and vision.

      5. Happy now?

      • rhmaccallum

        I just don’t understand what a football stadium or a park has to do with “looking backwards” or “not dwell on the past” has to do with the other harbor land. It has never contained either a stadium or a park. I just don’t see the connection.
        On the other hand I believe that there should be more ideas than a park or stadium. Everyone loves a park…but we are blessed with a lot of them now. A football stadium would be just as valuable off waterfront. At the same time any plan to push mixed use like more hotel rooms, with the needed shopping and restaurant and entertainment requirements needs be looked at with an eye on competing with yourself. Do that in the outer harbor you take away business from Elmwood, Chippewa, Allentown, etc. I think we may already be reaching the point of overkill in office and hotel saturation level.
        So, other than my Urban Camping and RV Park what things should go there on this windswept bit of land?
        Promise we won’t nostalgically obsess on preserving old industrial warehouses and dumps.