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.