New York is, after all, an archipelago, and before it was asphalted and concrete-shouldered, it was dotted with fishing camps, where the first settlers took advantage of all of the seafood passing through or settled in the tidal straits, the giant estuary that includes not just the Hudson but the Hackensack and the Passaic, the Raritan, and the Hutchinson rivers, just to name a few. Today, we tend to see our city via the land, or, more typically, through the lens of real estate — from the ever-higher heights of new towers or even from old observation decks. But what do you see if you see the city from the vantage point of its largest public space — the harbor? What does the city look like from sea level, in other words?
Of course, a true sea level is complicated. The level of the sea is a matter of infinite readings, all changing, which, in the case of our photographic experiment, is good: In a view by boat on a trip up the East River, change ends up being a constant, in the buildings and in the land and in all that we have done and haven’t done with both. The panorama that you will experience in this room — it’s blown-up moments included — can be thought of as frames of a time-lapse film that show the city’s past and its future, mingling on all five boroughs’ horizons, or in this case, shores.
We start with one ancient fort and end with another, going from Fort Wadsworth, which overlooks the entrance of New York Harbor at the narrows that separate Staten Island and Brooklyn, to Fort Totten, which watches over that place where the East River flows in and out of Long Island Sound. Let’s think of them both as offensive and defensive, simultaneously holding back what’s bad, and striking forward, moving strategically ahead.
Photographs by Elizabeth Felicella
Fort Wadsworth is one of the oldest military sites in the U.S., established as a fort by the British during the American Revolution when they controlled New York Harbor. American forces commanded it during the War of 1812, and after the Civil War, it was named for James Wadsworth, a brevet major general who was mortally wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness in the Virginia woods. During World War II, when threats might arrive by sea or air, it was a place, the Parks Department reports, where the U.S. monitored the skies over the harbor — a place, in other words, where we looked ahead, looked out over the water and into the sky, and tried not just to imagine what was coming but how to anticipate it.
North and South Brother Islands
North Brother Island is New York’s miniature Detroit, but instead of disused factories, there’s a 20-acre wilderness of trees, vines, and abandoned, crumbling buildings. Uninhabited for 50 years and off limits to all but biologists for more than a decade, North Brother and the adjacent South Brother are managed by the city as a nature preserve. When a vast swatch of trees was recently cut down in the Bronx for development, the forest on North Brother Island — albeit a forest created by neglect, as opposed to purposeful planting — became the largest in the South Bronx. North Brother Island is the High Line without the High Line, complete with an old pier and empty water tower. Though there have been various schemes proposed throughout the years, it is still, when you are out there, mostly a great place to look at the city from afar.
The Con Edison plant at 14th Street was knocked out by Sandy — and the outage threw the entire city [for] a loop. The power was shut off in lower Manhattan for days, and many subway lines were suspended. The plant was restored and is now surrounded by a kind of moat and high concrete walls. At the moment, Con Edison is waterproofing underground substations. The plant makes electricity and steam, a by-product of the facility’s high temperatures. Steam is an old but most efficient technology. Con Edison is the largest district-energy steam system in the United States, heating the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the U.N. In the 1920s, shortly before a giant steam boiler was put in use at the 14th Street facility, lunch was served inside the six-story boilers to close to 100 people.
Chances are extremely high that there is a photographer in this point in our panorama, a person standing on the corner of Main and Washington Streets in the so-called Dumbo section of Brooklyn (down under the Manhattan Bridge) taking a photograph of this most photographed scene: the Manhattan Bridge crossing into its namesake borough. The view goes down the slope of Washington Street (flooded during Sandy) toward the LaGuardia Houses on the mirror edge of the river, straight across the way. If this panorama was instead a time-lapse photo of the 21st century, we would see a speedier transition from warehouse district to expensive residential zone than, say, Soho. Indeed, the transformation has taken less than a decade, primed in part by developers encouraging artists to settle — even now with discounted studios, though how long they can or will stay is another matter. Towering over Dumbo is the Gair Building, renamed Walentas for its current owner, David Walentas, the area’s primary developer since 1981. Born in Scotland, Robert Gair was a corrugated-box magnate. The circa-1888 concrete loft building was among the earliest examples of concrete engineering in the U.S. today; the Gair tower’s clock keeps time for the newer luxury buildings striving for its height.
“The natural advantages of the North Shore all the way from Flushing Bay to Port Washington were recognized long before there was any prospect of the great transit improvements now being carried out,” wrote a New York Times reporter in the summer of 1906. He went on to mention a new waterfront settlement called Beechhurst, just east of the Whitestone landing, where elegant steamships leaving from the South Street Seaport would head north to Boston. The article advertised small parcels (some only 20 by 100 feet) along a waterfront park. The park is still there today. In the 1920s, Beechhurst was a retreat for Broadway stars like Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino, both involved in then a new industry: motion pictures. Wildflower is the still-standing 15-room home of Arthur Hammerstein, son of Oscar Hammerstein. In the 1940s, the Navy built minesweepers on the eastern edge of the town. According to On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Floyd Buckley, an actor and the radio voice of Popeye, lived in Beechhurst when the show aired on CBS radio in 1936, singing not of spinach but of its sponsor: “Wheatena’s me diet/ I ax ya to try it/ I’m Popeye the sailor man!” Last May, water views in the New York City neighborhood could go for less than half a million dollars: a two-bedroom apartment in Cryder Point, a 328-unit co-op on Powells Cove Boulevard, was selling for $449,000.
Excerpted from Sea Level: Five Boroughs at Water’s Edge, with text by Robert Sullivan and photographs by Elizabeth Felicella. Presented by the Center for Architecture, as part of an exhibition on view at Center at the Seaport, located at 181 Front Street, as part of the Seaport Culture District, through December 31.