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Because Every Bit of This Little Island Has Led Multiple Lives

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Con Ed's First Avenue power plant, in its final days.  

On a street corner near you, a forest grove became a farm, which gave way to a clump of wooden houses, which were in turn replaced by brownstones, then by a 40-story beast. The building you see above, part of the group on First Avenue from 35th to 41st Streets, spent a century piping steam and electricity to much of Manhattan. (The lintel of its recently demolished doorway read N.Y. EDISON COMPANY, which long ago became Con Ed.) It’s coming down because Con Ed sold the site to a developer, Sheldon Solow, for $630 million.

At the start of the twentieth century, the East Side waterfront was a hardworking, hardscrabble place. To the north of this plant lay stockyards and slaughterhouses. To its south lay the immigrant slums of the Lower East Side. (The slaughterhouses, in a bit of tidy symbolism, gave way to the United Nations. The slums, barely renovated, now house the hipster grandkids of the immigrants.) The river then was for dumping and lading. It was a working tool, a way to get barges of coal to the power plant, not a leisure resource. It was anything but picturesque.

Today, as a less sooty century gets under way, the waterside isn’t avoided—it’s coveted. The Con Ed site was a gem because it’s the last big hunk of prime Manhattan riverfront that’ll ever be sold this way—not assembled bit by bit over years but bought whole. Regardless of how you feel about a six-block run of 40-story apartment blocks, that’s what New York is now, and will likely be for some time. Coal has given way to condos, power supply to power consumption. A look at Tudor City, built nearby in the twenties, neatly encapsulates the about-face. Several of its towers turn windowless walls to the river, because nobody wanted to see those grubby docks. Solow’s condos will no doubt advertise “Riv Vu,” and those facing the water will probably bring in about a billion dollars.


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