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Liquid City

For 400 years, New York has embraced, spurned, ignored, harnessed, and feared the water that made its greatness possible. Now our relationship must get even more complex.


In the hours after Hurricane Sandy sucker-punched New York and moseyed away, leaving a ring of filth, death, mold, and crumpled houses, the lesson of the storm seemed clear, if you were in a moralizing frame of mind. We had disrespected the sea—built too close, too low, too blithely—and been punished for it. All those glittering apartment towers with their whitecap-flecked views were a mistake of the market. When the first waves hit, New Yorkers suddenly understood topography they had always ignored, and any neighborhood with the word “heights” in its name (Crown, Prospect, Washington) now had a comforting ring. The storm made it obvious why people had avoided soggy landfill, at least until low-lying factory areas like Tribeca were magically made luxurious. In the future, surely real-estate ads would boast of a property’s elevation.

Seven months later, Mayor Bloomberg is doubling down on the waterfront metropolis. Even as the clock runs out on his mayoralty, last month he released a valedictory manifesto with a dry title (“A Stronger, More Resilient New York”) masking an urgent cry. New York has too long and tangled a relationship with the waterfront to retreat upland or cower behind seawalls, the report declares. Compiled by a battalion of specialists at the mayor’s behest, the 438-page analysis works its way around the city’s 520 miles of fantastically varied coastline, proposing a $20 billion array of treatments. Dunes in the Rockaways, levees in South Beach, removable walls on the East Side of Manhattan, hardened power stations, flood walls, wetlands, bulkheads, esplanades—the proposals vary sometimes block by block.

Behind that hyperrational menu of engineering options is a technocrat’s love letter to the maritime city. The charts and recommendations amount to a statement of faith that the waterfront is the city’s future as well as its past. Partly, it’s a reaffirmation of long-standing policy. Most of the major developments that Bloomberg has championed and that are now in the works—Hudson Yards, the Cornell tech campus on Roosevelt Island, Willets Point, Riverside South, the Con Ed site, Hunters Point South—flank the East and Hudson Rivers. But even if he did not have his legacy on the line, Bloomberg grasps an essential truth: This is a city built not just near the water, but over, under, and in it.

Glance at a map of New York, and what you see is a lot of blue, ringed by a piecrust of boroughs. This is a largely liquid city, a stunningly obvious fact that for decades was almost forgotten and that we’re only just beginning to remember. In 1877, Harper’s Weekly took its readers on a tour of East River landmarks, pointing out “the public buildings on Randall’s, Blackwell’s, and Ward’s islands, Hell Gate, the Hunter’s Point oil-works, the Navy-yard, the Drydock, the massive masonry of the great bridge, and the crowds of shipping down to the beautiful Battery and historic Castle Garden.” A century later, in 1977, that same itinerary would have led past forgotten wastelands, rotting structures, crumbling bulwarks, and vacant piers. That period of traumatic neglect haunts every page of the Bloomberg plan.

New York’s relationship with its waters is a long and crazy romance, fueled by manic energy, gilded dreams, violence, abandonment, and elated rediscovery. The story begins on a claustrophobic block of Pearl Street between Broad and Whitehall Streets, shadowed by office towers on all sides. In the seventeenth century, this was both the edge of New Amsterdam and its center. The town’s greatest house, Peter Stuyvesant’s two-story mansion, sat beside serried shops, wooden homes, taverns, and warehouses. Ships moored at the sole wooden dock poked into the East River. Sailors unloaded their cargo, hauled it across the dirt road to the Dutch West India Company, and lifted it into the upper-level storeroom by a pulley fastened to the brick façade. Colonists from a country under perpetual threat of drowning knew to keep their valuables raised.

For 350 years, that process—moving stuff in, working on it, and shipping it out—fueled the city’s growth. In 1730, Nicholas Bayard opened North America’s first sugar refinery on Liberty Street, a momentous event not just because it introduced New York children to the joys of commercial candy. Ships carrying sugar from the Caribbean also brought other fragrant cargoes: cocoa, molasses, limes, tobacco. Sugar and shipping produced great wealth and establishments in which to spend it: Watchmakers, booksellers, clothiers, and other ateliers hugged the docks.

One of the startling aspects of Sandy was the collision of prosperity and disaster. Urban pioneers with million-dollar views watched the storm ravage their streets. Art galleries took a beating. It’s a drama that has played out many times before, because the waterfront was always where the money was. If Madonna had stepped off a vessel at Burling Slip around 1800 and asked to be taken “to the middle of everything,” she would have been pointed toward Tontine Coffee House, at the corner of Wall and Water Streets. Built in 1793 by the city’s first stockbrokers as a place to do business in, it also served as an inn, a dining room, and a bazaar where dealers traded whatever was for sale: molasses, investments, political influence, news, and slaves. “The steps and balcony were crowded with people bidding, or listening to the several auctioneers,” a visitor reported. “The slip and the corners of Wall and Pearl-streets, were jammed up with carts, drays, and wheelbarrows; horses and men were huddled promiscuously together, leaving little or no room for passengers to pass … Every thing was in motion; all was life, bustle and activity.” The frenzy accelerated after the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal, when New York Harbor became a vestibule for all America. Soon, tides of bankers, brokers, lawyers, bookkeepers, and politicians sloshed daily between the docks and the grand new marble Merchants Exchange on Wall Street.


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