Eventually, they returned, of course. No horror was enough to weaken the magnetic power of trade, so the waterfront became ever more frightening, chaotic, and thrilling. By the mid-nineteenth century, logs floated down from Maine were herded toward the Steinway piano factory in Astoria. Floating grain elevators bobbed back and forth from dock to train depot. The waterways were so congested that you could practically have hopped from deck to deck clear across the Hudson. The traffic crammed warehouses with exotic goods: A list that appeared in Harper’s in 1877 includes half a million pounds of annatto (“for coloring ‘country butter’ ”), 64 million pounds of brimstone (“destined to regions infernal?”), and 170,000 pounds of opium.
As authorities tried to bring order to the waterfront, shippers turned it into a jumble of makeshift, foul piers. Cattle brought by train from the West were driven through the streets, onto vessels bound for England. Passengers and pickpockets milled among the horse-drawn carts that stood waiting for their loads. Freight trains huffed along Tenth Avenue, regularly crushing wagons and killing pedestrians.
To these industrious throngs, the notion that New Yorkers would one day trot along the waterfront for their health and pleasure—or that the rich would live there voluntarily—would have seemed absurd. Waterfront real estate was too necessary to allow for leisure. Drinking was welcome, though. At the eastern end of 57th Street, an open-air beer garden, the Felsenkeller, had an orchestra and bowling tournaments. Other such establishments were far less wholesome. Disembarking sailors had only to stumble a few yards into back-alley taverns that regularly changed sign and address but always purveyed the same fetid atmosphere and cheap rum. In his impressively morbid survey Low Life, Luc Sante tells of Sadie the Goat, a two-bit Hudson River pirate who wore around her neck the ear she had lost in a bar fight, and of the Fourth Ward Hotel, which “had convenient trapdoors through which corpses could be disposed directly into the East River.”
While industry colonized the shores, right-thinking citizens agitated to make the waterfront serve a social function, too. Floating baths, two-story structures built around a courtyard of river water, provided places for the poor to cool off. But recreation required a battle. In 1866, after decades of failed attempts to preserve various shoreline patches as parkland, Upper West Side property owners managed to get the cliffs beneath their houses set aside for Riverside Park and gave the job of designing it to Frederick Law Olmsted. But the residents’ desire for picturesqueness collided with the need for a flat zone where the city’s dirty work could take place. In the turn-of-the-century views painted by George Bellows, elegantly dressed West Siders promenade along winding paths, gazing appreciatively across the icy Hudson at the Palisades—and paying no attention to the clanking strip of train tracks, moorings, and dumps immediately below.
It was the ocean liner that finally brought some class to the West Side. The city, embarrassed that visitors who crossed in modern luxury disembarked in squalor, finally overhauled a tumbledown stretch of shacks and rotting docks between 15th and 23rd Streets. Warren and Wetmore, the architects of Grand Central Terminal, designed a suite of modern enclosed piers faced in noble granite. In 1910, the Times reported the project’s cost at $25 million (more than $600 million today) and declared its completion “a matter for general congratulation.” The Lusitania and the Mauretania dropped anchor in Chelsea. The Titanic was supposed to do the same.
Maybe it’s just the foreshortening effect of looking back over a long history, but the swings in the waterfront’s fortunes seem to get wilder and more frequent as you move into the twentieth century. Good and bad times overlapped, and it’s astonishing how little each affected the other. Because it was so useful and also picturesque, the waterfront was a battleground between the bucolic past and the industrial age. The illustrated book The East River contains a surreal pair of photographs from the twenties: One shows a family of farmers on hands and knees, crouched over furrowed fields in the Bronx near Soundview Avenue; the other shows a factory just across the East River in College Point, spitting out Sikorsky aircraft. Even during the Depression, as fewer ships tied up or rolled off the drydock, and stevedores huddled around dockside fires waiting for jobs that never came, the eighteenth century and the twentieth were working out some kind of coexistence.
In 1938, a murderous hurricane threw itself at eastern Long Island, erasing dunes, splintering homes, and taking a swipe at the city before rampaging through southern New England. If ever a weather event should have nudged a complacent area into protecting itself from a potentially hostile ocean, that storm would have been it. But that time, there was no plan, just the tacit assumption that the waterfront and the weather would have to call a truce. Hamptons mansions replaced modest houses, and the Manhattan seawall was patched up, to cries of “Whaddayagonnado?” Just as the world was exploding into war, New Yorkers cultivated a feeling of invulnerability that bordered on the delusional. A few weeks after Pearl Harbor, a German U-boat snuck past Coney Island and found the Manhattan skyline merrily illuminated, silhouetting ships and making them that much easier to torpedo. The career of the glamorous French liner Normandie—a glamorous Art Deco palace, as long as the Chrysler Building is tall—ended just as sloppily. In 1942, the liner was moored at Pier 88 (at West 48th Street), undergoing conversion for military use, when sparks from a welder’s torch started a fire. A few hours later, she keeled over, settling into the river sludge, where she lay rusting till the war ended. It would have been hard to find a more vivid omen.