A few weeks ago, when Mayor Bloomberg released his resiliency report, he held the press conference at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an attempt to show that the waterfront of the future is not just a pleasure zone but an old-fashioned engine of manufacturing jobs. That hope for the future rests on an evocation of the past, since the glory days of the working waterfront came during World War II. Convoys steamed through the harbor. Governors Island teemed with soldiers on their way to Europe. The Navy Yard employed 70,000 people. When the war was over, New York was left with a magnificent maritime machine, the world’s busiest port, an industrial base on overdrive, and a plentiful supply of brawn.
But by then the city and the water had started to pull apart. Even before the war, Robert Moses had laid down a concrete moat of elevated highways. He cleared entire neighborhoods that he deemed slums and exiled their populations to low-lying—and low-value—waterfront areas. As the country demobilized, the working waterfront turned into a separate universe run by a shadow government. In 1948, the New York Sun reporter Malcolm Johnson wrote a Pulitzer Prize–winning series that later inspired Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. The movie focused on one gravel-mouthed young man (played by Marlon Brando), but Johnson was more impressed with the enterprise’s imperial scale. “Here, in the world’s busiest port, with its 906 piers, 100 ferry landings, 96 car-float landings and 57 ship buildings, drydock and repair plants, criminal gangs operate with apparent immunity from the law,” he wrote. “These gangs are well organized and their control of the piers is absolute. Their greatest weapon is terror.”
Isolation created a tangible gulf between upland New York and its increasingly mythologized edge. In Arthur Miller’s 1955 play A View From the Bridge, Alfieri—the character through whom the story is told—sketches the stevedore’s habitat of Red Hook: “This is the slum that faces the bay on the seaward side of Brooklyn Bridge. This is the gullet of New York swallowing the tonnage of the world.”
From the seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth, whenever it seemed that the bond between the port and the city had reached its climax, the intensity made another leap. Fire, violence, economic depression, accidents, and planning blunders couldn’t damage that relationship for long. And yet the love did die. What finally killed it was a banal but transformational invention: a stackable, standardized steel box, eight by eight by twenty feet. The shipping container could be hoisted from freighter to wharf by a crane, then dropped on a flatbed truck or train car without unpacking. The system needed fewer hands but much more maneuvering room than the old piers could offer. Shipping moved to New Jersey, jets displaced ocean liners, and, just like that, the New York waterfront was finished.
The piers quickly devolved into a wilderness of rusting gantries and shattered concrete that nobody wanted. Nobody, that is, except those who had nowhere else to go. In his novel Nocturne for the King of Naples, Edmund White describes the piers in the seventies, abandoned except by a furtive night crew of gay men. “For me there was the deeper vastness of the enclosed, ruined cathedral I was entering. Soaring above me hung the pitched roof, wings on the downstroke, its windows broken and lying at my feet … I smelled (or rather heard) the melancholy of an old, waterlogged industrial building.”
Virtually every old urban port in the world suffered the trauma of containerization and has been groping for some way to heal. Amsterdam is turning piers into the foundations for apartment buildings. Oslo has perched an opera house above its fjord. Hamburg is rolling out a huge multidecade development. Barcelona created a beachfront strip of outdoor leisure. Hong Kong is mired in perpetual planning. What makes New York’s waterfront unique is that it is so long, jagged, and varied. Consequently, so is the story of its reclamation, which has taken innumerable forms: restoring the marshes of Jamaica Bay, populating Battery Park City, rebuilding a popular restaurant at the Dyckman Street Marina, lining the rivers with bikeways, nurturing the Navy Yard, adapting old ocean-liner piers for cruise ships, installing ferry stops, putting in skate parks, cleaning up the Bronx River, and preserving abandoned warehouses.
By the early nineties, all that was left of Warren & Wetmore’s 1910 piers was a rusted skeleton and a history of good intentions. Then Roland Betts, a co-owner (along with George W. Bush) of the Texas Rangers, launched a plan to convert them into a vast sports facility. At the time, just crossing to the river side of West Street was an adventure; driving golf balls toward New Jersey from the Lusitania’s old dock seemed like a lunatic fantasy. Nevertheless, Betts’s Chelsea Piers opened in 1995, catalyzing an entire new neighborhood. Hudson River Park snaked around it, Tenth Avenue became a fine address, and the warehouses turned into the world’s preeminent art district. On a drive up the West Side, the past fifteen years’ new buildings click by almost too quickly to count: the trio of Richard Meier towers at Perry Street, the behemoth that replaced the old Superior Ink factory, the sailing ship of an office building that Frank Gehry built for Barry Diller, glass towers flanking the High Line. The lawless waterfront became a backdrop for the lives of the affluent. Then Sandy hit on October 29, 2012, and five feet of saltwater raced through the Chelsea Piers complex, across West Street, and into the galleries.