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New York City's Waterfront in Photographs on View at Museum of the City of New York
Diane Cook, Little Red Lighthouse, Fort Washington Park, Manhattan, 2002. Courtesy of the artist.

NEW YORK, NY.- The dramatic transformation of the New York City waterfront from a hub of industry and commerce to a vestigial space reclaimed for recreation and public use will be documented in historic photographs by Berenice Abbott, Andreas Feininger, and David Robbins, and contemporary photographs by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, in an exhibition on view September 5 through November 29, 2009, at the Museum of the City of New York. The Edge of New York: Waterfront Photographs will spotlight, through 42 photographs on view, the revolution that took place on the waterfront in the 20th century. The historic photographs feature piers and shipping facilities during the 1930s and 1940s when New York City operated the world’s busiest port. In contrast, recent photographs by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel portray the remnants of this once-thriving industrial port—warehouses, train tracks, and gantries—and the current renewal of the city’s shoreline.

The Edge of New York: Waterfront Photographs is organized in recognition of the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson's 1609 voyage, and complements exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York that helped to launch this city-wide celebration. These include: Amsterdam/New Amsterdam: The Worlds of Henry Hudson, investigating the explorer’s epic journey and the trans-Atlantic links it set into motion, on view through September 27, 2009; Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City, which re-imagines, through digital and other cutting-edge media, the quiet, wooded island that Hudson encountered in 1609, on view through October 12, 2009; and Dutch Seen: New York Rediscovered, photographs by 13 Dutch artists inspired by Hudson’s voyage and the early Dutch presence in lower Manhattan, on view through September 13, 2009.

The historic photographs on view are a fascinating reminder of the port at its peak, thriving as a center of manufacturing and commercial activity during the 1930s and 1940s, just twenty years before its near-demise. Highlights include:

• Original vintage prints from Berenice Abbott’s (1898-1991) celebrated project Changing New York, commissioned by the Museum of the City of New York in 1935 and completed in 1939

• Modern prints from original negatives of photographs by David Robbins (1912-1981), who was employed by the Federal Arts Project, a government-sponsored art program active from 1935-1943. Like the work of other documentary photographers of the day, his photographs often depict “real-life” subject matter, particularly the physical environment where people lived and worked

• Vintage prints by Andreas Feininger (1906-1999), an American photographer who is noted for his black and white images of architecture and street scenes in Manhattan ; Feininger worked as a photojournalist for the Black Star Agency when he first moved to New York in 1939, and later worked as a staff photographer for LIFE magazine (1943-1990)

• Contemporary photographs by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, two of America ’s foremost landscape photographers; their waterfront photographs, in black and white, and in color, explore over 500 miles of New York ’s shores, including those in Manhattan , Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island

A Brief History of New York City ’s Waterfront
New York City’s waterfront has always been essential to the life of the city. The harbor’s protected bay was ideal for lucrative trade, which took place first with Native Americans and ultimately with the rest of the world, providing the economic engine for the city’s growth for the next three centuries. Natural features such as tide-free conditions and the water’s depth allowed ships to easily enter and depart; furthermore, the 578-mile shoreline around New York ’s five boroughs enabled the port to grow considerably over time.

In 1624 New York ’s shoreline functioned as a trading post for the Dutch and later the English, both of whom exported fur in exchange for clothing and agricultural tools. In the 17th and 18th centuries, New York was connected to global trade routes linking South Carolina , the West Indies, and Europe ; grain, timber, cotton, tobacco, and rice were transported between the various ports, as were slaves. With the invention of steam ships in the early 19th century and the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, which connected New York and the mid-west, New York City became the nation’s largest port and one of the most important in the world. In 1790, New York handled 5.7 percent of the nation’s trade, but that increased tenfold, to 57 percent, by 1870!

The rise of manufacturing in the second half of the 19th century led to an exponential increase in trade. Coal and steel were sent from Buffalo , Pittsburgh , Cleveland , Detroit , and Milwaukee , and then directed to other cities. New York also became a manufacturing center and produced consumer goods for export. Clothing, printed materials, textiles, leather goods, tobacco products, and other consumer goods were all exported for both domestic and international markets. In 1914, New York produced over 10 percent of the manufacturing output of the entire country. The port of New York had become the busiest port in the world and remained so for the next fifty years. This boom also generated a need for labor, generating an increase in immigration, and in turn generating an overall rise in the city’s population.

Along with industrialization, changes in the technology for transporting goods impacted both the port and the infrastructure of the city. Prior to the 19th century, the East River (along lower Manhattan ) was the primary port. However, once steamers and larger ships replaced clippers and sailing ships, port activity expanded onto the Hudson River along the West Side of Manhattan. Industrial and commercial activities were also stationed close to the port so that items could be easily shipped. Over time, rail lines and highways developed alongside the ports to expedite the delivery to domestic markets.

Due to the high costs of land and labor, and the declining cost of transporting goods, manufacturing sites eventually moved further from New York and other central cities. Around this time—the 1960s—new import and export technologies came about: containerized shipping greatly reduced the time, labor, and costs associated with break-bulk and cargo shipping. Between 1968 and 1977, the percentage of containerized cargo that passed through the city’s harbors increased from 18 to 70 percent. Because container berths required a great amount of space, the port relocated again, from the Hudson and East Rivers to Newark Bay in New Jersey , leaving most of the West Side piers vacant and deteriorating or used as storage and parking facilities. Ultimately, many of these structures were abandoned altogether, leaving behind twisted architectural skeletons and haunting reminders of the once-thriving port.

The revitalization of these spaces is a recent phenomenon. The restoration of Carl Schurz Park began in the mid 1970s, as did the construction of Battery Park City, which would include public parks, housing, and commercial development. The renewal of the West Side waterfront is still an ongoing project. After many years of planning, the Hudson River Park Trust was established in 1998 and New York State passed legislation to build Hudson River Park (extending from 59th Street to Battery Park). Other projects, such as Brooklyn Bridge Park , which will run along the East River on the Brooklyn side, from the Manhattan Bridge to Atlantic Avenue , and Gantry State Park in Long Island City , are still underway. While many parks and recreational centers have been already developed along the waterfront, the renewal of these formerly industrial areas is still in progress.

The Edge of New York: Waterfront Photographs was curated by Sean Corcoran , Curator of Prints and Photographs, with the assistance of Autumn Nyiri, Senior Curatorial Associate; Susan Johnson, Curatorial Associate; and Joanna Steinberg, Research Intern. Peter Buchanan Smith served as the exhibition’s graphic designer.

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