Mapping New York's Shoreline, 1609-2009
Henry Wellge’s “Greatest New York”, published by The New York Times Company in 1911 and featured in a new exhibition at the New York Public Library, places the city within a liquid embrace. Its foreground features the Jersey City waterfront. New Jersey commuters transferred from Central Railroad of New Jersey trains onto ferries bound for Lower Manhattan, tracing a ferry route first established in 1661. The New Jersey ferry slips are at center in the detail below.
“. . . I became aware of the old island that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees . . . had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Henry Hudson and his crew may have sailed for the Dutch, but they were hired Englishmen, and whatever wonder they felt on beholding a new world would have been incidental to the job of finding an open sea route to Asia. What matters in Fitzgerald’s case is the inspiration he found in the region’s now 400 year old recorded history, and the water imagery it provided to what may well be the greatest page of American literature.
A nice contrast can be found in the pungent grittiness of Joseph Mitchell’s 1951 essay, The Bottom of the Harbor: ”The bulk of the water in New York Harbor is oily, dirty and germy. Men on the mud suckers, the big harbor dredges, like to say you could bottle it and sell it for poison. The bottom of the harbor is dirtier than the water. In most places it is covered with a blanket of sludge that is composed of silt, sewage, industrial wastes and clotted oil. The sludge is thickest in the slips along the Hudson, in the flats on the Jersey Side of the Upper Bay, and in backwaters such as Newtown Creek, Wallabout Bay, and the Gowanus Canal.”
There’s fuel for the imagination on all levels at the New York Public Library’s new exhibition, Mapping New York’s Shoreline, 1609-2009, from the dauntingly sketchy maps Hudson had to work with, setting out 400 years ago, to a 1905 New York Bay Pollution Commission map uneasily overlaying sewer outlets on shellfish beds.
The 1907 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn by G.W. Bromley & Co. features names of Coney Island amusement parks and their rides, including Trip to the Moon, Canals of Venice and Thompson’s Scenic Railway. The blue circle at left is labeled “Friede’s Steel Globe Tower- 700 ft. high,” testifying to the credibility of a proposal to build the world’s first single-building resort. It was to have been the largest steel structure and the tallest and most voluminous building ever. As noted in Rem Koolhaas’s riff on the project in Delirious New York, “by 1908 it is clear that the most impressive architectural project ever conceived is a fraud”.
For anyone interested in maps or New York history, the show is a must-see. The maps range from crude to spectacular, and are accompanied by aerial views and period images the captions of which make for an effortless education in city history. One of the show’s great lessons is the extent to which New York owes its existence and prominence to waters that extend far beyond its own 578 miles of waterfront. It’s easy today to think of New York as an isolated spike driven into the globe, but as the show makes clear, its discovery, creation and rise were all about its place in the continuum of the world’s waters.
The six-inch wide maps of the Hudson River in the foreground are nine and twelve feet long. The longer one, at right, an 1846 “Panorama of the Hudson from New York to Albany,” includes elevation views of topography and structures on each side of the River at a scale that might pass for accurate. The Hudson, and later the Erie Canal, linked New York to the heartland, enhancing its greatness as a port and helping propel it to the status of a world capital.
The exhibition runs through June 26, 2010. The Library is open from 10-6, Monday; 10-9, Tuesday and Wednesday; 10-6 Thursday through Saturday; and 1-5 on Sunday.
And while you’re at it . . .
Join a tour of the Library conducted by docents, starting from the reception desk at 11AM and 2PM, Monday through Saturday, and at 2PM on Sunday. According to The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Guide to New York City Landmarks, “the main building for the New York Public Library, the design for which was won in competition by Carrère & Hastings, is perhaps the greatest masterpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture in the United States.” The building’s exterior is being restored in preparation for its 2011 centenary, with impressive results already visible on its Bryant Park façade.
Visit Kinokuniya Books at 1073 Sixth Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets; upstairs it has one of the city’s better selections of architecture books (particularly Japanese titles) and an airy café overlooking Bryant Park, itself a designated scenic landmark.
Pay homage to Raymond Hood’s impressive American Radiator Building of 1923-24, overlooking Bryant Park from the south side of 40th Street (#40). The Guide to New York City Landmarks says its “gold crown was originally brightly lit at night to simulate the glow of a radiator.” Though modestly scaled, the building is one of New York’s great skyscrapers. It has been converted into the Bryant Park Hotel. Speaking of maps, go inside and pick up a free Manhattan Concierge Map. Typically available at Manhattan hotels, this map is clear, detailed and far more useful as a subway map than the MTA’s – for Manhattan below 135th Street, anyway.
Step into the Library of The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen at 20 West 44th Street (11-7, Mon. & Thurs., 11-5, Tues. & Wed, & 10-5, Fri.). A few steps down from the busy Midtown sidewalk, the three-story skylit library is one of those surprise spaces from another world, like Grand Central’s Campbell Apartment. A New York Times piece a few years ago said “visiting the society conjures up thoughts of old wood and forged metal and unlocks the timeless secrets of money, power, commerce and industry at the heart of the city.” Originally designed as a boys’ school by Lamb & Rich, architects of Teddy Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill home, Greenpoint’s Astral Apartments and the main buildings of Barnard College and Pratt Institute, the building was bought by the now 224-year-old Society in 1899 and enlarged in 1903-05 to a design by Ralph S. Townsend with donations from member and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. The building is a designated New York City landmark on a block rich with them, including McKim, Mead & White’s Harvard Club (#27), the New York Yacht Club, with its windows shaped like Spanish galleon sterns (#37), the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (#42) and the Algonquin Hotel (#59-61).