In a city that lives on legend, the waterfront is the source of not just many great lessons but also great New York stories.
Eighteen films about the New York waterfront are being presented over two weeks in a special film series at the Museum of Modern Art entitled “Waterfront: A Journey around Manhattan” , in celebration of a new book by Phillip Lopate with the same title. The earliest film is Thomas Edison’s “Panorama Waterfront and the Brooklyn Bridge,” which captures a traffic ballet on the East River in 1903 that is as busy and vivid as Times Square today. The latest film is Mark Street’s 2003 “Fulton Fish Market,” a look at the waterfront market slated soon to disappear.
Separate from this series (and scheduled for HBO later in the year) is a 40-minute documentary film called “Ferry Tales,” which follows six women as they commute every day on the 8:15 a.m. Staten Island ferry. It was nominated for an Academy Award this year. There is some irony in the ferry being the subject of such heart-warming national recognition at the same time that it is the object of a flurry of lawsuits and investigations stemming from the crash last year.
But so much about the New York waterfront has this kind of built-in disconnect, its history long a study in irony and contradiction, with present-day repercussions.
The lack of parkland in the city can be blamed, in a way, on its waterfront. When city officials devised the street grid in 1811 -- the leveling of hills and the filling-in of streams that enabled most of Manhattan to be laid out in square blocks.-- they justified the resulting lack of town squares and open spaces by saying that such amenities were unnecessary, given “those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan Island” and make our natural environment “particularly felicitious.” But waterfront as open space has yet to emerge two centuries later, and we are left with the street grid’s “ruthless utilitarianism” (in the words of historians Ed Burroughs and Mike Wallace).
And just as the Battle of Brooklyn is better-known and better-celebrated than the valiant action by a handful of hearty patriots who held their position in the swamps of Westchester Creek in the Bronx, so now, it is not so surprising that Brooklyn is opening up its waterfront, while in the Bronx, the proposed Beretto Point Park at the foot of Tiffany Street seems less of a planned intention of the city, and more of a consolation prize for allowing the expansion of the sewage treatment plant next door.
Such critical history is often lost in New York, the city with no regrets, which is why the special film series at the MoMA Gramercy Theater is a worthwhile endeavor â€“ ideally helping shape New York’s waterfront of the future by taking us on a cinematic journey through our past.
When “Pickup on South Street” was filmed in 1953 the area was still the emotional and symbolic heart of the city, as it had been for more than two centuries. Today, the Historic Seaport is overshadowed and overwhelmed by the Pier 17 shopping mall. The red scare in the neighborhood today is the specter of a Big Box storing rumored to fill the gap when the Fish Market moves to the Bronx late this year.
If there’s any recent film that captures the feeling of the waterfront in this series it’s Peter Huttons’ “Time and Tide," a silent film that leaves you with the same calm and meditative feeling that you only get at the water’s edge. Even in Prospect, Central or Flushing Meadows Park one is constantly surrounding by the unnatural hum of traffic. “The Docks of New York” or the famed “On the Waterfront” with Marlon Brando might help remind us all that the struggles in play along the waterfront today are not at all new ones. Hopefully they will encourage us to explore new methods and models to address them.
Carter Craft, an urban planner, is program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.