I have a few jobs (and yes, they’re all extremely lucrative — it’s important to diversify). Can I romanticize myself, and quote from Augie March here for a minute? “Saying various jobs, you give out the Rosetta Stone, so to speak, of my entire career.” Well, it’s not quite like that, but it’s a good quote. There is something about working a few different gigs within a day that can add up to more than the individual parts. As if within the juxtaposition of the various places and situations I find myself my life is truly being made. Well a part of my life, at least.
One of my jobs, while the season lasts, is as a tour guide. I lead people on bicycle through Central Park and down the West Side bike-path to the Brooklyn Bridge. I try to spin a narrative, perhaps inherently arbitrary or at least truncated, about New York. And more and more I’m finding as a starting point Manhattan’s history as a port, and the fact that it’s all history now – there’s no port left. We’re living in a unique time in that regard. For most of Manhattan’s lifetime its shoreline has been teeming with ships. Look at an old map or early aerial photograph and you see pier upon pier stretching along the Hudson River up to 72nd Street. Most of the goods coming into New York Harbor would land here, then be shipped by barge across the river to the rail yards of New Jersey – once railroads had been invented, I mean (shipping goes back way further than that). Things only started to change after World War Two, with the coming of containerization and super-tankers, both requiring more space than Manhattan could afford. Today the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey runs four seaports, one in Brooklyn, one in Staten Island, and two in New Jersey. Combined they make up the third busiest port in the United States.
But none of it is in Manhattan anymore. And so you see things changing – the waterfront is actually a place that people want to live by, that people want to visit. It’s not a brand new change, but it is one that remains ongoing. On the West Side you have the bike-path, part of the New York City Greenway, and the Hudson River Park that runs along it, both still being developed. And on the other end of the spectrum you have the wooden supports of all the collapsed old piers, still sticking out of the water, revealing more or less of themselves as the tides change. Somewhere in between are the old industrial buildings, left over from Manhattan’s port heyday.
One of the best one’s I can think of is the Starrett-Lehigh Building, taking up the entire block between 26th & 27th Street and 11th & 12th Avenue. It’s slightly bigger in square footage than the Empire State Building, despite having only 19 floors, compared to the Empire’s 102. Its design and completion in 1932 was intended to rectify the growing cost that traffic delays were causing New York City industry. The financier William A. Starrett leased the block from the Lehigh Valley Railroad and constructed the building over its previous open air rail yard. Trains, connecting via barge to New Jersey, could still pull into the ground floor and then be brought upstairs to any level on giant freight elevators, to load or unload their wares, making “every floor a first floor.” Trucks were able to do likewise. The building itself was designed in the International Style, then popular in Europe, and was one of the few U.S. buildings included in the exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932. The general idea was to do away with symmetry and ornamentation and pay more attention to balance and a sense of volume. Does that make any sense? I’ll tell you what, the more I’ve looked at this building the more I’ve grown to like it. The bands of windows on each level together total more than eight miles long, placed end to end.
The Lehigh railroad left in 1966, unable to compete with the new(ish) interstate highway system and the continued growth of trucking. Today no industrial tenants remain, with the building holding the likes of Hugo Boss, and Martha Stewart, and a number of arts-related businesses. It’s about what you’d expect, situated as it is on the edge of Chelsea. Plus you gotta figure the natural light it gets is pretty amazing. It’s only a few blocks away from Chelsea Piers, which is where the Titanic would have docked when it reached New York, if it hadn’t sunk instead. Now it’s a well known sports complex and t.v. studio. Passenger liners themselves kind of went the way of the Titanic. Cars and trucks are still doing pretty well though, running up and down the West-Side Highway, along 12th Avenue. At least until the next thing comes along.
(Originally posted Oct. 16th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)