Monday, August 25, 2014

NYC's Old Piers Not What They Appear
A 1943 map of Lower Manhattan's piers

Much has been made about the offshoring of America's manufacturing work.  When people begin talking about America's stagnant middle class, or about how blue collar jobs don't pay what they used to, the conversation usually ends up with something about how everything you buy at Walmart these days is made in China.

Of course, I don't shop at Walmart, on principle.  But just about everything I buy at Target is made in China, too.  Is that uncanny, or what?

Recently, I read an article* in a Christian magazine about all of the dilapidated piers ringing the lower half of Manhattan Island, and how those piers from yesteryear symbolize the downfall of America's manufacturing might.  Look at how great a manufacturing empire New York City used to be, the writer of this article implied, since these piers used to see products being shipped from Gotham to every corner of the world.

Now, almost all of those piers are gone.  In their place, sticking a couple of feet out of the water, black with rot, are rows of wooden poles that used to support the wooden piers upon which Manhattan's fabled maritime industry flourished.  Seeing them from the shore, or from a sightseeing boat, it can appear to the naked eye as though the city has suffered a mortal blow in its demise as a global freight clearinghouse.  Sure, a handful of newer piers have been remodeled for recreational purposes, and a few continue to serve the luxury cruise ship industry, but a commercial freighter hasn't docked in Manhattan for decades.

Not that ocean shipping has abandoned New York Harbor, however.  Quite the opposite:  over in New Jersey, near Staten Island, and behind the Statue of Liberty, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey runs a thriving freight operation for some of the largest commercial steamships in the world.  But those modern steel and concrete piers are a world away from New York City's historic waterfront.

Brooklyn's Red Hook terminal is the city's last redoubt for ocean freight, but it's a shadow of its former self.  Besides, its days may be numbered, too.  As Brooklyn continues to explode in popularity for millennials and new urbanists priced out of Manhattan, its waterfront districts closest to Manhattan are experiencing a sea-change in land use patterns, with residential construction and parkland replacing shipping and industrial concerns.  It's quite likely that the business currently handled at Red Hook will be forced to relocate to another part of Brooklyn - if not New Jersey - if the borough continues with its aggressive gentrification.

Indeed, what's going on with Brooklyn's Red Hook terminal is representative of what has already happened with the piers that used to spike out from Manhattan's shoreline.  But drawing a correlation between New York City's changing waterfront and the offshoring of America's manufacturing jobs isn't as easy to make. 

First and foremost, we need to understand why Manhattan came to be the epicenter of America's commercial might.  And that has to do with its unique geography.  The only reason Europeans settled on Lower Manhattan Island was because it was easy to defend.  It is the pointy tip of an island, with a relatively narrow stretch of land they needed to patrol at the colony's northernmost border (along which a now-famous wall was built).  You could see who was entering the harbor to the south, and who was coming down both rivers on either side.  When warfare, disgruntled natives, greedy explorers, opposing national interests from the Old World, and swashbuckling adventurers are all running into each other in the New World's frontier, such tactical considerations as location, location, location are critically important.

And even today, real estate - "location, location, location" - remains the most powerful force on the relatively small island.

In its beginning, of course, Manhattan's immediate success as a European colony came not just from its defensible location, but its strategic trading partnerships, which created its maritime economy.  Explorers, politicians, military personnel, and ship after ship of settlers eager for a new start in the New World came through what became New York, while America's bounty of natural resources was shipped back to Europe.  Between all of the coming and going, the city never stopped growing.

However, Manhattan was never an ideal manufacturing locale, although plenty of entrepreneurs were able to build fantastic fortunes on the island.  Some manufacturing companies started off producing implements for the island's specific economy, and then grew as our country grew.  But the more space an enterprise required, better success was achieved in areas of the city that were less densely populated, such as Queens and Brooklyn.  Plus, across the Hudson River lay mainland America, and as our young country grew and flourished, New Jersey eventually proved its logistical and economic superiority to Manhattan when it came to making stuff - and shipping it.

Remember, Manhattan is as much about real estate as it is anything else.  It's a relatively narrow island between two rivers that empty out into the world's second-largest ocean.  And maritime travel was the only intercontinental travel known to our planet until the 20th Century.  This meant that most of Manhattan's waterfront was teeming with factories, warehouses, and other gritty industrial uses.  Nobody went down to the waterfront for a casual stroll, or to soak in the view, or smell the sea air.  Actually, considering that today, much of Manhattan's border is lined with parks, tree-lined streets, and luxury apartment buildings, some would argue that its waterfront now is the most productive it's ever been, at least in terms of its value not only for property owners, but as a quality-of-life amenity that all of the city's residents can enjoy.

Getting back to manufacturing, however, brings us to problems even bigger than Manhattan's scarcity of affordable raw land for factories.  Being an island, Manhattan posed significant logistical dilemmas for getting manufactured goods to the rest of the country.  You had to either hire a barge, negotiate a tight tunnel, or cross a congested bridge.  Meanwhile, over in New Jersey, all you needed were surface roads or rails to take your goods deeper into America, and you could skip the whole cross-the-river drama.

At the same time, ships from abroad began docking in New Jersey, unloading their goods directly at the mainland's railheads, and loading up freight from across America without the added expense and bother of getting it across the Hudson.  Eventually, as American manufacturing matured throughout the Lower 48, shipments avoided the congestion of New York and New Jersey entirely, shifting through more modern ports in Maryland, Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and California.

Not that Manhattan's piers could have hoped to remain competitive as shipbuilding techniques continued to change.  They may have been state-of-the-art for their day, but those wooden sailing ships that first docked along Manhattan's shore, and then the steel-hulled freighters, pale in comparison to the behemoth steamships used by the global maritime industry today.   Those old vessels were shaped like Manhattan Island itself:  as skinny as it is long.  Today's new ones, however, are so huge, they could never hope to fit into Manhattan's existing commercial slips.  They're so tall, the Brooklyn Bridge would have had to be torn down for the East River piers to be usable.  It's easy to see how simply relocating New York Harbor's freight business to the relatively adaptable piers in New Jersey makes the most sense, particularly in capitalism's bottom-line universe.

And speaking of capitalism's bottom-line universe; those old, abandoned piers of Manhattan's yesteryear are merely an artifact of what we call progress.  New York City's economy is hardly the worse for wear now that virtually all of its maritime industry has moved away.  Anybody living there or visiting can plainly see that the city has transitioned remarkably well from a manufacturing one to a service-based one.  What there is to argue about is whether that's been good for America as a whole... or not.  After all, New York's prime industry, Wall Street and too-big-to-fail finance, plays a powerful role in forcing manufacturing jobs from America to lowest-common-denominator locales in the Majority World.

Years ago, one of the reasons why I left New York City involved the atrocious cost of living in the region.  And why is that?  Costs are high because plenty of other people still want to live there, and can make lots of money while doing so.  The city is thriving today.

Nevertheless, when I see photos of Manhattan's trendy, transformed riverfront along the Hudson, and look at those stubs of wood still sticking out into the river, where piers used to hunch over the water, I tend to react just like the author of the article I'm writing about.  I catch myself being more nostalgic for what I imagine they used to mean for the city, than what they actually mean for the city now.

Sure, manufacturing's ghost is all that smells of soot, grease, and the body odor of factory laborers and longshoremen in the industrial buildings that now serve as luxury lofts and chic nightclubs for New York's postindustrial elites.

But frankly, would you want that old New York back?  Those rotting stubs of wood let us contemplate with rose-colored glasses an era that was dirtier, noisier, more dangerous, and more corrupt than we care to realize.

About the only thing I'd like to have back from New York City's past are it's housing prices.  Go back far enough, like maybe a century or so, and they'd probably be affordable for us today!

* I'm getting kinda tired of identifying people by the errors I find in their articles, so I'm not gonna do it with this one.  Okay?

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