My closest estimation of the bulbous V-point, the magnetic southern tip of Manhattan Island, is the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.
It's a sunny winter day and, fortified by two cups of coffee and a poppyseed bagel, I head to the terminal where one catches the boat to Staten Island.
For as long as I can remember, the scuzzy-looking terminal that was here until recently, abounding in pizza outlets, couldn't have been less impressive if it tried. It was to have been replaced long ago, first by a sober office tower designed by Kohn Pederson Fox, then by Venturi, Scott-Brown and Associates' playful terminal with a giant, iconic clock. But Staten Island politician Guy Molinari objected to having to stare at this whimsical timepiece, which he found insufficiently respectful of his oft-late-to-work commuters, and it was scrapped. Then architect Frederick Schwartz got the assignment, and has remade the terminal into an attractive, if very modest, corrugated steel box with waterfront views from an elevated public deck wrapped in blue and aquamarine glass.
I enter Battery Park, or, as it is historically known, the Battery (so named because of its cannons, which originally protected the harbor). It remains one of the most congenial parts of New York, its tree-filled grounds decompressing you from the financial district. Along the promenade, with its new, ergonomically correct walnut benches and pink marble backrests, you have the luxury to gaze out at the bay, then back to the parade of foreign tourists, locals, teenage girls arm-in-arm. "My imagination is incapable of conceiving any thing of the kind more beautiful than the harbour of New York," the visiting Frances Trollope wrote in 1832; "I doubt if ever the pencil of Turner could do it justice, bright and glorious as it rose before us . . . upon waves of liquid gold." The unhurried, ceremonial pace of meanderers along the promenade suggests a Spanish paseo-in any case, not what one usually associates with New York. The fact that the Battery has functioned in this way for so long adds to its appeal.
"In the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and four," wrote Washington Irving, "on a fine afternoon in the glowing month of September, I took my customary walk upon the Battery . . . where the gay apprentice sported his Sunday coat, and the laborious mechanic, relieved from his dirt and drudgery of the week, poured his weekly tale of love into the half averted ear of the sentimental chambermaid." During the day the park seems always popular, partly because the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferries leave from it, partly because it has such juicy vistas. A well-worn recreation space, not even aspiring to the bucolic, the Battery works as a city park should, circulating people from the nearby skyscraper-thick streets to the water's edge.
Performers work the tourist crowds who are waiting for the next ferry. A West Indian with dreadlocks is playing "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" on steel drums to one bunch, while an African contortionist in black shirt and red pants entertains another by twisting his legs around his neck and walking on his rump. Not an entirely appetizing sight, to my mind, though he releases his body-knot and comes up cheerfully for air, declaring, "Okay, folks, one dollar. Japanese-two dollars." A paterfamilias tells his children looking through coin-operated binoculars: "That's where Vito Corleone came over on a boat."
I wander over to the circular Castle Garden, historically the site of a fort, summer tea garden, concert hall, immigrant processing center, and aquarium, and now the place to buy tickets to the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island ferry. This moldy cinnamon doughnut, a spiffed-up ruin, has been rebuilt and remodeled so many times you would be hard pressed to feel any aura of the authentic emanating from its stones. But the gesture of retaining it is appreciated.
Originally built between 1808 and 1811, it was constructed about two hundred feet offshore in thirty feet of water, like a stable boat. This engineering feat was largely the achievement of Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams, who covered the fort in stone thick enough to withstand hostile naval bombardment, and added iron filings to the mortar that held the façade together, which made the walls more durable and adaptable to a watery environment. Williams, one of the first professional military engineers in America, also designed Castle Williams on nearby Governors Island. In all, four batteries were installed to defend the harbor, and may have in fact helped dissuade the British from attacking the city during the War of 1812. A wooden bridge connected Castle Clinton to the Battery in Manhattan; ultimately it was made redundant by landfill.
In 1824 the federal government gave the fort to the city, which turned it into Castle Garden, a celebrated entertainment hall, where "the Swedish Nightingale," Jenny Lind, first sang on her American tour. In 1850, after the premiere of La Sonnambula, New York's indefatigable diarist, George Templeton Strong, wrote: "Everybody goes, and nob and snob, Fifth Avenue and Chatham Street, sit side by side fraternally on the hard benches. Perhaps there is hardly so attractive a summer theatre in the world as Castle Garden when so good a company is performing as we have here now. Ample room; cool sea breeze on the balcony, where one can sit and smoke and listen and look out at the bay studded with the lights of anchored vessels, and white sails gleaming. . . ."
In 1855, during a peak immigration period (more than 319,000 immigrants reached the New York port in 1854 alone), Castle Garden was converted into a reception hall for the entering masses. Before this innovation, those who came over in steerage had been routinely fleeced by runners at the docks, who stole their luggage or steered the newcomers to outrageously overpriced boardinghouses. These runners and touts often spoke the same language as their confused countrymen, the better to exploit their trust. Entering at Castle Garden, however, the immigrant could take stock, receive honest advice, and make further transportation arrangements at normal rates. In William Dean Howells's fine novel A Hazard of New Fortunes, the Marches approve of "the excellent management of Castle Garden, which they penetrated for a moment's glimpse of the huge rotunda, where the emigrants first set foot on our continent. . . . No one appeared troubled or anxious; the officials had a conscientious civility; the government seemed to manage their welcome as well as a private company or corporation could have done."
It is interesting to contrast this rosy picture with the testimony of one who actually went through the processing line, Abraham Cahan (in his classic immigrant novel, The Rise of David Levinsky): "We were ferried over to Castle Garden. . . . The harsh manner of the immigration officers was a grievous surprise to me. As contrasted with the officials of my despotic country, those of a republic had been portrayed in my mind as paragons of refinement and cordiality. My anticipations were rudely belied. 'They are not a bit better than Cossacks,' I remarked to Gitelson. . . . These unfriendly voices flavored all America with a spirit of icy inhospitality that sent a chill through my very soul."
The immigrant station at Castle Garden was closed in 1890; two years later the much more famous one at Ellis Island opened. In 1900 Castle Garden reinvented itself as the city's aquarium, around which time the journalist John C. Van Dyke compared it to "a half-sunken gas tank." Now Ellis Island beckons as the revered national landmark of immigration, while the rotunda-less, roofless Castle Garden operates as a sort of glorified tickets booth to that attraction.
This area near the tip of the island was once thick with piers and docks. There used to be some seventy-five piers between the Battery and 59th Street. Now there are only thirteen left. The New York system of narrow, perpendicular "finger" piers that jutted out one after another, each holding a ship at a time, came about because the merchants could pack more vessels in that way, on an island with a fairly limited shoreline, than by having each boat tie up parallel to the land. The very advantage of New York's port, its sheltered harbors and deep waters, where any wooden pier would do to tie up at, deterred the city fathers from the large capital investments made by less geographically fortunate ports, such as Liverpool, which built majestic, palatial stone piers to hold off the fierce, crashing ocean waves. A slapdash setup ("the miserable wharves, and slip-shod, shambling piers of New York," Herman Melville wrote in his 1849 novel Redburn) was also justified at the time by the argument that ships kept getting wider and longer; thus it made little sense to "commit" to an expensive, heavy pier that would only have to be changed again in several years.
Besides pragmatic reasons, there almost seems something in the character of New Yorkers that prefers the rough-and-ready, provisional solution to the perfected, built-for-the-ages approach, just as there is a tolerance for dirt and clutter that far exceeds the standards of tidiness in many metropolises. The New Yorker gets a thing off and running and says, "Good enough." Perhaps it has something to do with the city's polyglot immigrant population, which never developed a culturally homogeneous, bourgeois communal standard, as in Holland or Japan, or perhaps it stems from the fact that, unlike other colonies in the New World, New York was not founded to serve some religious or civic utopian ideal, but solely to make money. Whatever the reasons, by 1872 an editorial writer in Scribner's Monthly was already commenting: "It must be a matter of serenest satisfaction and the most complacent pride that we, who have the reputation of being a city of money-getters and worshipers of the useful and the material, can point to our docks as the dirtiest, most insufficient, and the least substantial of any possessed by any first-class city on the face of the globe. To the strangers who visit us from abroad we can proudly say: You have accused us of supreme devotion to the material grandeur of our city and our land. Look at our rotten and reeking docks, and see how little we care for even the decencies of commercial equipment. . . ."
The waterfront was especially notorious for its muck. Edith Wharton, recalling that era in her memoir A Backward Glance, wrote: "I remember once asking an old New Yorker why he never went abroad, and his answering: 'Because I can't bear to cross Murray Street.' It was indeed an unsavoury experience, and the shameless squalor of the purlieus of the New York docks in the 'seventies dismayed my childish eyes. . . ."
On the northern end of the Battery sits Pier A, another eternally promised restoration job. No one can pass by that elegant, dilapidated Victorian structure (formerly the Fireboat House) without admiring its Beaux Arts shell, and fantasizing some amazing use for it. A visitors' center with retail or restaurant is proposed, you learn with a thud. The developer who was most recently brought in to revive it, a loyal Republican appointed by Governor George Pataki, claims to have gone bankrupt, and now there is much finger-pointing all around.
Pier A was originally one of two piers (the other, Pier 1, is now buried under landfill) to be constructed out of granite and ornamented with tinplate. In 1870, Peter Cooper, the millionaire manufacturer, urged the city to build all-stone piers, but his advice was not taken, except for these two, whose construction proved so costly that the rest were made of timber, and are now, appropriately, in various stages of rotting. Pier A is one of the only tangible signs left of that heroic and ingenious, if now mostly forgotten, effort-the greatest public-works project of its period-to improve the New York waterfront, which dragged on for six decades, from 1870 to 1930. (So important was it that George McClellan, the former Civil War general and 1864 presidential candidate, was appointed as its first engineer-in-chief, to lead New York City's Department of Docks and oversee its challenges.) As ambitious, in its way, as the Brooklyn Bridge, employing more than a thousand workers, the Department of Docks' project erected a continuous concrete bulkhead or riverwall below sea level to "hold in" Manhattan Island and protect it from ramming boat hulls; transformed the island's geography by landfill; removed underwater reefs and shoals; constructed dozens of piers; dredged where necessary; and in every other way helped promote the Port of New York as a thriving commercial enterprise.
"The netting of the whale-in this case, the enclosing of its outline by the construction of bulkheads following the shape of the island-was a military action against a natural landscape, initially led by a Civil War general who was determined to triumph. The whale was to be molded or cast into a tight corset," wrote architect John Hejduk. It seems a paradox that, on the one hand, so much engineering effort was expended on recasting the waterfront's infrastructure, and, on the other, so little of the civic and cultural pride that had been lavished on other municipal projects percolated through sufficiently to elevate it above the makeshift. Le Corbusier, visiting New York in the early 1940s, wrote: "Along the avenue which skirts the river, the docks and ships form the teeth of a comb as far as you can see. The arrangement is clear, logical, perfect: nevertheless, it is hideous, badly done, and incongruous; the eye and the spirit are saddened. Ah! If the docks could be done over again!"
The docks will never be done over again, for shipping, but Le Corbusier may get his wish in the form of new recreational piers proposed for Hudson River Park. When the day arrives and they are all in place, surfboards and skates agleam, a part of us may long for the old, slipshod comb. Speaking of which, after September 11, with the sudden need for increased ferry service, a temporary, tentlike ferry dock has been constructed of vinyl and steel rods, and run perpendicular to the midsection of Pier A, into the Hudson River. A vendor has installed a wagon inside the tent to sell hot dogs and pretzels to the waiting travelers. It is pleasing to see the ad-hoc, provisional genius of the New York docks surfacing again.
Before leaving the Battery, I note the rather morbid monument to the Merchant Marines, an academic-realist statue by ex-Pop artist Marisol, which depicts a seemingly fruitless attempt to rescue drowning seamen, who disappear between the incoming tide and emerge from its ebb.
BATTERY PARK CITY
Where the Battery is porous, grungy, democratic, Battery Park City is controlled, selective, and polite. Battery Park City's southern end has an imposing iron gate, with a security guard's sentinel hut, and signs that say do not enter. Curiously enough, the gates have been left open in one area, a test of your sense of entitlement: if you feel sufficiently privileged (i.e., some combination of white/middle class/educated/solvent), you may pass through them into Battery Park City without announcing your presence to the guard, who is there, it would seem, to keep away only people with self-doubts.
Copyright © 2005 by Phillip Lopate. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.