Sunday, January 10, 2021

Then and Now: Battery Park City

A New City Arises From the Sea

Battery Park City site
The Lower West Side of Manhattan, future site of Battery Park City on the left, in 1975. 
While much of New York City hasn't changed much in the past 50 or even 100 years, there is one part of the city that has undergone dramatic changes since 1970. That is the Manhattan waterfront. Until the 1980s, the waterfront - which you might think would be a treasured resource - was neglected and barren. While the 1975 picture above shows a construction zone, that wasn't much different than other areas that tended to have abandoned piers and parking lots as their main "attractions."

The above photo caught my eye because it just seemed so familiar. That's what the Manhattan waterfront looks like! Or rather, that's what it did look like to people who grew up before the city and state poured massive resources into developing it. So, this is a then-and-now comparison of the Battery Park City site located on the southwest corner of Manhattan Island.
Battery Park City site
The future Battery Park City site in 1960.
The first thing to realize is that the Manhattan waterfront originally cut to the east of Battery Park City. The above photo from 1960 shows the pre-development shoreline extending just beyond the West Side Elevated Highway. In fact, the "natural" shoreline is even further east and had been extended a block or two west ca. 1800. New York City was still the home of numerous docks in that area that accommodated the ships that had serviced the city since its founding. By 1960, shipping had declined in importance and the piers were beginning to deteriorate.
Battery Park City site
The Lower West Side of Manhattan ca. 1977
The idea of building a World Trade Center began during World War II but took decades to turn from conception to construction. Demolition of the area began in March 1966 and the Twin Towers were completed in 1973. While it was being built, the New York State Legislature in 1968 created the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) to prepare plans for future development to the west of the West Side Highway. Developments in Manhattan can take a long time, and it wasn't until 1972 that any funding appeared. Landfill excavated to build the World Trade Center was just trucked across the highway and dumped along the shoreline. This created the first landfill for the future Battery Park City.
Battery Park City site
The future site of Battery Park City in 1975.
Title to the landfill was transferred from the city to the Battery Park City Authority in 1979. From that point, construction accelerated, but it still went fairly slowly as the ground needed to be improved for the construction of large apartment buildings. By the late 1980s, most of the essential points in Battery Park City were in place, though development continued throughout the 1990s. It became a great place to live for young lawyers and stockbrokers working in the financial district and other young up-and-comers even though it was still unfinished.
Battery Park City site
The future site of Battery Park City in 1975, complete with homeless people. Naturally, befitting the times, there is trash everywhere. This shot clearly shows the deteriorating West Side Elevated Highway, finally demolished after much wrangling in the 1980s.
While neighborhoods in New York City are never "complete," Battery Park City was largely intact by 2000. The waterfront then looked completely different, with a long sidewalk, plenty of greenery, and a small port where millionaires' yachts were parked.
Battery Park City site
Battery Park City under construction in September 1982.
Of course, the entire environment changed with the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 1911. Fortunately for Battery Park City, the Twin Towers largely collapsed in a pancake fashion and did not utterly destroy the new residential buildings in Battery Park City. However, some structures such as the Winter Garder were severely damaged by falling debris, and toxic dust clouds caused a lot of residents to develop health problems.
Battery Park City site
Battery Park City ca. 2020.
While the World Trade Center had to go through a long reconstruction, Battery Park City basically shrugged off the attack. Goldman Sachs opened its world headquarters there in 2005 and you really have to look hard within Battery Park City for any remnants of the attack aside from memorials.
Battery Park City site
Battery Park City in October 2019 (Google Street View).
Today, while having been literally on the edge of devastation and destruction, Battery Park City is in its prime. As the above photo shows, the east side of West Street below the new World Trade Center remains largely as it was before the construction of Battery Park City, though the elevated highway has long since been replaced by the greatly expanded West Street. It's a remarkable illustration of beating off adversity, but that's what New York and New Yorkers are all about.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Please visit our other articles taking a quick look into the past!


Sunday, January 3, 2021

Then and Now: Manhattan Skyline From Dumbo

The Evolving City

View of Manhattan from Dumbo
Manhattan Skyline from Dumbo, 1978.
We're all familiar with the typical postcard view of the Manhattan skyline with the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground and Manhattan Island looming above it. The above photo from 1978 is a slight variation of this well-known scene, which is usually taken from the riverbank near the bridge. This is taken from a higher vantage point than usual and thereby showing the scene in some detail. I saw that grand view and wondered how it has changed over the years, and so here we examine then and now for the Manhattan skyline from the Dumbo section of Brooklyn.
View of Manhattan from Dumbo
To be sure, it's hardly a unique vantage point and has been over and over throughout the years. But, anyway, let's define terms. "Dumbo" here is not the Disney elephant, but a Brooklyn neighborhood. The name literally stands for "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass," but it spans the entire waterfront area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges (the Manhattan would be slightly to the right of this photo) along with another section of Brooklyn east to Vinegar Hill.
View of Manhattan from Dumbo
The Manhattan skyline during World War I, proving that this particular view has been preferred for over a hundred years. Looks uncannily similar, doesn't it? Note the Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, serving as the center point that the World Trade Center later filled (Shorpy).
The fact that the photo at the top of this page was taken in 1978 is particularly appropriate because that was the year that the acronym "Dumbo" was coined. Local residents feared onrushing gentrification and figured giving the area an unattractive or even forbidding nickname - think "Hell's Kitchen" - would keep out the dreaded Yuppies.
This is a view of the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn showing part of the Manhattan skyline in 1939. Already, the Woolworth Building has been dwarfed by other buildings. Credit: Associated Press.
That didn't happen, and the Yuppies (who morphed into a new breed of invaders called tech workers) could not be held back. While the nickname somewhat ironically stuck anyway, Dumbo is now the most expensive neighborhood in Brooklyn and the fourth for the entire city. Perhaps giving the area any nickname at all helped to give the somewhat ramshackle area (at the time) an identity and actually brought attention to it. Now, it's home to tech firms like Etsy, and their employees have bid up rents so much that they eventually forced out many of the original residents. It's an old, old story, and the people of San Francisco and many other places can tell you all about it.
View of Manhattan from Dumbo
I have a confession to make, and that is that I personally feel the photo at the top of the page is "the" Manhattan skyline as seen from Brooklyn. As we'll see, it has changed quite a bit in some respects, but the classic view of the Twin Towers serving as a solid background for this scene will always be my favorite. I actually prefer the new World Trade Center for several reasons, but in this one respect - the view along with the memory - I just don't think New York City looks complete without those two fateful projections into the sky. That's my hangup, I suppose, but judging from the many posters and prints of that view from the 1970s that are for sale, I doubt I'm the only one who feels that way.
View of Manhattan from Dumbo
Standard recent postcard view from the same location.
Anyway, the Manhattan skyline was irrevocably changed in September 2001, leading to its present state. The basic scene remains unchanged - a bridge over a river leading into a grand city - but the Great Clock, as Tolstoy would call it, has done its work all around it. For better or for worse.
View of Manhattan from Dumbo
Manhattan skyline from Dumbo recently ca. 2020 (Google Earth).
I hope you enjoyed this walk down through time from a specific point of view on planet earth. Changes in the world around us can be dramatic or they can be subtle, but they can't be stopped and they can't be avoided. All we can do is understand them, appreciate them, and hope for the best.
Please visit some of my other pages in my "then and now" series!

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