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!



  1. Really enjoyed your piece on the history of Battery Park City. It’s nice to see some accurate history on how it was constructed. It’s sad but probably 80% of New Yorkers do not realize Battery Park City was actually part of the Hudson River because the land of Manhattan literally ended at the West Side Highway! Information like yours is few and far between on the internet. Thanks again!

    1. Absolutely, thanks. It's completely different down there now in so many ways.