Waterfront Manhattan: From Henry Hudson to the High Line by Kurt C. Schlichting, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. 256 pages.
By Erin Becker (Long Island Maritime Museum)
The history of the New York metropolitan area has always been intrinsically connected to the waterfront, though it is easy to lose sight of the maritime environment within a history centered on a labyrinth of city streets and industry. In Waterfront Manhattan: From Henry Hudson to the High Line, sociologist Kurt Schlichting traces the history and development of New York City from the colonial era to the present day through the lens of the waterfront. He argues New York became a global power through the development of New York Harbor and that the history of the Manhattan waterfront is a battle between “public and private control of what is New York City’s most priceless asset” (Schlichting 1). Schlichting traces out a narrative in which, from the colonial era until the Civil War, the City of New York gave the waterfront over to private interests as a way to build much needed maritime infrastructure. As private interests failed to meet maintenance needs and the lack of space at the waterfront threatened profits, the city of New York took back the waterfront, allowing the port to dominate. However, technological innovations and a continual lack of space resulted in the decline of the Manhattan waterfront. This death allowed a reimagining of the waterfront as public space- but only for those who could afford it.
Schlichting’s argument is strengthened by his chronological organization. His first chapter serves as a roadmap for the rest of his work. In chapter two, he argues private enterprise built maritime infrastructure through the practice of granting water lots; the port of New York, once financed by private capital, came to dominate the maritime commerce of the country. In chapter three, he determines the rise of the port depended on the cotton web. The cotton web was facilitated by New York’s packet ships, slavery, and the industrial revolution in the textile mills of Liverpool. In chapter four, he examines New York’s inland waterways, transatlantic immigration, and industrialization; he demonstrates the success of the packet lines and the expansion of New York’s waterway empire solidified the port as the most important in the country, but limited space remained a problem. In chapter five, he argues New York’s ascendancy depended on a large surplus labor force living along the shore; he describes the day labor system. He touches on the difficult lives of the people – longshoremen, sailors, and their families- in these waterfront neighborhoods. In chapter 6, he contends the “hybrid system of public-private control” of the waterfront did not keep pace with the city’s needs (Schlichting 130). Neglect, overcrowding, and corruption threatened profits. In chapter 7, he traces the development of the Department of Docks and the process by which the city took back the waterfront to rebuilt and accommodate larger ships. In chapter 8, he argues New York’s industrial growth, increased demand for space on an already crowded waterfront, new developments in shipping technology, and the development of the interstate system all contributed to the death of the port; Manhattan declined as New Jersey rose. In chapter 9, he argues the death of New York City’s maritime world provided an opportunity to reimagine the waterfront as public parkland; he identifies gentrification and climate changes as two looming issues the city will have to reckon with in the coming years.
Schlichting weaves a powerful historical narrative. His sources and attention to detail bring particular strength to his argument. He incorporates maps and charts within the text, allowing readers to visually see Manhattan’s expansion over time. He casts his evidence net wide—pulls data from census records, municipal records, meeting minutes, property records, government reports, historical newspapers, customs records, company files, immigration records, Citizens’ Association papers, film, and recent events. Schlichting engages with and brings fresh light to the well-established historiographies of slavery, industrialization, and immigration. Waterfront Manhattan is an especially powerful complement to Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History; while Beckert takes a global view of cotton, Schlichting untangles the lesser-known contributions of New York to this cotton web. Schlichting has also laid the groundwork for other scholars to engage with gentrification and the meaning of public space on the waterfront. In Waterfront Manhattan, Schlichting has woven an impressive narrative which is sure to shed light on this underappreciated aspect of New York City history.
About the Author
Erin Becker is the Visitor Services & Volunteer Coordinator at the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville. Her research interests focus on the convergence of women, labor, and the environment through a global extractive maritime economy. Her work in museums grapples with investing local peoples in their resources (historical, archaeological, and environmental) as stakeholders through outreach, education, and the development of new public programming. She can be found [at]ErinE_Becker on Twitter.
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