The New York waterfront has been essential to the life of the city. It has also been the source of endless fascination for photographers, from Berenice Abbott in the 1930s and 1940s, up to Diane Cook’s most recent work. The Museum of the City of New York’s current exhibit “The Edge of New York: Waterfront Photographs,” provides a unique historical perspective, allowing us to view how the waterfront has changed, from a busy port supporting the city’s burgeoning manufacturing base, to a coastline that now supports a tourist industry.
The older photographs, culled from the museum’s impressive collection, seem almost claustrophobic, illustrating how an industrialized New York utilized every square inch of waterfront space. The more current photographs, by contrast, convey a sense of openness. We see baseball fields, parks and playgrounds, and piers renovated for civilian use. The waterfront is still essential to life in the city, but what we all draw from that shoreline has changed dramatically.
Abbott’s vintage prints, part of a project commissioned in 1935 by the museum and completed in 1939, vividly depict the working class atmosphere that once dominated the city’s waterfront. David Robbins photographs, have a documentary feel, showing the many occupations, including fishing, that once provided a source of livelihood for so many New Yorkers.
In their photos, Len Jenshel and Diane Cook explore over 500 miles of shoreline. They uncover neighborhoods that are now seeing a resurgence, Dumbo, Long Island City, Red Hook, and Fort Washington Park. While the scenes in the photos are devoid of people, in real life these new areas are being discovered and built up. New Yorkers understand that living in the city always involves finding new places to live. The waterfront area, with access to beautiful vistas, gives a sense of space, something city dwellers are drawn to. Living in a small apartment becomes more bearable with expansive city views.
The shoreline unites the city. Jenshel and Cook illustrate that point fully in their photos. From Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side to Battery Park City all the way downtown, everyone can enjoy the riverside. The West Side waterfront, still under renovation, already boasts a bike and walkway that attracts crowds of people every weekend. Other projects, such as the Brooklyn Bridge Park, that will run along the East River on the Brooklyn side, from the Manhattan Bridge to Atlantic Avenue, and Gantry State Park in Long Island City, are still underway.
New Yorkers continually reinvent themselves, from season to season, year to year. Then, it’s so fitting that our waterfront should reflect this chameleon-like character.
The Edge of New York: Waterfront Photographs
Curated by Sean Corcoran, curator of Prints and Photographs,
With the assistance of Autumn Nyiri, senior curatorial associate,
Susan Johnson, curatorial associate, and Joanna Steinberg, research intern.
Peter Buchanan Smith served as the exhibit’s graphic designer.
The exhibit will be on display through November 29
For more information, go to www.mcny.org
1. Len Jenshel, Plymouth Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn
2. Berenice Abbott, Brooklyn Bridge with Pier 21, Pennsylvania Railroad
3. David Robbins, Fishermen with Nets
4. Len Jenshel, Pepsi Cola Sign, Queens West Deelopment, Long Island City, Queens
5. Diane Cook, Little Red Lighthouse, Fort Washington Park, Manhattan