Change In New York Harbor
June 14, 2015
One of the best-known poems from the Leaves of Grass anthology by Walt Whitman is called Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. Written in 1856, it is Whitman's expression of his sensory experience taking the ferry home to Brooklyn from Manhattan on a summer evening at sunset. The full text of the poem is set forth at the end of this article.
In the 1950s, Whitman's poem, or at least substantial parts of it, were set to music for chorus and piano by the American composer Virgil Thomson. As far as I can find, there is no commercial recording of the Thomson piece; but my chorus, the Dessoff Choirs, recently performed it at the Symphony Space in Manhattan. Here is an MP3 of that performance. (I am one of the performers.) In the text of the poem below, I have highlighted the portions that are used in the choral work.
Whitman very explicitly seeks to evoke the timelessness of his experience -- that he is seeing and feeling the same things that those generations before him have experienced, and that generations after him will experience:
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.
I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old. . . .
So here we are about five generations or so after Whitman wrote the poem. How much of what he experienced is still there?
Take that line right above: "Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm'd pipes of steamboats, I look'd." And a little farther on in the poem, this similar line: "Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm’d Manhattan?" A few weeks ago I went down to what is now the South Street Seaport area, approximately the spot where the old Brooklyn ferry once docked, to get a picture of the same view that Whitman describes. Here it is:
Not a single mast, not a single ship; in fact, not a single pier. It's all gone. Of course, also new are the massive office buildings and the elevated expressway. Well, actually not all that new. The buildings visible in the picture along the waterfront were built between 1930 at the earliest and 1987 at the latest. The 1930 building is 120 Wall Street, which is the one with the "wedding cake" formation at the top. The visible buildings, from left to right, with year of construction, are: 125 Broad Street (1970) (mostly obscured by the next building), 55 Water Street (1972), 32 Old Slip (1987), 111 Wall Street (1960), 120 Wall Street (1930) and 180 Maiden Lane (1982). 55 Water Street is actually the largest office building in New York by interior space (3.5 million square feet), although approximately the same size as the new One World Trade Center.
So what was Whitman talking about? Artist renderings of the Manhattan of Whitman's day are readily available on the internet. Here is an example:
He wasn't kidding about the "numberless masts of ships." But today, it's not just the sailing ships that are gone. There is actually no active pier used for freight operations anywhere in Manhattan today. The land has become much too valuable for that.
Note also the many vessels moving about in the harbor in the 1850 view above. Here is Whitman's evocation of what he saw when he "look'd toward the lower bay":
Look’d toward the lower bay to notice the vessels arriving,
Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near me,
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor,
The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars,
The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants,
The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses,
The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels,
And here's the view today from approximately the same spot in the same direction:
All of two boats are visible in this view. One is some kind of tourist excursion vessel in the foreground toward the right, and the other, off in the distance toward the upper left of the picture, is an oil barge bringing fuel to one of the power plants that line the East River.
On the subject of Brooklyn, Whitman repeatedly evokes the hills:
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine. . .
[S]tand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!
Today the buildings of Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn, although not particularly tall by Manhattan standards, completely obscure the hills behind them. Meanwhile, that oil barge has made some progress since the last picture and is now much more visible:
And how about the Brooklyn ferry itself? When I moved to New York in the 1970s, all ferry service between Brooklyn and Manhattan had been discontinued for many decades. They were put out of business by bridges (starting with Brooklyn Bridge in 1883) and numerous subway tunnels. Just in recent years a new version has started up, called the East River Ferry. That little yellow thing in the picture above is one of their boats, making the current crossing from the Wall Street pier to Brooklyn Bridge Park.
But far and away most of the traffic today crosses by the bridges or the subways. The workhorse is the Manhattan Bridge, with two levels for cars and four tracks used by four different subway lines. The next picture, still taken from the South Street Seaport, shows the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges; behind the Manhattan Bridge, you can also see one of the towers of the Williamsburg Bridge, about a mile to the North:
If you look closely at the Manhattan Bridge in this picture, you can see a subway train moving across it on its south tracks. The front end of the subway train is just above the tower of the Williamsburg Bridge.
And then here's my very favorite line from Whitman's poem:
Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses!
In Whitman's day, well before electricity of course, the small amount of light after sunset came from "foundry chimneys" with bright open fires belching their smoke into the air. Such a thing would be completely inconceivable in today's hyper-environmentally-sensitive Manhattan or Brooklyn. In fact, I suspect that most Manhattanites today would be horrified to learn that the bulk of their electricity comes from oil-burning power plants lining the East River, and that oil barges bring the oil right up the river. Fortunately they don't give the matter much thought.
The natural parts of the scene that Whitman described -- the river, the currents, the sunset, the clouds -- haven't changed much at all in the intervening one hundred sixty years. But the man-made parts have been completely transformed. I suspect that we know almost nothing about what this scene will look like one hundred sixty years from now.