New York is thick with palimpsests. Some of the shared spaces have fewer rewritings under their skin; some are constantly being shifted from minute to hour. An arroz con pollo
on Clinton Street Monday could become a designer boutique by Friday. And on the calmer, less preposterous end of the spectrum, what happened before Central Park was . . . not much at all, save for a few shantytowns and some tumbleweeds. However, on the far west side between 40th and 49th, from the formerly industrial powerhouses facing the once-again bustling piers, from the Circle Line cruise ship terminal to the USS Intrepid
, we have a history rich with contradictions.
NYC was born by 60 adventurous businessmen who kept one eye on their coinpurse and the other on the ocean: As this city was surrounded by water as well as built upon one of the world’s natural deep-water harbors, the shipping trade was a natural conclusion. The cargo, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, required stations to load and unload. By the end of the 19th century, the piers in what are now Battery Park City, the South Street Seaport, and Greenwich Village were all reserved for goods and sales; the West Side midtown piers were reserved for cruise ships. The original wealthy cruise ship nexus stood where Chelsea Piers stands today; had the Titanic
never gone down in 1912, it would have docked at the Cunard White Star Lines on 23rd Street.
Into the 20th century, the goods and service piers dominated the entire Hudson River up to 42nd street; piers north of that were reserved for cruise lines and barge railroads steaming in from New Jersey. Facing the piers on 12th Avenue were a variety of industrial sheds, each to their own design: in 1931 the entire block between 41st and 42nd was a slaughterhouse, the NY Manufacturers Real Estate Co lived in a warehouse between 43rd and 44th, the E.L. Smithe Machine Co operated between 44th and 45th, and Standard Oil had enormous fuel tankards and generators between 45th and 48th.
In tandem with the productive times, the USS Intrepid
aircraft carrier was built in a year and half, not here but in the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia. Launched in 1943, the battleship saw active service during the invasion of the Marshall Islands in January ‘44, performed as the leading carrier during massive air strikes against Truk – the main Japanese base in the Pacific – participated in even more air strikes against the Palau and the Philippines, and participated in the largest naval battle in modern history: the Battle for Leyte Gulf in October ’44. Resilient and omnipresent, the Intrepid
survived 5 different attacks by Kamikaze airplanes that alone killed over 100 seamen on board. Each time the battleship was attacked, it returned to the States, had holes repaired and got shipped out again, which explains the Japanese nickname “Ghost Ship.” Following WWII, the Intrepid
participated in two peacetime deploys in the Middle East, had its flight deck completely overhauled for the jet fuel age, was utilized as the critical ship for splashdown astronaut retrieval during NASA Projects Mercury (’62) and Gemini (‘65) and engaged in three wartime deployments during the Vietnam War from 1966 through ’68.
In 1974, the Intrepid
— old, small and outdated — was decommissioned and sent to the Philadelphia scrap yard, awaiting the fate of so many battleships; either museumhood or razor blades. In 1978, the Fisher Family – one of your typical New York immigrant success stories – announced they were starting The Intrepid Foundation to save the ship. Funds were raised from ’78 to ’81, when the ship was towed to Bayonne, NJ in early 1981 for the first stage of museum development. In January of 1982 the ship was finally brought to Pier 86 where it was anchored, plugged in, and opened to the public on Aug 3rd 1982; it continues to host over 750,000 visitors a year. The Intrepid
has also overseen a tremendous shift, from the derelict industrial spaces and rotted wooden finger pilings of the ‘60s to the much-sought-after condo high rises and public parks of the ‘00s, under the auspices of the Hudson River Pier Parks and private developers. This length of road, walk- and waterway that clocks in at well under a mile has seen some spectacular shifts, so it’s a fitting irony that this monstrous aircraft carrier, once responsible for countless deaths and multi-pronged warfare, is now the metaphorical and literal anchor for peaceful citizens sunning on those green piers.
USS Intrepid closed up shop on October 1st and is set to sail to Staten Island, where it will receive an 18 month overhaul, the first in 25 years. Keep an eye on www.intrepidmuseum.org for the departure date, which will surely involve a bon voyage party on the docks.
Matt Levy is a licensed NYC tour guide and Junior Partner of The Levys' Unique New York!, a business he runs with his Dad (www.vintagenytours.com); they are proud to be the only family of licensed NYC tour guides. While not leading tours, Matt likes long walks on the beach, kittens, reading, writing, cooking, cooking with a certain pretty girl, dancing, dancing with a certain pretty girl, talking, talking with a certain pretty girl, and building tall bikes.