Since its founding, New York City’s waterfront has been essential to the life of the city. The harbor’s protected bay became the site for lucrative trade, first with Native Americans and later with the rest of the world, and provided the economic engine for the city’s growth for the next three centuries. The 20th century, however, witnessed a revolution on the waterfront. As new methods of trade emerged by mid century, containerized shipping replaced the old labor-intensive methods and dramatically transformed New York’s waterfront; part of the transition of the industrial city to a post-industrial metropolis.
The Edge of New York: Waterfront Photographs highlights that transition revealing the industrial waterfront of the 20th century and what it became. The historic photographs in the exhibition, drawn from the magnificent collection of the Museum of the City of New York, feature the working port as a site for manufacturing and commercial activity in the 1930s and 1940s, when it was at its peak but on the cusp of profound change. This selection includes photographs by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Andreas Feininger (1906-1999), and David Robbins (1912-1981) of the piers and shipping facilities that comprised the port of New York and the longshoremen who worked there. These photographs demonstrate the vitality of the waterfront and its complete integration into the urban infrastructure of the city.
The historic photographs are complemented by recent work by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, which both documents the remnants of the industrial waterfront (such as warehouses, train tracks, and gantries) and demonstrates the current renewal of the shoreline. Offering a new image of the working waterfront now replete with baseball fields, parks and playgrounds, and piers that are reconstructed for pedestrian use, Cook and Jenshel’s photographs demonstrate the waterfront’s dramatic transformation from a working, commercial, and industrial center to their current recreational use, supporting the entertainment and tourist industries that are crucial to the post-industrial city.