Manhattan's skyline is constantly, although the changes are not always instantly obvious, at least not so much as the change between the city's days as a port where the ships lined the shore and the growth of huge buildings clustered together in their place. But new development in lower Manhattan since 9/11 and the opening of Brooklyn Bridge Park for a new viewpoint that was only available to dockworkers until recently, make it worth a look.
The view below, from 1824, gives you an idea of where it started, with a skyline consisting mostly of church steeples. Today's view, above, focuses on the area where you can see hundreds of sails clustered to the left...and the picture is made from about where my new pictures were taken!
By the mid-point of the 19th century, South Street, lining the waterfront, was New York's main port area, crowded with sails, steamers, warehouses and "low entertainments." In the early 20th century, the area was still a major working port, seen below in this image made from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1930.
But the buildings were coming closer, and shipping began to center more on the other side of Manhattan and in Brooklyn, and in the South Street port area, shipping gave way to more buildings, and to the famed Fulton Fish Market. The change can be seen in this 1936 Berenice Abbott picture, taken from a nearly-deserted pier, looking toward new skyscrapers in the financial district.
Of course, not all maritime activity is gone from South Street; in the 1970s, two rows of historic port buildings were preserved and some new structures built for the South Street Seaport Museum, which maintains these and other historic vessels. The area is also a popular after-work and weekend "hangout" and performance venue.
The 1970s view, taken from a ferry approaching the lower end of Manhattan, shows another change: tall towers and spires giving way to rectangular blocks that squeezed the most square feet possible out of valuable real estate, often at the expense of anything worth looking at. Even the World Trade Center towers, at left, lack the interest of many of the older buildings. In truth, the Twin Towers were beautiful only at the base.
Many of the buildings of the past few years have also followed the maximum-volume big box trend, although some have shown that decorative touches can lend interest even to that (lower picture)
Upper picture: blocky buildings contrast with 19th-century ferry slips. Lower picture shows efforts at breaking through rectangular profile with decor.
Two recent buildings in particular mark a change, as architects have been encouraged to, well, "think outside the box" for iconic projects in iconic locations. One, and to my view far less successful, is the new One World Trade Center on the Twin Towers site. Nearing completion at the left in the lead picture above, its shaved corners and color contrast give a reason to see the building as a whole, but it has no enduring—or endearing—detail.
In contrast, the building at the right in the lead picture, and in two views above, is all about detail. It's Frank Gehry's 8 Spruce Street, and, I have to admit, the first of his works I've liked, much less fallen in love with. There's no arguing: overall, the shape is a box. But the skin is carved and twisted in so many ways that it reminds me more of a cathedral column, grooved and twined with foliage. In strong daylight, it has an overall shine that is different from what happens when the sun strikes a flat shiny plane.
Nevertheless, I'm not prepared to live 78 stories up...or to pay the incredible prices for living in Lower Manhattan. As for the architecture, you'll have to make up your own minds, as I have mine...but there's no denying that Brooklyn, and Brooklyn Bridge Park in particular, is a great vantage point for viewing Manhattan.
The sights to be seen from the Brooklyn shore aren't limited to Manhattan, of course. Two familiar sights are a telephoto view of Castle Williams, a former artillery battery and later prison on Governor's Island, and of course, the green lady with the lamp.
No view of Lower Manhattan is complete without the Staten Island Ferry. The historic South Ferry terminal at right offers a sharp contrast to its modern replacement. The original is still in use for other ferries, including to Governor's Island, formerly a military and Coast Guard base, and now being transformed for recreation.
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