By Michael Nichols
Michael Nichols is at work on a book about Hell Gate—a riff on its name, history, and lore. His last contribution to the Blotter was “Hell Gate: Fear of Names, Names of Fear.”
There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes,
belted round by wharves
as Indian isles by coral reefs
–commerce surrounds it with her surf.
Right and left,
the streets take you waterward.
—Moby Dick, “Loomings”
Some years ago, never mind how many, I worked in lower Manhattan, not far from the Battery, which looks out over the vasty greyness of New York harbor. One day on a lunch hour stroll, I came across a thin blue line painted across State Street from Battery Park to Pearl. It was the width of a traffic line, but it could not be that, as it was the wrong color and cut across traffic. I followed it up Pearl Street for a while, but not too far, because I began to expect a ruse, that it might only be part of a campaign that would lead me straight to the newest drugstore on the block, or maybe some entrepreneur’s fabulous new luncheonette. It was months later that I learned the line was an art project: the artist had drawn a cartographic line through the streets to denote the original shoreline of Manhattan. To the south is water, and to the north is land. An impossible precision, given the reality of mudflats and tides, but it demonstrated the difference between then and now. All the while the line had been fading. Weather was doing it in, and the artist had not returned to maintain it. But that’s what she had intended, no? That her line would eventually disappear across the months as the original had across the centuries?
Circumambulate: to walk round about.
From the Latin circum around + ambulare to walk.
“Having seven times circumambulated the Kaaba.”
—Oxford English Dictionary
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reverie. Some leaning against the spiles, some sitting upon the pier-heads…But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?
—Moby Dick, Herman Melville, 1851
Moby Dick, the great tale of the Pacific, opens on the streets of lower Manhattan. Ishmael, we may recall, is walking about town. It is the November of his soul. Some may see him as suicidal what with his pulling up the rear of funeral processions and stopping by coffin warehouses, but as I see it from the perspective of my own age, I suspect he is in nothing more than a youthful funk. It is high time, he says, to get to sea, and after a chapter of explanation, off he goes to narrate the greatest of American novels.
One may treat circumambulate as an imperative: Circumambulate the city—Go, and you cannot help but return. When I worked down here, my brief lunch hours did not allow for lengthy circumambulations and so I held myself pretty much to Ishmael’s geography. I toured those same streets, doing my own wandering, in part to get away from things and in part to conjure ghosts. Being a Manhatto—Melville’s word for a New Yorker—I had a very narrow interest in mind: the simple fact that the places Ishmael names still carry to this day. Moby Dick begins in New York and never returns. I, on the other hand, haven’t left.
Ishmael’s itinerary took him from the east side, south, and then north again up the west side, almost exactly to scale the westward direction most whalers took from New England south around Cape Horn and then up the Pacific. (In Moby Dick the Pequod goes opposite, heading east.) And as he has the watery world in mind, Ishmael walks the city’s edge. Ships dock close enough that their bowsprits and jib-booms pierce above the street, and the streets are a chaos of wagons and drays, bales and casks and crates, carters and sailors, and noisy with a scabrous and exuberant sea lingo. Reading into Ishmael’s list of places, one may see that each point represents its own aspect of this nautical business. Corlears Hook, the jut into the East River at Grand Street, was a shipbuilding and ironworks center, a place of production. It was also the locus of women who took care of sailors, and the word for these lovelies, “hookers,” supposedly derives from the Hook. Farther down, Coenties Slip was still a boat slip between the wharfs of South Street. Its triangular shape was determined by the curve of the shoreline: two sides radiating from the apex at Pearl Street into a wide mouth of water. Whitehall Street, with its countinghouses, was part of the back office.
Even then the city had long been building out into the water. Pearl Street had been the shoreline in Dutch days, but since there was always a need for waterfront space, land accreted at the edges. New land was created by driving wooden piles into the river muck to form a frame and then filling the frame’s interior with junk rock and garbage (one wonders what it smelled like), creating lots solid enough to sustain the merchant houses erected upon them. After Pearl Street, the next street out was Water Street. Then Front Street, then finally South Street, which had been pretty much been built up by Ishmael’s day. The city brought itself into the water. One could lean against the spiles or perch on pier-heads to survey the scene or dream of distance. Thus Ishmael’s wry comment about the restive souls he sees—landsmen—strange and moody souls, and more typical of New York than we might imagine. Water is what attracted them, but still there is the unanswerable question: What do they here?
On a Sunday morning lower Manhattan is at rest—calm, unanxious, noiseless. Were Ishmael to circumambulate the city today, he wouldn’t recognize it. Go up Broad Street, the landfill of what was once the Heere Gracht, a short waterway of the East River penetrating up and through the city, and used as both a canal and a sewer, a parody of its much grander namesake canal in the mother city of Amsterdam Go down Whitehall Street, past the Customs House—countinghouses are now replaced by mega-buildings with chain stores at street level. On a Sunday morning there are only a few passers-by. A panhandler asks each as they pass for some help—a good marketing technique, perhaps, enabling him to inquire each passer-by face-to-face. On Pearl Street is a plaque celebrating Melville, listing some of his best known works, Moby Dick, of course, Pierre (a New York tale), Billy Budd, and his most anthologized short story, Bartleby the Scrivener. The plaque is here because Melville was born here in 1819, and thus he could draw from earliest memory these streets and ships, and the thousands of mortal dreamers. Up Pearl Street is a sidewalk archaeological exhibit, the remains of the foundation wall of the Stadt Huys, a Dutch tavern and early city hall, unearthed during the construction of 85 Broad Street in 1983 and now sealed off with thick glass.
The triangular Coenties Slip has long been filled. It was once a pleasant tree-filled place called Jeanette Park, and is now a concreted plaza dedicated to Vietnam veterans. A block north you can cross South Street underneath the FDR and get to the river. Here and there are a few water gazers, as silent as those Ishmael described, but for the most part this is a boisterous tourist crowd. On a Sunday morning it is active with shoppers and diners, even a few South Street Museum patrons come for a nostalgic interlude with the old port.
On Front Street is a fine row of Federal style and Greek Revival buildings, restored with new pressed-metal cornices and iron window lintels. At 203 and 204 there was a grocery built in 1815 that in the 1880s became a waterfront hotel , “one of many scattered throughout the district that catered to the unmarried men who labored here.” Up the street is another building that had been the grocery of the Howell family, selling flour, sugar, spirits, and other staples. Later, it was converted to a military supply shop selling guns and powder. Now it has been stripped of whatever counters and shelving it may have once had, and exists merely as a corridor to a curious little courtyard in the back called Cannon’s Walk. A sign tells you that this place marks the site of a wharf built in the mid-18th century by John Cannon, a merchant born of Huguenot parents in 1670, and that his grandson Peter was the Schermerhorn who built Schermerhorn Row, to the south.
I took up residence on one of the benches provided and noted right away two characteristics of this space: that it was a space created by default, and that it was empty. Mine was the only soul there. Perhaps for that reason I thought of Bartleby, that I had walked off Ishmael’s map and through the shortest of passages straight onto that of Bartleby’s. You remember him from another of Melville’s New York pages, the copyist who was the ultimate naysayer, the silent center of a hubbub that swirled about him…a motionless occupant of a naked room…he who preferred not to.
Think of it, there are thousands of spaces like this in New York, the dead space that remains between buildings that encircle and thus create it. This is one of the few open to the public, and yet it is intensely private. It is enlivened with a bluestone walk, planters and benches. Its walls are of old brick and new glass: at one end is a brick wall painted over in white and at the other new panes of glass of such darkness that they prevent one from peering in. Not many tourists know this place, given the small number who break from the thousands outside to venture in. Those that do have that look of wonderment, expecting to find something rather than nothing. (What do you here?) None stay long. Obviously they are not interested in the blank rear walls of buildings, nor in the fact that they are standing on the spot of an old wharf erected as fill to a marshy bank of the East River.
But stay long enough and it becomes easy to imagine that the place belongs to you, or you belong to the place. So narrow is the sky that the light doesn’t shift and so thick are the surrounding walls that nothing of the outside leaks in. Bartleby liked to be stationary—he used that word—and spent time staring at a white brick wall…a dead brick wall. Ishmael eventually rode off to an open ocean space, and mused on the monomania of Ahab, the nature of evil, and the spectacle of the color white. Melville returned to New York in 1863 nearly destitute, and later found work as a Customs Inspector. Two young children burst into the Walk, their cavorting and shouting waking me up, their echoes ricocheting larger than their small voices. Their father follows them in, looks up and down the walls, reads the sign, even gives the white brick a passing glance. In the pallid light, it seemed greyer. He participates in the silence for a while and then turns to leave, followed soon by his children. There they go and what is one to expect—what is here to keep them here? What Manhatto after all would prefer being motionless to circumambulating the living city outside?
Note: Lower Manhattan is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, and will eventually be restored to its pre-flood state. The river pushed itself back to its original shore, reminding us in an elemental way how close the city is to the sea and its immensities.
Sources and Reading
The imaginative sources of this brief drift along the waterfront are to be found in Herman Melville, the “Loomings” chapter of Moby Dick (1851) and “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (1853), both of which are set in lower Manhattan. The article “Melville’s Manhattan” (Oct 31, 2011) in the website Patell and Waterman’s History of New York has some interesting ideas about why Moby Dick opens in New York. Material about the development of the New York port may be found in Gotham (Burrows and Wallace, 1999) and in the classic, Rise of New York Port, 1815-1860. (Roger G. Albion, 1939; re-issued 1984). In his article, “Up in the Old Hotel,” Joseph Mitchell presents an anecdotal portrait of working life in this district in the 1940s, resurrecting ghosts from years past along the way (The Bottom of the Harbor, 2001). And much can be learned from the signs on the walls of the old merchant buildings in the South Street Seaport Museum district—the plaques mounted by the museum, the faded advertising of merchants and jobbers, the graffiti of sailors and longshoremen.
(Image of South Street, 1834 is courtesy of NYPL: http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?809853)