New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore

By Kara Murphy Schlichting

final-schlichting-9780226613024-jkt.jpeg

In 1865 New York City park commissioner Andrew Haswell Green came to the conclusion that the city had outgrown Manhattan Island. In a report for the Board of Commissioners of Central Park, Green argued that the city’s future should include its mainland environs of Westchester County north of the Harlem River. He articulated a river-spanning future for New York. Green reasoned that lower Westchester was “so intimately connected with and dependent upon the City of New York, that unity of plan for improvements on both sides” of the Harlem was “essential.”[1]

In the late nineteenth century, municipal officials and boosters of a regionally-scaled New York City endeavored to reshape the material nature of the cityscape. Debates about the physical nature of the urban fringe demonstrate how the city’s coastal edge was both an ecological system and a cultural and political landscape. The harbor environment included both sides of the high-tide line — riparian land and lands underwater. Developers looked to control the material characteristics of the coast through infrastructure. Landscape architects, engineers, and street commissioners approached the urban edge as a laboratory for regional planning. These city builders focused on regional environmental boundaries in contradistinction to laissez-faire urbanization and development that overlooked the conditions of environment and topography. Parks, channelized rivers, and street systems expanded the urban fabric into rural hinterlands.

As early as the 1860s, Andrew Haswell Green had argued that the Harlem could easily be “made available for the purposes of commerce.”[2]Compared with London’s Thames, the Harlem featured a longer waterfront and far more moderate average tidal changes, making it more conducive than the Thames for trade. Green declared the Harlem ran “through the heart of New York” and that “something more should be made of it.”[3] Yet the environment of the Harlem prevented intensive commercial use. Unlike its mighty neighbor the Hudson, the Harlem was narrow, shallow, and crooked. At its widest the Harlem reached only 450 feet across; its narrowest sections measured a meager 200 feet.[4] A mixture of sand and “vegetable matter,” decomposing organic material resembling peat, made deep, soft layers on much of the river’s banks and bed. The littoral’s nature, oozing mud, and shallow estuaries made riverfront construction challenging and docking impossible for deep-keeled vessels.[5] North Side investor and booster Fordham Morris irritably noted that the river was ridiculed as “a ditch and mud hole” and had garnered the name “Harlem sewer” from the Evening Sun.[6] The river could not become a commercial artery to rival the Thames in its natural state, and the economic potential of Mott Haven and Port Morris remained untapped.

Real estate speculators, shippers, and business interests could not agree on the best way to utilize the Harlem, debating whether public works should facilitate traffic across the river or shipping along the river. Coastal trade interests advocated for a Harlem River Canal, but their opponents argued that transportation across the river was more important. This map of the river between the Hudson River (top) and the East River (bottom) accompanied an unsuccessful proposal to have the state legislature turn the Harlem into a subterranean river and connect Manhattan with the mainland between Third and Eighth Avenues (section shaded red). Source: Map of the Harlem River and Spuyten Duyvil Creek from Ward’s Island to the Hudson River, Showing Project for a Covered Waterway Sixty Feet Wide to Be Built on the West Line of the Harlem River [ . . . ]. Map, 1892. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Real estate speculators, shippers, and business interests could not agree on the best way to utilize the Harlem, debating whether public works should facilitate traffic across the river or shipping along the river. Coastal trade interests advocated for a Harlem River Canal, but their opponents argued that transportation across the river was more important. This map of the river between the Hudson River (top) and the East River (bottom) accompanied an unsuccessful proposal to have the state legislature turn the Harlem into a subterranean river and connect Manhattan with the mainland between Third and Eighth Avenues (section shaded red). Source: Map of the Harlem River and Spuyten Duyvil Creek from Ward’s Island to the Hudson River, Showing Project for a Covered Waterway Sixty Feet Wide to Be Built on the West Line of the Harlem River [ . . . ]. Map, 1892. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Coastwise traders advocated for a dredged channel down the center of the Harlem and the construction of docks and piers. Shipping boosters hoped that channel improvement would make the Bronx a steamship terminus and commercial port. The state Legislative Committee of the Real Estate Exchange endorsed a similar plan.[7] This required reshaping the natural waterscape. Larger boats could traverse the southeastern portion of the river’s ten-foot-deep channel, but only rowboats could navigate the entire river. The channel through Dyckman Meadows and Spuyten Duyvil Creek, the link between the Hudson and the Harlem, was particularly shallow and serpentine. The creek wound inefficiently through nearly twenty acres of unimproved salt meadows.[8] The six-foot drop between high and low tide exposed expansive mudflats. In 1885 General John Newton’s Army Corps famously dynamited Flood Rock, the culmination of sixteen years of work to clear the dangerous reefs of Hell Gate in the East River. Green admired Newton’s work and believed such improvements were overdue on the Harlem.[9]

To remake the Harlem, civil engineers had to first decipher its tidal mechanics to judge what would improve navigation. The river featured particularly vigorous tidal movement, but channelization might inadvertently impair the river’s flow, and the movement of tides could either facilitate or hinder navigation and trade. Monitoring tidal movement and tide lines, civil engineers discovered that several factors combined to make the Harlem run — and make it conducive to shipping. First, high and low tide occurred at different times and for different durations in the Hudson, Harlem, and East Rivers, with high tide occurring earlier on the Hudson than the Harlem. Second, the volume of the tides in each river differed: the mean rise and fall of the tide in the Harlem was roughly two feet more than in the Hudson. Third, the Harlem experienced a higher mean high tide. These conditions created a strong current that flowed preponderantly toward the Hudson and made it possible to keep an open channel in the Harlem no matter the tide. Channelization would amplify these natural patterns.

Nineteenth-century coastal engineers focused on preserving navigability and preventing stagnation of harbor waters. General Newton explained that a channel 350-feet wide and fifteen-feet deep at mean low water would maintain a strong current and prevent the river from becoming a “cesspool.”[10] In the 1860s Green worried that the unregulated release of sewage and offal into the Harlem would be “detrimental to navigation” and “injurious to the [river’s] healthfulness.”[11] Time and General Newton’s attention to pollution proved Green’s worry well founded. By the end of the century, six of the city’s twenty-nine largest sewer outlets discharged raw sewage into the Harlem. The East 110th Street sewer, a drain for seven hundred acres and Manhattan’s second-largest sewer, emptied into the Harlem and made piling and bulkhead work “difficult and slow” — and malodorous.[12] Coastal engineering would alter the Harlem’s tidal, maritime, and adjacent upland ecosystems and landscapes to turn the river into a nautical highway for commerce.

On the Harlem, regional management reshaped two of the city’s edges at once: the metropolitan periphery and the waterfront. In April 1876, the state turned the project over to the Army Corps. The state authorized the city parks department to develop harbor lines and create an improvement plan for the riverfront, but for five years, the Department of Docks fought for control of the project.[13] Once in control of the Harlem, the Army Corps slogged through a twelve-year legal process to acquire both land and underwater property rights.[14] Construction finally began in 1889. Yet even through engineering an environmental infrastructure out of the Harlem, the river’s natural features continued to shape the waterscape.

Strong tides proved a challenge to this intervention in the harbor’s hydrology. To channelize the Harlem, workers erected dams at both ends of Spuyten Duyvil, 1,200 feet apart, pumped the river dry, and dug and blasted a new riverbed 375-feet wide and twenty-eight-feet deep. But reshaping of the river gave workers trouble. A strong gale or nor’easter could transform the Hudson into roiling slush and swamp the dams. In late April 1893, a gale from the northeast impeded the ebb of tides, raising flood tides higher than usual. The dams collapsed from the enormous pressure. The Times estimated that in two minutes, fifteen million gallons of water entered the cut and “mingled in a mighty rush.”[15]

Even when the dams held the tide, the soil characteristics of the Harlem shoreline, its layers of peat and mud, made construction difficult. As an author in the Engineering Record reported, “the cut through the soft material of the marsh... caused considerable anxiety and difficulty.” The Army Corps studied the nature of the riverbed. One hundred forty-one borings revealed the riverbed was semifluid mud 60-100-feet deep.[16] The river’s soft mud oozed its way around the dam at the Hudson; along Spuyten Duyvil, it was sufficiently fluid to require pumping rather than excavation. The corps built a seven-mile-long retaining wall to keep the mudflats from sliding into the new channel. The project was typical of landfill operations of the era in that it produced straight, deep bulkheads to facilitate navigation and the docking of commercial vessels. Over seven years, workers eventually removed 550,000 tons of rock, dredged one million cubic yards of earth, and deepened and straightened northern segments of the river.[17] The canal cut a new course for Spuyten Duyvil Creek and, astonishingly, turned the fifty-two-acre promontory of Marble Hill into an island to allow for a straight Harlem–Hudson channel — in 1914 the former bit of Manhattan would be attached to the Bronx through fill, although it legally remained part of New York County.[18]

The Harlem River Ship Canal officially opened on June 17, 1895. The canal would not be complete until well into the twentieth century, and complaints over mud filling the channel were not uncommon in subsequent years.[19] Nevertheless, the North Side Board of Trade sponsored a lavish opening festival. Steam launches, tugs, rowboats, scows of all sizes, and military floats traversed the canal under blue skies. Warship guns saluted in celebration. A land parade of ornate floats celebrating North Side businesses — brewery exhibits, ice making, piano making, and even house construction — simultaneously snaked through adjacent streets.[20]

Mayor William Strong led the ceremonial opening of the canal with a narrative of natural environments giving way to development, a symbolic step of progress. The mayor told the crowd that the canal had spoiled his favorite fishing spot.[21] At midcentury, the Bronx Kills, connecting the East and Harlem Rivers, was the location of the Willows, a well-known fishing resort.[22] Through the 1880s anglers frequented Morris Dock, King’s Bridge, and Spuyten Duyvil. Striped and banded killifish, Atlantic silversides, and winter flounder once lured both anglers like Strong and marsh birds such as snowy egrets.[23] But the river Strong recollected was gone by 1895. New York and Putnam Railroad tracks lined the North Side riverfront between Macomb’s Dam Bridge and Marble Hill. In Port Morris at the confluence of the East and Harlem rivers, the train yards of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad dominated the shore.[24] The river’s environment never played a prominent role in the two-pronged project of improving navigability and preserving tidal patterns. Canal boosters understood the material nature of the river through the entwined problems of pollution and insufficient shipping channels. Strong declared that the promise of commercial productivity and increased awareness of the district justified this lost contact with nature.[25]

For boosters, the waterfront as commercial infrastructure was the most valuable iteration of the river, for it promised regional growth. Municipal systems such as streets and the environmental infrastructure of parks and the canal reveal that nineteenth-century growth was more than dense streetscapes and ever-taller buildings. In the city’s borderlands, expansion incorporated urban, suburban, and rural land uses. Rather than diffuse the influence of urban government or balkanize locals to view downtown bureaucrats as foreign invaders, expansion knit core and periphery together to form a vision of a New York City far larger than Manhattan.

Developers in the trans-Harlem fostered the perspective that the modern metropolis could and should be planned, and they identified comprehensive planning, expanded administrative limits, and annexation as central elements of the modern, enlarged city. Andrew Haswell Green first publicly proposed consolidation in an 1868 Board of Commissioners of Central Park report. The state Chamber of Commerce and the city’s mayor Abram S. Hewitt endorsed municipal expansion in 1888. Between these two events, the city annexed the Twenty-Third and Twenty-Fourth Wards, and the state authorized the North Side Park system. Local drives for better services had contributed to the first round of annexation in 1874. The North Side’s home-rule park and street commissions strengthened this tie, encouraging local development with an eye to expansion. Parks linked the city and its northern hinterland, a stepping stone to the creation of a river- and island-spanning regional city.

The progrowth political agenda that drove public works also informed planners’ approach to the natural environment of greater New York. In advocating for the consolidation of Greater New York in the 1880s and 1890s, Green continued to rationalize a regional city through an environmental lens. His expansionist agenda informed when and where underdeveloped land was set aside in parks. The creation of Pelham Bay Park was a step toward an enlarged New York. The 1895 annexation of the East Bronx, the 26,620-acre territory around the park, was the first successful vote in the four-year process of municipal consolidation. The Times judged annexation of the East Bronx to be “the natural and logical outcome” of the parks department’s work there.[26] Green advocated for planning and expanded political boundaries that took account of the environment of the edge: its tidal patterns, drainage systems, and topography. He foretold “serious embarrassments” concerning sewage and water supply because of artificial political boundaries.[27] Green included all of New York Harbor, a vast complex of rivers, estuaries, wetlands, and more than 585 miles of waterfront and adjacent territories in his definition of the city’s environmental systems. Fragmented jurisdiction meant that the protection of the area’s single greatest asset, the navigable water system — the concern of all— had become the duty of none. Green charged that Brooklyn and New York were each “injecting smoke, stenches and sewage” into neighboring jurisdictions. “The waters and atmosphere which penetrated and surrounded the metropolitan district,” Green said, required comprehensive regulation.[28] Rather than seeing the harbor’s waterways as barriers or division lines, Green urged city leaders to consider them to be “the means by which communities meet and mingle.” The Harlem River, for example, was not a boundary line but a segment of an indissoluble natural system. Nature set the stage for a unified city spanning the islands and peninsulas of the harbor.[29]

Kara Murphy Schlichting is an Assistant Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY.

Notes

[1] Andrew H. Green, “Communication of the Comptroller of the Park Relative to Westchester County, Harlem River, and Spuyten Duyvil Creek,” in Thirteenth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park[. . .], Board of Commissioners of Central Park (New York: Evening Post Steam Presses, 1870), 159. See also Andrew H. Green, Public Improvements in the City of New York, Communication from Andrew H. Green to Wm. A. Booth, Esq., and Others. Sept. 28th, 1874 (New York: 1974), 9, 23.

[2] Green, “Communication of the Comptroller,” 151.

[3] Daniel Van Pelt, Leslie’s History of the Greater New York, vol. 1, New York to the Consolidation (New York: Arkell, 1898), 466.

[4] “The Harlem River Canal,” Railroad Gazette, December 28, 1894, 883, and Green, “Communication of the Comptroller,” 151.

[5] “The Harlem River Ship Canal,” Engineering News 33, no. 25 (June 20, 1895): 399.

[6] Fordham Morris, Address of Mr. Fordham Morris (New York: North Side Board of Trade,1895), 8, italics in original. See also “The Harlem Ship Canal,” reproduced in Simon Stevens, Harlem River Ship Canal, Letter from Simon Stevens to the Commissioners of The Sinking Fund of The City Of New York [...] (New York: C. G. Burgoyne, 1892).

[7] Jacob W. Miller, “Relief for New York’s Commercial Congestion,” New York Tribune, September 29, 1907, C3. See also Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Public Parks of the City of New York, in Conformity with an Act of the Legislature Passed May 11, 1869, and an Act Passed May 19, 1870, Relating to Improvements of Portions of the Counties of Westchester and New York [...] (Albany, NY: Argus, 1871), 6–8.

[8] “The Harlem River Canal,” New York Times, March 26, 1882, 2.

[9] Vincent F. Seyfried, 300 Years of Long Island City: 1630–1930 ([New York?]: Edgian, 1984), 115–16, and “The Conquest of Hell Gate,” US Army Corps of Engineers, New York District, http://www.nan.usace.army.mil/Portals/37/docs/history/hellgate.pdf. See also Ted Steinberg, Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater NewYork (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 106–7, 126–27, 139, 142–43.

[10] “Gen. Newton’s Suggestions,” New York Times, November 8, 1885, 7.

[11] Green, “Communication of the Comptroller,” 158.

[12] Annual Report of the Department of Docks, City of New York, vol. 21 (New York: Department of Docks, 1891), 107.

[13] “Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Public Parks of the City of New York, in Conformity ‘With an Act of the Legislature, Passed April 15, 1871,” 11–12. See also Joseph Elwood Betts, The Sherwood-Elwood Connection: Story of the Transition of the Sherwood Elwood Farm to the Sherwood Island State Park (Westport, CT: El-Lo Press, 2011), 40–56.

[14] “Big Day in Gotham,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 18, 1895, 2. See also North Side Board of Trade, Official Program of the Opening of the Harlem Ship Canal, June 17th, 1895 (New York: Freytag, 1895).

[15] “Harlem Canal Dams Broken,” New York Times, April 22, 1893, 9.

[16] “The Harlem River Ship Canal,” 400.

[17] “The Harlem River Canal” See also Gina Pollara, “Transforming the Edge: Overview of Selected Plans and Projects,” in The New York Waterfront: Evolution and Building Culture of the Port and Harbor, ed. Kevin Bone (New York: Monacelli, 1997), 165–66.

[18] Van Pelt, Leslie’s History, 466, and “Land and Water Parades,” New York Tribune, May 26, 1895, 23.

[19] Although the canal officially opened in 1895, it was not completed until 1938. See, for example, “Deeper Water Needed,” New York Tribune, August 4, 1895, 4, and “The Harlem Ship Canal Has Become a Jest among Pilots Because of Neglect,” New York Tribune, May 31, 1903, B8.

[20] “Hudson Weds the Sound,” New York Times, June 18, 1895, 1. Steinway Diary, June 17, Monday 1895, William Steinway Diary Project, 1861–1891, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History (http://americanhistory.si.edu/steinwaydiary).

[21] “Harlem’s Union of the Waters,” New York Herald, June 18, 1895, 3.

[22] “A Few Piscatorial Yarns,” New York Times, April 7, 1901, 8.

[23] “Where to Go A-Fishing,” New York Times, June 21, 1891, 20. Marit Larson and Paul Mankiewicz, “Restoring Soundview Park: HEP Priority Restoration Site LI10,” 2, Folder X-118 Soundview Park, Parks Library, New York City Department of Parks, New York, NY.

[24] Joseph R. Bien and C. C. Vermeule, “Long Island Sound — Westchester North to Mt. Vernon— Queens South to Jamaica,” in Atlas of the Metropolitan District and Adjacent Country Comprising the Counties of New York, Kings, Richmond, Westchester [...] (New York: J. Bien, 1891), plate 8; “Building a New City,” New York Tribune, July 22, 1888, 11; US Coast and Geodetic Survey, Harlem River, Nautical Chart (1898), Historical Map and Chart Collection, Office of Coast Survey, NOAA.
https://historicalcharts.noaa.gov/historicals/preview/image/3N274%e2%80%9398#searchInput, and US Geological Survey, Harlem, Topographical Quadrangle Map, 1:62500 scale (Reston, VA: US Geological Survey, 1967), USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorerhttp://historicalmaps.arcgis.com/usgs/

[25] “Harlem’s Union of the Waters,” New York Herald, June 18, 1895, 3.

[26] “The Real Estate Field,” New York Times, June 9, 1895, 23. See also Father of Greater New York: Official Report of the Presentation to Andrew Haswell Green of a Gold Medal [. . .] (New York: Historical and Memorial Committee of the Mayor’s Committee on the Celebration of Municipal Consolidation, 1899), 36-40, and “The Trans-Harlem City,” New York Times, March 28, 1896, 4.

[27] Andrew H. Green, Public Improvements in the City of New York,Communication from Andrew H. Green to Wm. A. Booth, Esq., and Others. Sept. 28th, 1874 (New York: 1974), 17.

[28] Father of Greater New York, 35. Green repeats this argument in Communication of Andrew H. Green to the Legislature of the State of New York, Copy of Act creating Commission of Inquiry and Addresses of the President to the Commissioners [...] ([New York?]: [1890?]), 18, 29.

[29] Green, Communication of Andrew H. Green to the Legislature of the State of New York, 13, 8. See also John Ford, The Life and Public Services of Andrew Haswell Green (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page, 1913), 176.

Reprinted with permission from New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore, by Kara Murphy Schlichting, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2019 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.