Columnists > Voices
Krieg Barrie

What the river speaks

Cities | The danger of a once-productive waterfront—and nation—going idle

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 6, 2014

This summer we set out from 42nd Street in Manhattan on a commercial cruise line for a tour around the island. It was one of the last commercial things we would see. I don’t mean that the Wall Street financial district that thrust itself out at us as we rounded the lower tip at Upper Bay is not the very symbol of money and trade. I just mean it didn’t seem as if much is being made around here. 

The quietness along New York City’s coastline is only partly explainable by the jumbo jet’s dethroning of shipping as the way America moves goods. The city’s silent docks (one pier has been converted into a strollers’ park) bespeak a truth some fathoms deeper. Our host kept pointing out condo developments to the port and starboard sides of our boat—the entire stretch of Hoboken and Weehawken in New Jersey; the midtown Manhattan towers of Trump and others; the nouveau trendiness of East Village and even the Lower East Side. Most of the 30-mile ride may as well have been a sightseer’s guide for luxury apartment seekers. 

It used to be that skyscrapers were built to make office space—the Empire State Building and the Willis Tower in Chicago. Now they house humanity in vertical columns, all chasing views. We got to see 432 Park Avenue in progress, which at 96 stories will be taller than One World Trade Center, measuring roof to roof.

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The sole commercial site of note was a ghostly ruin—the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn. It was also a clue to the mystery. Erected on the waterfront in 1857, its proud plant saw ships carry sugar to its doors from all over the world. More factories followed, till it became the greatest center of sugar processing in the world, supplying half the United States. In 2000 the company fell victim to one of New York’s longest labor strikes. It closed its doors in 2004 after 148 years. 

Back in Philadelphia, I took an English as a Second Language (ESL) course at church. Our teacher likes to end the semesters by giving her students—Indians, Mexicans, Albanians, etc.—little souvenirs from her state, but she says it is hard to find things made in her state. A little American flag? The Chinese make them cheaper; that’s why our own government buys there. 

Industry Week’s Robert Atkinson says pundits would have you believe the United States’ loss of 5.7 million (or 33 percent) manufacturing jobs in the last decade is due to our superior productivity. In fact, he says, the reason is output—motor vehicles down 45 percent, apparel down 40 percent, textiles down 47 percent. It’s worse than the numbers would indicate. The official assessment formulae overestimate the output of the electronics industry.

Back in the Big Apple, Soho, once Manhattan’s industrial center, became the haunt of artists’ lofts in the 1970s, till these were priced out and gentrification moved in. Nothing wrong with the gentry, but somebody has to make shoes. And flags. And the souvenirs we give in ESL to show state pride.

This is not about nostalgia for the good old days of mom-and-pop stores and lunch pails and stickball and barbershop quartets, times which like all times were impermanent as morning frost, a historical blink of an eye no sooner here than passing away. No, this is about survival as a viable nation and the question of what industrial foundation will support the spawn of residential sprawl along the Hudson and East rivers. 

The Jenga tower is looking pretty honeycombed. How long can a tower built on mushrooming social services and computer memory improvements sustain the illusion of prosperity, as the denizens of Wall Street—who make nothing you can eat or patch your tires with—turn wild and risky trades and create dollars where there were none just by artful playing with the rules of the game?

The river has seen it all, and the river knows. It saw the Lenape trading posts give way to Dutch East Indian trading posts, which in turn gave way to the English business interests for the Duke of York. These people all had things to buy and sell. One thing the river never saw before is wealth spun from thin air.

Andrée Seu Peterson
Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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