The Sailor Man In New York by Steven Thrasher
December 18, 2009 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Long before Chelsea Piers was a sporting complex and the South Street Seaport a mall, the city was lined with active piers. The city's residents were amply employed by the shipping trade, but containerization needed more land than would ever be available in the city: Massive ports sprouted in Elizabeth and Newark, and ships disappeared from the city. Efficient cranes replaced longshoremen, and the time in port for ships shrank from about a week to about a day. "The technology changed the geography," says William Fensterer, a chaplain who has been with SIH almost since its new building opened in 1964. "It doesn't look like On the Waterfront anymore," he adds. When he started out, he says, he would wander on foot from pier to pier in Manhattan and Brooklyn and board ships, with nary a guard in site. But those piers have largely vanished. And along with them, the seafarer, once ubiquitous in New York, has become invisible.
posted by jason's_planet (13 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
By the time I went to NYC, the piers were being used mostly for cruising and public sex. Not that there's anything wrong with that. (Although the city didn't agree; I think that some of the piers had several feet of the shore-end cut off so that people couldn't walk out onto them.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:40 AM on December 18, 2009

This is one of the biggest changes not just in New York, but in most other major American cities, which for the most part were at one time either port cities (first) or railroad hubs (later) or both. The movement of cargo handling from the city itself to cheaper, outlying areas of land happened along the Eastern Seaboard, the Gulf ports, and the West Coast too. Looking for decayed maritime infrastructure is one of my favorite things to do (though I am admittedly a big boat nerd). One of the most thrilling things, for me, about moving to Portsmouth, NH was seeing a working cargo port right downtown - and not only that, but it's not containerized (due to factors of the river itself limiting carrier size). They still unload break-bulk cargo, in nets!

But even if there were still "sailor men" right in New York, it's likely you wouldn't see them on the streets anyway - they wouldn't be able to leave the ships, as the article describes. The vast majority of cargo is now carried under foreign flag with sailors from all over the world, and shipping companies don't bother to get visas for the crews, so they're often confined to the port facility. That, and a lot of times they're only there for a matter of hours, so even if the owners could allow a shore visit they often don't, because they don't want crew deserting while in port. When I lived in Philly, we once did a little expedition to the Seamen's Friend society, where crews could repair if they did have the paperwork to go ashore. An interesting place, big Victorian hall with phones, computers, TVs, hot showers, volunteers to help write letters and wire money, and cots you could rent, dormitory-style.

Great link, thanks. History, modern-day, sailing, love it.
posted by Miko at 7:53 AM on December 18, 2009

...and remember when the island belonged to the Indians ? those were the days.
posted by Postroad at 7:54 AM on December 18, 2009

They sold it cheap postroad.
posted by a3matrix at 7:57 AM on December 18, 2009

They didn't sell it at all.
posted by clarknova at 8:04 AM on December 18, 2009

remember when the island belonged to the Indians ?

Wikipedia claims the island was inhabited by the Lenape. Did they sell it to people from India before they sold it to the Dutch?
posted by explosion at 8:16 AM on December 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

No, they just outsourced the sale.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:24 AM on December 18, 2009

The demise of the traditional New York ports — Manhattan and Brooklyn — and the rise of the Jersey-side ports was almost wholly due to containerization, and the inability of the older ports to adapt to it. (There is a great book on the topic, for anyone who is interested.) Everything about a break-bulk port, from the attitude of the unions to the warehouses to the transportation infrastructure, ran contrary to the direction the industry was moving. In a container port, you don't need armies of longshoremen, just a relatively small number of equipment operators; you don't need warehouses, just big, well-organized parking lots to stack containers; and there isn't any advantage to placing them near core downtown areas with their markets, with cheap road and rail transportation it's better to put them in uncongested fringe areas.

You can see the same story in a lot of old port cities, from Los Angeles (overtaken by Long Beach) to London (Felixstowe). The ports which managed to survive the breakbulk to container transition are seemingly exceptions. I'm not even sure whether there would have been any way for the Manhattan waterfront to survive; the same geography that made it an excellent breakbulk port in the era of expensive land transportation and cheap labor probably doomed it in an era of cheap oil, mechanization, mass production, and expensive labor.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:35 AM on December 18, 2009 [7 favorites]

Picture caption from the story: Pastor Marsh Luther Drege drowns in some of the 2,000 “Christmas at Sea” gift bags SIH will give away to seafarers.

Of all the words to describe a pastor surrounded by gifts, whose name is already a maritime pun*, they chose "drowns"? Sigh. Otherwise, a very interesting article, thanks!

*Marsh Drege? Kind of like dredge a marsh, see? And it could be a double-play, if you consider Marsh close enough to Martin, that his name would also be a play on Martin Luther!
posted by filthy light thief at 9:45 AM on December 18, 2009

Baltimore still has an active port (all containized, roll-on/roll-off type stuff), but it's been moved out of downtown. Compare the port in 1902 with the same area today and the active Seagirt Marine Terminal. The power plant in the middle of the 1902 picture now houses an ESPN Zone, a Barnes and Noble, and a Hard Rock Cafe. All those warehouses were torn down in the 70s when the Inner Harbor was developed.

The state just entered a 50-year lease with a private company to manage the ports, partly in exchange for dredging the channel to increase the depth to 50 feet to accomodate the New Panamax container ships.
posted by electroboy at 1:58 PM on December 18, 2009

The description of the crew on the commercial cargo ships jives with what my friend, who's in the merchant marine, has told me. He works 2 months on, two months off as an engineer on container and tanker ships. He's been all over the world, but almost never gets off the boat. Even when there's a delay at the terminal, they mostly just stay anchored off the coast until they come up in the queue. With natural gas and oil tankers, a lot of ports have a bulkhead out in the ocean that's connected to a pipeline, so there's no need to actually enter the port.

There's also apparently nothing to do when you're off duty, so lots of reading, DVDs and lots of booze. It was apparently a huge emergency when they ran out of beer on a recent trip.
posted by electroboy at 2:16 PM on December 18, 2009

Great post! Thank you. :)
posted by zarq at 3:10 PM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is a great book on the topic, for anyone who is interested.

I was coming here to recommend the same book. If this interests you, read The Box. A history of the container is not nearly as boring as you might think!
posted by smackfu at 3:37 PM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

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