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That Hudson River Waterfront

I think I’m infatuated with Greenwich Village’s Hudson River waterfront. I can’t seem to get enough of it. Last month our good friend Dr. Robin Nagle spoke about the history of the Hudson River waterfront and its historic and current role in New York City sanitation. In June, one of our Village Award winners was the Village Community Boathouse, located on Pier 40. Last summer we did a program with Robin Shulman and her book Eat the City in which she writes about the many years that food industries (in particular meat and sugar) dominated the Greenwich Village Hudson River waterfront. And last year I read the book The Big Oyster and learned so much (but found myself craving oysters all the time.) And for many years when I lived on Carmine Street and was training for a marathon, I spent time running along the river, or even just strolling to watch the sun set.

But the other day I found a 1986 publication in our GVSHP library titled The Greenwich Village Waterfront: An Historical Study and I learned so much more about the history of this area. There was always something going on, from the Native American village of Sapokanican, to Dutch farmers whose crops included tobacco, to the English, who changed the Dutch name Noortwijck to Greenwich.

We have written before here on Off the Grid about some of the early estates which overlapped with present-day Greenwich Village, such as Peter Warren’s and Anthony Bleecker’s.  But I learned from this book about Colonel (later General) Peter Gansevoort, a hero of the American Revolution, whose name we see and hear today, and was once given to the only fort ever built in Greenwich Village, Fort Gansevoort, located on the Hudson River in today’s Gansevoort Market / Meatpacking District. Just south of the fort, between present-day Christopher Street and Perry Street, stood the massive Newgate Prison, which operated from 1796 to 1829.

Newgate Prison [source: ephemeralnewyork]
In the mid-1800s the area was dominated by two markets, the Greenwich Market and the Weehawken Market. And from the early 1850s to 1890 the De Lamater Iron Works was a leader in engineering innovation and built the engines and boilers for the Civil War Union ship Monitor. In the second half of the 1800s the Greenwich Village Hudson River waterfront was a very busy place indeed. Not only were there food markets – supplied with produce, grains, molasses, and fish by incessant boat traffic – other industries thrived there as well. Lumber and coal yards, a lard refinery, a distillery, ship builders, and even a piano factory were all a part of the activity here.

Landfill was used to expand and solidify the previously marshy shore line after the opening of the Erie Canal, as boat traffic along the Hudson increased exponentially. A rail link allowed for more goods to be brought to and sent from the area as well. In the 1880s, Gansevoort Market and the enclosed West Washington market replaced the earlier markets. In 1890, the Gansevoort Freezing and Cold Storage Company built underground pipes to provide the West Washington Market with refrigeration of fresh meat and poultry, another boon to the already booming food industry.

Manhattan Refrigerating Company, early 1920s [source: new-york historical society]
In 1899 the U.S. Appraiser’s Warehouse was opened. Now known to most of us as the Archives Building, this massive structure served as a warehouse for goods shipped through customs, bringing more shipping to the waterfront. Other structures that shaped the future of the waterfront were the Manhattan Refrigerating Company (which led to the demise of the open-air markets) and the Bell Telephone laboratories, known to us today as Westbeth.

The waterfront is still a busy place today, mostly for residential development, and is defined in a large part by the Hudson River Park. Here at GVSHP we are concerned about the current issue of sale and transfer of air rights from the park, and as news develops, we will keep you informed.

4 responses to “That Hudson River Waterfront

  1. I agree, Ted. I bike from Clarkson up to 125th on the Hudson at least weekly, and it NEVER gets old. Lots agree – based on how many people I see out enjoying the waterfront.

    1. Thank u for this fascinating write-up. I’ve lived in the area since the 1970s, and am always amazed at the ongoing change and development. How can u not love this area?

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