When the Westbeth complex was converted to the first subsidized housing for artists in the United States fifty years ago, the great photographer Shelley Seccombe was one of the first tenants to move in. Over the course of her career, Seccombe has documented the people and landscape of the surrounding neighborhood, marking the events that have defined it and the changes that have reshaped it across five decades, since 1970. The photos she has generously shared with Village Preservation are just a small portion of her work, providing an invaluable portrait of Village history, waterfront history, Westbeth history, and so much more.
Skateboarders in the courtyard at Westbeth, c. 1977.
Seccombe’s focus on photography was in many ways inspired by her move to Westbeth. When she first arrived, the entrance to the building was on West Street, facing the waterfront. Coming in and out of this entrance defined her daily attention to, and documentation of, the since-demolished West Side Miller Elevated Highway and the piers just beyond it. Seccombe remembers:
In 1970 I moved with my husband and daughter to the West Village. We were among the first tenants in Westbeth, a conversion of the Bell Labs building on the Hudson River for artists housing/studio space. My husband is a sculptor; at that time I was teaching music, the career path for which I had prepared. Photography was nowhere on my resume.
One day in 1971, I came home from commuting to work on the upper East Side to find the neighborhood full of smoke, Pier 50 in flames. Leaning out a neighbor’s window on Bethune Street, I aimed my camera at fire engines on the West Side Highway and took several shots. Thus began my long series documenting the deterioration of the piers and the construction of Hudson River Park. The big empty pier (#49) provided a perfect view of the activities of the tugboats moving barges of trap rock down to the World Trade Center area and upstate as far as Albany.
Pier 50 in flames, c. 1971. Taken from a window in Westbeth facing Bethune Street.
Sunset watchers on Pier 49, c. 1974.
People gathered on Pier 49 to view “Operation Sail,” 1976.
Collapse of Pier 51, 1978. The foundation had been weakened by barges pushed by tugboats.
“Flagman,” who was a fixture on the piers, on Pier 49, c. 1977-1978.
Dance concert with pink clouds, looking north, c. 1978. Pier 51 is visible in the background.
Police car and dog on West Side Highway (now demolished), looking south toward the Twin Towers, c. 1979. The highway was closed to traffic, perhaps because this was a film shoot.
Black smoke rising, c. 1980. The West Side Highway (now demolished) is visible to the left, and the World Trade Center is visible beyond the smoke.
Man with chicken and dove on waterfront across from Westbeth, June 1980.
Seccombe remembers that the man in a beret rode his bicycle to the waterfront with a cage carrying the chicken and the dove. Upon his arrival, he let the two birds out to enjoy the grass. The photo was taken on West Street between Bank Street and Bethune Street. At the time, a walkway was being developed along the waterfront.
Pier 58, looking east toward the Empire State Building, February 1982.
In 2007, Seccombe’s book Lost Waterfront: The Decline and Rebirth of Manhattan’s Western Shore was published by Fordham University Press and Friends of Hudson River Park. Her work has been exhibited throughout New York including at the South Street Seaport Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. For more on Seccombe and her photographs, go to www.shelleyseccombe.com and www.newyorkwaterfrontphotos.com.
As we celebrate a half-century of Westbeth, here are some great additional resources from Village Preservation that allow you to explore, appreciate, and celebrate the special history, architecture, and culture of Westbeth:
- Village Preservation’s Westbeth State and National Register of Historic Places Nomination and Listing
- Announcement of and information on Westbeth landmarking and landmark designation report
- Village Preservation’s Westbeth Historic Plaque Unveiling
- National Register of Historic Places listing of Westbeth’s Bell Telephone History
- Village Presevation Westbeth Oral Histories
- Village Preservation Westbeth News
- Village Preservation Westbeth Blog Posts
- Recap of, information about , and pictures of Village Preservation and Westbeth’s Artist Loft Tour