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Pier 40’s Murals Illustrate Local History

The original “finger” Pier 40 viewed from the Hudson River in 1951. Image courtesy NYPL Digital Collections.

Pier 40 was built between 1958 and 1962 for the Holland America Cruise Line, and became the largest passenger and freight terminal in the Port of New York at the time of construction. Jutting into the Hudson River and effectively extending Leroy, Clarkson, Houston, King, and Charlton Streets west into the water, the pier was a consolidation of five thinner, “finger” jetties (Piers 37-41), much like the ones that are still present along the waterfront to its north and south.

The Holland America Line relocated its services in 1974, though Pier 40’s square terminal building continued to serve ships until 1983, when it was purchased by the New York State Department of Transportation with the intent to use the space as a parking facility. Pier 40 was redesignated as parkland in 1998 as part of the Hudson River Park Act, and today, the building is primarily a sporting complex — with some office space, including for the Hudson River Park Trust — and has a soccer field on its roof.

The Shipping Mural. Image courtesy Hudson River Park Trust.

The former marine terminal displays artwork that speaks to its own history, and to that of the broader neighborhood. A large mural at the interior lobby, “The Shipping Mural,” is composed of multiple ceramic tiles that depict a map of Europe, and several ocean liners with their accompanying key dates. Created by Dutch artist Frank Nix, the mural illustrates the history of the relationship between New York and Rotterdam. Those were the key ports of call for the Holland America Line when it was operating out of the building, and primarily serving North America and the Netherlands.

I WANT TO THANK YOU mural at Pier 40. Photograph by Marjorie Zien, May 2021.

A more recent addition to the pier can be found painted on the south facade of the terminal building, in the form of a message: “I Want to Thank You.” Painted in the fall of 2019, this large-scale mural by contemporary artist and West Village resident Stephen (ESPO) Powers is part of an international campaign to support the Global Fund, which is a partnership between governments, the private sector, and individuals to invest billions of dollars each year for programs that fund life-saving efforts for people affected by AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. The mural project was a precursor to the Global Fund Replenishment Conference, which took place in Lyon, France on October 10, 2019. Its goal was to replenish the Fund for the next three years. The mural at Pier 40 is joined by partner murals in Washington D.C., London, Paris, and Berlin.

Powers shared the following in his artist’s statement:

“I WANT TO THANK YOU is a song by Alicia Meyers. I paint it in the spirit of a DJ playing the song, as double dedication to the Paradise Garage and artist David Wojnarowicz. Paradise Garage was once a members-only dance club near Pier 40, that played the ideal music through the ideal sound system under the ideal conditions to foster the best nightlife community in New York’s storied history. Even today, 30 years after the closing of the Paradise Garage, the songs that made up the playlist of the Paradise Garage are touchstones that remind us in the present day what we can achieve together, even if it’s just to have fun. Especially if it’s just to have fun.”

David Wojnarowicz, age 25, at Pier 46, 1979. Photo by Leonard Fink, courtesy NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.

Powers goes on to share that David Wojnarowicz was an artist and activist who died from AIDS at the heartbreakingly young age of 36, and that Wojnarowicz had collaborated with fellow artists to create art on the then-abandoned Pier 34 in the late 1970s, when the largely neglected section of the waterfront was a popular location for cruising by gay and bisexual men.

Abandoned buildings along the Christoper Street pier. Photograph by Jack Dowling, ca. 1974. From Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive.

Powers’ mural took on yet another layer of meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic, when countless neighbors viewed his oversized message of gratitude while biking, running, or walking along the Hudson River Park trail. The future of the mural is unclear. But even if it ends up being removed during upcoming Pier 40 renovations, the mural will forever be part of the long creative history of the West Village piers.

Hudson River Park trail with Pier 40 in the background. Photograph by Dena Tasse-Winter, November 2023.

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