Our Town Downtown

The Liminal

by Becka Tucker

We’re all mortal, but no one’s existence is more uncertain than the folks who subsist where the city meets the sea.

The newest book in the New York City waterfront canon is not nostalgic. At least, it’s not meant to be. “You know, I tried to avoid it because I’m sort of mistrustful of nostalgia,” says Ben Gibberd, its author. Gibberd’s 2500-word profiles of people who work or play on our shores are as sanguine as he, and the accompanying photographs by Randy Duchaine show subjects smiling or hard at work or both.

But even the author can’t stop his own book from exuding a wistfulness, not only for the salty “good old days” (which are always remembered more fondly after they’re gone), but even for the present reality. You can’t help but be aware, as you read, that what you’re reading about may already have been replaced by green pedestrian parks and luxury condos.

And while “the book is certainly not a tract, and it’s not meant to be didactic about what the future of the waterfront should be,” when it comes to nostalgia, Gibberd acknowledges: “Inevitably, there is a little bit, I think.”

Of the 21 people profiled, four have either lost their jobs because their businesses went under, or have jobs that are immediately threatened. “I guess the most important one, and in a way the saddest one, is Mike Gallagher, who was one of the owners of the New York Shipyards dry dock, which is now where the IKEA is going to be,” says Gibberd. “They have this incredible, or they did have this incredible, dry dock: a 50-foot hold with these wonderful stone walls where they’d bring in these ships to repair them. There was a battle to save it, and I’m not quite sure what’s happened, but I think it’s about to be filled in for a parking lot. So that’s a business that’s gone and that will never come back, and that land is now gone for maritime purposes.”

Another four of the profile subjects are preservationists whose life’s work is to bring back a piece of the working waterfront. David Sharps bought a 1914 wooden barge and fought for the right to fix her up although she was designated “beyond repair.” He’s also a historian: on the morning of his interview he is teaching a group of school children the meaning of the word “obsolete.”

Gerry Weinstein, a steamboat fanatic, is the lone volunteer to show up on “volunteer Saturday” to chip away at his 800-ton pet project, a 1933 steamboat called Lilac. Weinstein has seen past restoration projects end up in scrapyards, and is plenty aware that this one may not get done during his lifetime.

It’s clear these people are passionate about what they do. Many of them have tossed convention and former lives to the wind in order to live outside it all. (“There was a general criteria,” says Gibberd of his subjects. “The harder someone was to get a hold of, the more they didn’t return your phone calls, the more we wanted to have them in the book.”) It’s equally apparent that they’re stalling in the face of inevitability. These ships will rot and sink. The blue collar folk who make their living fishing eels, sewing sails, or painting hulls will be displaced because there are more profitable uses for what has become our “Gold Coast.”

“It’s sort of hard, because we’re so close up to it, it’s hard to realize that the city in general, and the waterfront very much so, is going through such an incredible change,” says Gibberd, sitting on a wooden bench down at the tourist-busy seaport, his voice contending with Shakira’s and the rumble of the Water Taxi’s engines. “It’s nothing new to say, but it’s the new gilded age, and the city really is going through a period of growth that it hasn’t seen since the twenties.”

Of the billions of dollars of waterfront development going on right now, much is positive, Gibberd points out, like the Brooklyn Bridge Park or the revamping of Governors Island. One of his profiles is of Greg O’Connell, a waterfront developer in Red Hook who wears overalls and gives nonprofits rent-free space. But some of it, like IKEA and its parking lot, are prizes awarded to faceless highest bidders.

Like adult teeth, our piers and maritime businesses are not going to grow back if we lose them. “Once you get rid of the last remnants of the waterfront, and the businesses that they serve, you’re never going to get that back again. Once the working waterfront is gone in New York, it’s gone for good,” says Gibberd. “It’s very easy to de-industrialize a city, and it’s impossible to ever bring industry back,” an afterthought that became clear on 9/11 when there was no place to load or unload emergency vessels near the disaster site.

Still, none of the book’s subjects are wiping their eyes while they build model ships inside bottles. In fact, they’re an inspiring lot. Many have discovered ways of incorporating themselves into the modern waterline, from the obvious (Teddy Jefferson swims in the Hudson, Manny Pangilinan and Josh Hochman surf at Rockaway Beach) to the ingenious (Olga Bloom converted an old steel barge into a world-class floating concert hall, Philip Frabosilo stores his fishing rods in the trunk of his taxi, Pamela Hepburn hung her infant from a snap hook in the wheelhouse of her tugboat while she operated the thing).

Next week, the waterfront will see yet another first. The book’s subjects – or the ones who check their email – its author and photographer will get together on Olga Bloom’s barge-turned-music hall for a floating book launch party and an unlikely meeting of littoral minds.

To read more of Becka’s New York nautical stories visit her blog.

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