Manhattan is a tight little island. Around thirteen miles long, it has a width that varies from two miles to a few hundred feet. After centuries of having its shores sculpted by erosion, excavation and landfill, it is a land mass that has acquired on maps the profile of a right whale swimming into the open sea. But this nautical image is too neat, if not another of the city’s cruel jokes, since Manhattan is a small island that can often make one feel utterly landlocked. The financial district is formed by granite and glass canyons; in midtown, trade and tourism funnel crowds inland toward Central Park, Times Square and Madison and Park avenues. A tenement roof offers some respite–a vista of sky vaulting a sea of shingle, tin, terra cotta and tar. The soft wails of unseen tugs linger in the air, and the nearest body of water lies in the many cubic yards of upstate reservoir stored in the squat elevated towers cluttering the horizon. From the roof the cables of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges are visible, but the river they span is not. At night, glittering with tiny lights, the cables dip from their towers into the dark, the extravagant decorations of a street fair for the landlocked.
A glimpse from an airplane or a skyscraper’s upper stories reveals a different picture. Wedged between three rivers, Manhattan is part of a large urban archipelago. Of New York City’s five boroughs, only the Bronx rests on the continent. Staten Island looms in the southwest, and to the east Brooklyn and Queens blanket the western tip of Long Island. A host of smaller islands dot the harbor and rivers. Liberty Island houses a monument, Rikers a prison. Lesser-known islands like North Brother, once used as quarantines for the criminal and the ill, are now inhabited by birds, insects and mice. Freshwater tributaries feed the rivers that ribbon the islands, which means that the Manhattan archipelago is bathed by an estuary, a nutrient-rich marine habitat created by the merging of fresh and salt water.
Phillip Lopate explains in Waterfront that when he began telling people he was writing about Manhattan’s shoreline, “many would get misty-eyed and ask me if I had read The Bottom of the Harbor (which of course I had).” It’s a legitimate question since few books convey a richer sense of the fecundity of Manhattan’s estuary than Joseph Mitchell’s work, which contains six delicate and dazzling portraits of the waterfront that Mitchell published in The New Yorker between 1944 and 1959. The Bottom of the Harbor is an estuarium, one that elegantly combines, as Lopate acknowledges, “the perspectives of marine biologist, geologist, urbanist, anthropologist, and historian” to explain how the harbor churns together past and present, nature and humanity, predators and prey.
But to get sentimental and imply that Mitchell had already done the job in The Bottom of the Harbor is to diminish the importance of Lopate’s very different but perceptive and valuable Waterfront. Even if he had wanted to, Lopate couldn’t have written a book like The Bottom of the Harbor, since Mitchell’s subject, the culture of New York City’s maritime economy, has all but vanished. By the early twentieth century most of the immense oyster beds in the Lower Bay, decimated by overharvesting and pollution, had been condemned. As for fin fish, they “stopped arriving by water in the early 1970s,” Lopate tells us, “partly because New York Harbor was too polluted to supply a local catch (or store it in the river, once caught),” and partly because it was cheaper to truck in refrigerated fish from elsewhere. The biggest economic blow came in the 1960s, with the arrival of container ships, which require deep drafts and fifty acres of backspace for the unloading of cargo, both of which Manhattan lacks. After World War II, the city handled one-third of all foreign cargo shipped to the United States; by the early 1970s, after the maritime trade had drifted westward to the deep waters and acreage of container facilities in Newark, Manhattan’s port was all but dead. (The piers in Red Hook, Brooklyn, have remained the home of a few small, vibrant shipping firms.) What was once a shoreline thick with bustling piers, wharves and ferry slips is now a hodgepodge of parks, piers, promenades, luxury apartment buildings, landmarks, housing projects, power plants and parking lots. No wonder, then, that when Lopate examines Manhattan’s profile on a map, instead of a right whale he sees “a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere.”