The Fairfield Professor’s latest book tells the story of New York City’s waterways and the visionaries who reimagined it.
In his new book, Waterfront Manhattan: From Henry Hudson to the High Line (Johns Hopkins University Press), Professor Kurt C. Schlichting, PhD, reveals the storied past of the Manhattan waterfront and the struggle between public and private control of New York’s priceless asset.
Dr. Schlichting is the E. Gerald Corrigan ’63 Chair in Humanities and Social Sciences at Fairfield University, and a sociology professor. He is the author of Grand Central’s Engineer: William J. Wilgus and the Planning of Modern Manhattan and Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering, and Architecture in New York City. His fascination with New York took root while he was a graduate student at NYU in the 1970s.
Waterfront Manhattan chronicles the evolution of New York City’s waterways through past centuries—the challenges to find the capital to build and expand the maritime infrastructure, and how the “city ceded control of the waterfront to private interests, excluding the public entirely and sparking a battle between shipping companies, the railroads, and ferries for access to the waterfront,” from colonial times until after the Civil War. The City of New York regained control of the waterfront in the second half of the nineteenth century, but technological change—the shipping container and the jet airplane—devastated the City’s maritime industry. “Visionaries reimagined the waterfront and today, the island is almost completely surrounded by park land, luxury housing and tourist attractions.”
The inspiration for Waterfront Manhattan evolved from Schlichting’s work on his book about Grand Central’s engineer, William Wilgus. “I started to read about the railroads and the waterfront,” Schlichting said. “I used to walk under the High Line when it was abandoned, then the High Line Park first section opened and was wildly successful. I began to sense a rebirth—Bloomberg was a part of it—the Henry Hudson Park was restarted. The rebirth continues.”
Considering the complicated public/private rebuilding of Manhattan’s waterfront, Schlichting’s book raises the question: “Is the waterfront a place for all to enjoy or an enclave for the well-to-do?” Manhattan’s waterfront has transitioned from a place of commerce and immigrant neighborhoods, to waterfront parks and expensive housing, and Schlichting said there is no sign that this gentrification is going to slow down. “It’s not just New York, it’s all over—Chicago, Hoboken, Boston’s Back Bay, Southie.”
The next chapter of Manhattan “will be affluence for the forseeable future,” said Schlichting. “The energy attracts more young people and tech companies. You walk down the streets of New York and you can feel the energy.” It’s a reflection of the “resiliency of New York over time, to constantly reinvent itself.”