A Vanished Scene

Chambers and West streets, over a hundred years ago when this picture was taken, was part of a working waterfront.

If you had stood on the corner of Chambers and West streets in 1910, as the photographer of this view did, you might be pardoned for assuming that the scene would never change. After all, the wagons and carts and their drivers thronging the picture were engaged in a valuable service—bringing food into New York City—and why would that not continue forever? Yet well before the intervening century was over everything in the picture (except West Street itself) would have disappeared and a totally new scene been installed.

What presented itself in 1910 was the working waterfront serving the western part of today’s Tribeca, which functioned as the city’s food depot. The Hudson River piers were leased mostly to the railroads or steamship companies that brought food from the rest of the U.S. to the metropolitan area—the food to be ferried by these rail lines across the Hudson and auctioned or sold on the piers to wholesalers in the area or to other users (hotels, restaurants, retail grocers) who then would sell them to hungry New Yorkers. In our photograph, the big double-fronted pier on the left is presumably leased to the Erie Railroad (leaseholds would change from time to time), and the similar structure beyond it is probably being used by the Baltimore and Ohio.

Virtually everything in the picture is there to serve the piers, from the wagons parked on the left awaiting food pickups to those on the highway beginning their delivery, even to the sailors on the sidewalk at right. Although you can’t see it, the Hudson River controls everything in our photo. The restaurants and other establishments along the right-hand edge of the photo are there to serve those working on the waterfront. Note also that in the middle distance there is a streetcar whose route terminates at the Erie pier.

All these features and participants would remain in place for almost half a century after 1910; the piers and their vehicles (eventually motor) would still be there in the early 1950s. But then the scene would begin to change as a result of powerful economic factors. First, trucks would begin taking over from the railroads, so that food and other products would now increasingly come to the city over bridges and through tunnels instead of by water. Second, shipping would be taken over by containers, which could not be handled on old-fashioned piers. This led to the rerouting of freight to areas away from Manhattan, such as Newark and the Bronx. So Manhattan’s piers decayed and one by one were scrapped, and the traffic they generated disappeared. Where the piers had stood on the Lower West Side, landfill soon created Battery Park City, which moved part of the actual waterfront westward.

Today the Erie pier has been replaced by the northern end of Battery Park City, where Stuyvesant High School now stands, to which students gain access by a pedestrian bridge over West Street. The buildings on the right in the photo have been replaced by the Borough of Manhattan Community College. The telephone and electric light poles have long since been taken down and their wires buried under the pavement.

Only the traffic on West Street remains, far faster and noisier now, of course. And today, just north of Stuy­vesant High School, one can get a nice view of the great body of water that was out of sight in 1910: the mighty Hudson River.