History: Living on the River

The East River ebbs and flows past many of New York City’s most fascinating neighborhoods, and always has. But the relationship of those neighborhoods to the water has changed dramatically along with the economy and the environment.

The earliest colonial settlements, like Flushing and others, stood in the footprints of Native American villages. They also assumed much of their lifestyle, thriving on fishing, hunting, and trading. In time they brought over cattle, which fed on nutritious marsh grasses. When the Dutch governors of New Amsterdam found that quaint waterside villages were havens for smugglers and pirates, they tried to push new colonists onto farms further inland. The British had their share of this problem too, with the legendary Captain Kidd, who often put in at Cripplebush, now Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But the attraction of the waterway for fishing, trading, and other vital activities of small town life was too great to shift the population’s center of gravity inland by government fiat. Even after the age of sailing ships had passed, wealthy merchants slept near where their money was made, filling tawny “Steamship Row” on State Street.

The Lower East Side


But the economic dynamo of the harbor spawned massive industrialization. Factories, refineries, commercial shipping piers, and power plants mushroomed along the shoreline, pushing downtown Manhattan residential communities along the East River inland after all. Only gang-infested tenement slums remained, where the poor were stacked atop one another in rat holes. Oddly enough, these conditions gave rise to a brief new era of piracy. “Sadie the Goat,” a small-time Lower East Side mugger known for head-butting her victims in the gut, led her gang to new riches commandeering ships carrying rum. Perhaps the clearest example of the low regard in which Manhattanites held the East River was the construction of elegant Tudor City in 1928. The complex has windowless rear walls to block out the view of slaughterhouses, shanties, and filthy water where the United Nations stands today astride a glittering waterway. Robert Moses, New York City’s most influential Parks Commissioner, nearly severed Manhattan’s relationship with the East River when he filled in coves and paved over the shoreline for the FDR Drive.

Wealthy New Yorkers who wanted to enjoy the river throughout the 19th century and early 20th century instead carved out exclusive waterfront communities further and further from the grittiness of the wharfs, seeking quietude in places like Brooklyn Heights, Ravenswood, Astoria, Malba, College Point, and the Bronx. In the heart of New York City, however, the only major residential developments on the East River for decades were public housing projects - some of which are the largest in North America. The physical conditions for those living in the new buildings were certainly an improvement over the old slums, but crime was rampant for several decades before ebbing in the 1990s. But the projects were also powerful engines of cultural development, including rap music.

Developers, in league with urban planners and politicians, now dream about adding tens of thousands apartments on the river. Their plans are running into scrutiny by adjoining communities concerned about the impact this would have on their quality of life.

Text by Erik Baard

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