Pierless New York

January 2015

Why oh why?
View of Pier 55 in the context of the west side.
One by one, the glorious piers of New York have been dying a death. Over the course of some 40 years, most of the hundreds of piers have either been demoted to a mere backdrop for fairs and such, gone to ruin, or fallen prey to developers for commercial purposes. Symptomatic of a city that has not paid much heed to its forlorn shoreline, the demise has happened all too easily. The latest news is that two more piers are in the process of being transformed to make way for a culture island. Egad! NYC acquires a spanking new tourist attraction and another playground for the upper middle class.
When artist Gordon Matta-Clark cut gaping holes in New York’s decrepit Pier 52 to let-in the light, it symbolised the end of the functional life of New York City’s port industry. Once there were hundreds of functioning piers, now there are only a comparative handful. Since that day in 1975, most of them have been doing other things, like playing host to art fairs and skating rinks, or just falling apart – the occasional cruise ship notwithstanding. The spectacle of a crowded New York harbour, its berths filled by ocean liners and hulking commercial vessels, seems as distant as a Dutch painting. But in a heated real estate market (what bubble?), in a city where commercial developers have for decades shaped city planning, decrepitude spells opportunity, and the New York shoreline is among the most underused of those in any major world city.
Following in the footsteps of Donald Trump, media mogul Barry Diller has a plan for part of the waterfront and, most importantly, the money to get it built. Donald Trump, some may recall, is the highhaired developer, who – perhaps to wipe the slate clean after illegally chiselling the frieze off the old Bonwit-Teller Building – stepped-in to rebuild a moribund skating rink in Central Park, whose upgrading had stalled after six years. Trump finished the project in 18 months, for less money than promised, and the city happily paid him back. Some may recall, as well, that this was trumpeted as an object lesson in how only private enterprise can get anything done.
Which is where Barry Diller, chairman of the website company IAC and husband of Diane Von Furstenberg, would seem to fit in. Diller proposes to tear down Pier 54, located at West 13th street near the new Whitney Museum of American Art, and replace it with a culture island. Pier 55, a raised, contoured, 2.5-acre extension into the Hudson River, would house several performance spaces, restaurants, and parkland. The architect – Heatherwick Studio, and the landscape architects – Mathews Nielsen, are both experienced and well respected, and the bulk of the total cost, estimated at as much as  170 $ million, would be assumed by a non-profit company formed by Diller called P55. The city gets an anchor tourist attraction in what was a narrow strip of shoreline parkland for approximately 40 $  million.
So what’s not to like? If you are nostalgic, the prospect of another sanitised entertainment centre like the new Times Square, seems yet a further step in the economic and cultural homogenisation of Manhattan. Looking at photos by Maggie Hopp, who catalogued the waterfront extensively from the 1970s to the 1990s, it’s possible to see exactly what has been lost. Bleak decrepitude, certainly, but also visual links to New York’s architectural past and a shoreline of social diversity. In her photos, people sunbathe on the rocks among the piers, and build improvised homes where they shouldn’t do so. These same people also did drugs, cruised for sex, and made art. That is the spirit behind an exhibition titled Pier 54, sponsored by the Friends of the Highline (another of Diller’s philanthropic projects). It pays its respects to the 1971 exhibition, Pier 18, which included interventions by Gordon Matta-Clark, Vito Acconci, John Baldassari, and other (all male) conceptual artists. The updated version, organised by Cecilia Alemani, director of High Line Art, invited 27 (all female) artists to respond to the earlier exhibition and to the piers themselves. The result is a documentary exhibition of what truly is a swansong for this mythic geography. Some of it is clever, much of it is minor, but one piece is especially apt. Sharon Hayes roundedup a group of friends to turn the pier into a feminist billboard, reading: Women of the World Unite, they said.
It’s not the feminism that is poignant but the scale and openness of the gesture. Diller’s proposed pier, stunning as it will surely be, further locks up public space from eccentricity, individual (and group) expression, and the unexpected, in favour of upper middle class enjoyment. The political pessimist surely sees this as the expansion of a surveillance regime into unmanaged territory or negative social space, but only perversity argues against better access to parks and water. Still, there are other issues crystallised by the new pier. It underscores yet again the controlling role of private money, not just in the culture of New York (its museums would disappear tomorrow without it), but also in its core character. Given Hurricane Sandy, does it make sense to build in a danger zone? It does when tourists and New Yorkers alike demand recreation and entertainment and are willing to pay for it. Likewise, when a muchpublicised contest was organised to develop a plan for the World Trade Center site, developer Larry Silverstein reminded everyone of the obvious: nothing would get built unless the leaseholder (Silverstein) approved it. As winner Daniel Libeskind found out after a battle that lasted years, he was right. Community boards notwithstanding, money trumps civic goals (and communal rituals) every time.
Because there is almost no public funding for the arts in the United States (a situation most other countries cannot understand), its cities – and especially New York, where there is funding available, but a lot more private money – promote the Maecenas complex, the belief that private enthusiasms equal the public good. Infrastructure philanthropy often comes with a public price tag, and Barry Diller’s generosity will also involve a major commitment from the city going forward, money that might have helped a thousand flowers bloom elsewhere. The choice was largely made elsewhere, without a great deal of civic discussion. In the end, looking back from the undulating hills of Pier 55, we will probably wonder what the carping was all about. But those who remember the giant clock that graced Grand Central Station before it was renovated, may well be saying to themselves, “We still miss the clock!” ‹
Maggie Hopp is President of Margaret R. Hopp, Licensed Real Estate Broker/Realtor HOPP Property LLC. Founding Member: Manhattan Association of Realtors. Member: Real Estate Board of New York, MANAR, NYSAR, NAR. SFC (Independent Firms Committee, REBNY) Eastside Committee (REBNY)
Decrepit Pier, 1995. B&W IMAGES: MAGGIE HOPP.
View of Pier 55 from the esplanade, looking west.
The Lincoln Tunnel Vent, Pier Pilings, and Renovated Pier, 1995
Stairs at Pier 55.
Homeless Settler, Chelsea, 1995.
View of the southern space looking north from Gansevoort Peninsula.
Department of Marine and Aviation, City of New York, Pier 57 at 17th Street,1995.
This article appeared in DAM48. Order your personal copy.