Page 1

Charles Pratt

Edges Of The Emerald City By: Charles Pratt


his is an attempt to characterize a place that is fast vanishing-the edge of the city. It is vanishing because all American cities are growing out toward each other, their suburbs blending into one big suburb. I find myself drawn to edges with a sense of urgency, knowing that they may be gone tomorrow - not just extended but really, finally gone. The nature of edge-places is both varied and contradictory-sometimes lively, sometimes tranquil and nostalgic, and often very lonely-but they all have two things in common. First of all, no one bothers with them. They are left to themselves or to the use of people who have no need to transform them. They are part of no Grand Plan; they are the places left in the shadows cast by our purpose-

ful manifestations of Industry and Culture and How to Live. Nobody has discovered how to make money out of every inch of them. They are accidentally created and incidentally used. Quite naturally, their transformation into more conventionally useful places (and thereby their destruction as edge-places) is not accompanied by public outrage. The second common quality of these edge-places is sky-the actual presence of big, open sky or the direct sense that it is there above you even though partially obliterated by something over your head (like the underside of an elevated highway as you stand looking out onto the river). It is the sky which lets you know most strongly how tall you are, how big “it� is, the nature of where you have come from and the nature of where you are going.

In the middle of New York City there is no sky. Instead there are wedges of sky in between the buildings, as you look down a street. If you swivel your head back to look straight up, a difficult thing without falling, there also is some sky, seen as if from the bottom of a well. Being provincials, New Yorkers never notice, but this scarcity of sky gives one a very strange idea of one’s own height in relation to the surrounding world. In the more elegant parts of the city, like lower Park Avenue, we all look to each other like figures in an architectural drawing-small abstractions standing or walking about, whose sole purpose is to indicate the scale of the monuments above us. Of course, New Yorkers are not abstractions and resent being considered as such; so we leave looking at the tall buildings to the tourists and concentrate on an area only about en



Edges Of The Emerald City Maybe this is why a friend of mine called it the land of lotus-eaters.

feet high which extends horizontally along every flock in the city; these are the busy storefronts that enclose us in a frantic little cave of our own making and keep us from being too dominated by what is above us. Looking up at the tallest man-made things we can see or else sticking to ourselves and the store windows, we tend to disregard all of that stuff in the middle-say at twenty feet-which, when you come town to is, is a lot of stuff. I sometimes wonder why businesses in the garment center with no street frontage bother to put their names on the third-, fourth-, and fifth-story windows which are available to them; I swear I don’t think anyone looks at them. Most of these buildings are old, built in a period when it was not ridiculous to put gargoyles or big windows, or scrollwork with beautiful detail up where they can’t be seen clearly from the street. The idea was to give the building a personality for the sake of the building itself, whether seen from the street or seen only by a pigeon flying fifty feet above the street. After all, the people who built the French cathedrals, in putting de-

New York is not “reasonable, which is why a lot of people like to live in it perhaps. Not sensing how the ground hoes under the concrete that was laid on top of it in the nineteenth century, not seeing the sky that tells me how tall I am, I get lost. To find my way, which is to say to find where I have been, I go to the edge, and there is the sky. Within the sky I see the buildings that have recently closed in on top of me, except that now they are organized in relation to the sky and defined as a city built on top of an island, bearing tail where it couldn’t be seen easily, the same general shape as the island. considered that a building should It is rather like reaching the sumbe a complicated entity. Nowadays, mit of a heavily wooded mountain. people build random luxury housing in New York’s Upper East Side, Herman Melville wrote about this as and do nothing more than enclose a follows: Circumambulate the city of a number of “units” in a sterile edge- dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from less mass and then dignify the whole Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and nothing-mess by tacking a busy from thence, by Whitehall, northlittle lobby on to the bottom of fif- ward. What do you see? Posted like teen feet of enormous the building. silent sentinels all around the town, Now the funny thing is that if you stand thousands upon thousands of stand in the middle of a meadow mortal men fixed in ocean reverwith the sky around you as the big- ies. Some learning against the piles; gest thing, it is impossible to feel some seated upon the pier heads; like a part of an architectural draw- some looking over the bulwarks of ing. Or, if you stand at practically ships from China; some high aloft any point in a city like San Fran- in the rigging, as if striving to get a cisco, where the sky is always pres- better seaward peep. But these are ent as real sky, big and enveloping, all landsmen; of week days pent up you don’t feel like an architectural in lath and plaster - tied to counters, figure. There you are standing on nailed to benches, clinched to desks. ground which - because it is so hilly, How then is this? Are the green I suppose - feels like real ground fields gone? What do they here? with a city laid conformingly on top of it. The buildings are reasonable, Which is a good question. In those many not much taller than the high- days the tallest point of the lowest tree that can be imagined. Be- er New York skyline was Trinity cause of this reasonableness of hilly Church steeple; Coenties Slip was a land, smallish clean-looking build- real slip, a watery indentation of the ings, and big sky, you always know city. People were aware of the city as where you are in San Francisco. a seaport, and it was possible to see

Charles Pratt an open waterfront down practically any street in the lower wards. Even so, New Yorkers were “clinched to desks.” Melville says that they went to the edge on a Sunday, because they were drawn there by the force and magnitude of the sea. As much as that, they may have been drawn there to see where they had been all week in relation to the sea and sky, yardsticks more basically acceptable than streets and walls. This was easier to do then than now; the city was much more obviously and island. I haven’t come across any statistics to deny or support Melville’s figure of “thousands upon thousands” of ocean-gazers, but I’m sure that fewer people go to the edge on Sundays now that did in his time. The main reason is that the edge is built up with pier buildings and minimized by overhead highways; until very recently Coenties Slip has the same name and some of the same buildings (it is now part of a large housing complex); being physically cut off from the river, it had the openness of a backyard rather than a waterfront. But the people who come down to the river on Sundays nowadays, though fewer in number, would be recognizable to Melville. The Battery has undergone many physical changes, but it is still reserved for strollers and sitters, as it has been since the original battery of guns was torn down in the nineteenth century and a park was created. The family promenade hasn’t changed much with clothing styles; the kids don’t roll hoops, but they aren’t allowed to get much father from the grown-ups than they were a hundred years ago. This probably has something to do with the exciting uneasiness which inside New Yorkers feel when they get alongside the harbor down there. All of a sudden,

there is the by, the big ships (they really are big), the Statue of Liberty full scale, what were once called the green hills of Brooklyn and Staten Island far across the water, and, more than anything else, the open sky. If you’re not careful, the kids will get too far ahead and run away to sea.

NEW JERSEY MARSHES For years, going south by car or train out of New York, I admired the New Jersey meadows. At first, this was a kind of furtive admiration, because nobody else seemed to pay much mind to this area except as a visual symbol of America’s Might. It was meant to be seen fast and from a distance - the subject of a stock shot filed by a film library under “industry,” to be used in documentaries. Of course the place doesn’t invite closer examination. You can’t get off the train and even when cars were allowed to stop - as they were in some places on the route south before the New Jersey Turnpike was built - you felt foolish stopping; after all, you

had to get to Atlantic City. However, child and adult, I always had the urge to find out what it would like to stand there, as I looked at the place where the concrete of a highway bridge pier joined the marsh grass. I’ve always had a feeling for the dramatic bleakness of these marshlands - just as landscape, without the industrial structures. I could easily imagine wild ducks landing in the winding creeks and finding them no less protected than any other wild place. As a matter of fact, I found a duck blind in the meadows once, and I imagine that there are others. I had hired a small skiff with outboard in Moonachie on the banks of the Hackensack (from the 1930s musical movie of the same name, as sung by Bing Crosby) with the intention of discovering a navigable connection between Penhorn Creek and Cromakill Creek. It was an adventure worthy of John Cabot, and just as unsuccessful. I turned of the rather dark brown waters of the Hackensack onto the waters of Penhorn Creek, which have the color and consistency of black bean soup, and was immediately surrounded by the tall marsh grass which cut off the sight but not the sound of traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike about fifty yards from me. As I rounded a particularly desolate bend, there was the blind, its structure comparing favorable with any you would find on Chesapeake Bay. Around the next bend, which seemed miles away from any road, were about the most derelict burnt pier I had ever seen and about the most gleamingly white Chris-Craft I had ever seen, tied up to it. Around the next bend someone had dumped a large load of concrete and old automobiles onto the bank without a care for the Obstruction of Navigable Inland Wa-



Edges Of The Emerald City ters. The shaft of the outboard hit something and, looking at the black bean soup about three inches from my rear end (it was a small skiff). I gave up and turned back. When I arrived back in the merely brown water of the Hackensack, I found myself on a collision course with some water-skiers, a fact which gives some idea of the strength of the urban New Jersey stomach - not to mention the degree of bacterial immunity. As the old-timers say, the make men out of boys on the Hackensack. I had also read of a bunch of kids who built a complete garage on the Newark edge of the marchland and for years hid stolen cars and parts of cars within fifty feet of civilization. A friend of mine, an elderly European lady, looked with disgust at the marsh grass as an example of the wastefulness of Americans in letting all that good wheat lie around un-harvested; well, as a matter of fact, the place has the scale of Kansas and will continue to have it until the real estate operators, who also have a horror of the waste of any land that could make a buck, turn it into an “industrial park” (meaning that each factory will try to look as much like the Meadow-

brook Hunt Club as is possible). In the middle of the meadows is Laurel Hill, which is gradually being torn down. The View from the top of it would have been worth millions to any real estate developer if the contents of the view had been pastoral rather than industrial. From here you saw the New Jersey Turnpike soaring over the Hackensack and the marshland toward the towers of Newark. (New Yorkers think with great contempt of Newark as a kind of industrial suburb filled with people who would live and/ or work in New York if they could, but that’s because most New Yorkers haven’t seen Newark from this spot.) The turnpike over the river, the factories, the marsh, and Newark are seen on a truly grand scale, but contained and believable, like an ingeniously built model railroad. Expecting that the specific contents of the view would be another reality but still recognizable reality, like meadows seen near after being see distant, I got a shock when my curiosity led me to take the small skiff along the river itself under this hill. Down at the level of the river, what I had seen as awe-inspiring but credible from above became incredible.

Unlike the meadow, which reveals a totally different, very complex set of its specifies (grasses, holes, bugs, etc.) when seen close, here were the same things which I had seen from above with nothing added. The concrete pillars going down into the water consisted of the same concrete meeting water which I had seen from above. Of course, there are no crevices and very few angles in a concrete pillar to hide things which can only be seen close and straight on; concrete is pretty simple stuff. This is an obvious fact, but the actual experience of the simplicity of concrete can still be very surprising to one who is familiar with the variety of the natural world. Since there was no particularly new content, what I was left with, sitting in the little skiff six inches from the surface of the Hackensack River, was what you might call pure scale. Most of the time when I was on the river there were no other boats of any size and no other human beings. As a matter of fact, there was nothing of familiar size against which to judge the magnitude of the manmade things around me, except myself and the boat I sat in. Way above me (at least ten miles) tiny impersonal cars made unique whooshing noise of traffic on the turnpike bridge; jets, which seemed only slightly less impersonal than the cars, whispered over me; nearby factories gave off ominous little spurts of steam from tiny openings in their sides near the riverbank; all around was air which, even for a New Yorker was unbelievable thick. I suddenly remembered illustrations of the different methods of transportation I must have seen in children’s test books, in which an ocean liner is traveling down what seems to be a river alongside a highway with

Charles Pratt cars, trucks, and busts, which in turn runs immediately adjacent to a railroad track with a passenger and a freight train - over all of which an airplane and a dirigible are flying. With all of the activity, with all of that horsepower, kilowattage, rpm, and chemical reaction taking place around and inside me, it was amazingly quiet; this naturally made the place seem even more like the surface of another planet. In truth, I was in the middle of an inhuman place - a no man’s land which had been built exclusively for people incased in impressive objects traveling at great speed. This is notwithstanding the fact that the Hackensack is used by commercial shipping, since one would hardly feel the inhospitabiliity of the place aboard an oil tanker or even a tug. Yet the river was there, and I had been able, without much inconvenience, to get hold of a small boat and go down it. Nobody arrested me for trespassing in this place not meant for humans. I could have paddled a canoe slowly downstream, my sweetheart in a light summer dress playing the ukulele the while, if I had had the energy.

all, not just part, of the city out, and therefore nothing can be let in. What is left to make an atmosphere is paper, ink, and anxiety, which the blowers can easily carry off.

and sometimes even replaces - paint and word and metal and concrete. It is on the undisguised edge of the city that this material is most apparent.

The materials one experiences as a child one never forgets, because a child’s curiosity and small size make him capable of knowing detail in a special way. Some children become familiar with the stuff of the city very early in their lives. They get to know the concrete of sidewalks more intimately than is ever possible for adults, who only know how it feels under, and through, the soles of their shoes. Kids know the specific feel of concrete when Whether they know it or not, the it is lain on, fallen on, sat on, and people who grow up in New York rubbed against, how it tastes when City have an experience which Is their mouths are open as they common to all of them, regardless are lying on it, and how it smells. of economic or social groupings. This is the intimate knowledge of Relative success in keeping the mathe basic materials of the city - the terial of the city out of buildings raw substance of the city - which is as good a measure of the wealth takes many outer forms but is main- of the tenants as any other; a good ly composed of soot, a very special amount of money is spent in this kind of New York City soot. I don’t effort at isolation. The fanciest ofmean soot in the air, although it fice buildings in New York have a gets carried about that way, but soot universally bland smell and feel to which becomes an integral part of - them, since it is necessary to keep


At one point of my childhood I lived in a penthouse apartment, outside of which was a paved roof with a wall. For a New York roof it was grand, but still the tar between the bricks seemed to absorb all of the soot and exhaust smoke and dog droppings of the city. I remember the abrupt difference between the roof and the expensively isolated apartment alongside it. Just as impressive was the difference between what I was standing on and what I could see in the distance. It seemed impossible that the building I was on top of was part of the skyline and that every one of the gleaming towers to the south also had roofs with much the same smell of tar, sooty concrete, etc. It made me think - or makes me think now in retrospect - that people had put whole complexes of water towers and vents on top of these gleaming shapes and had then forgotten them; they never went up to visit these worlds they had made, merely considering that they should remain timeless shapes. This doesn’t happen only in the city. When I stand looking at a meadow in the near or far distance, the meadow looks smooth; it’s made up of soft grass; it bears a relationship to everything else around it - an ordered relationship. The muscles of the land under the grass look smooth. Then, I look at the same kind of grass under and around my feet, and I find that it isn’t smooth, that it’s made up of specific and different kinds of brush, As I walk into the meadow I have been looking at in the distance, everything chang-



Edges Of The Emerald City es. The surface, which seemed so smooth in the distance, now experienced close is full of sharp twigs; the ground, which undulated from a distance, is full of surprising ups and downs and holes. It is not such a lyric place to lie in after all, and you could break you leg, walking toward the mirage of the soft view. The meadow seems to have lost its order. This phenomenon used to bother me, because I felt that the way the meadow looked form a distance was a lie, just as the magnificence of the buildings in the distance seemed to lie because their magnificence was so contrary to the substance of them. The truth is that I had gone from one kind of order into another kind of order - each one a totally different experience from the other. It’s quite impressive when you realize that, among his other works, man has been able to build cities whose material completely covers all the able to replace it over the centuries with something just as complex, even though complex in a different way. We have obliterated that nice island which the Manhattans used to live on when they weren’t hunting in the Bronx, right down to the last complicated detail. Just try kissing the soil of your native land the next time you land in an ocean liner at 57th Street. On the entire length of the shoreline of Manhattan Island there is but one small stretch of natural shore, about one hundred yards of rockbound coats just east of the Henry Hudson Bridge over Spuyten Duyvil. I was surprised that there was even this. I think that there used to be a small cove of natural shoreline on another part of the Harlem River, but a few years ago the Colonial Sand and Concrete Company, which lives on the banks, started to wash out its trucks there;

so four years ago the cove, which was adorned with the rotting remains of a skiff from the rustic past of the Harlem River, began to fill with concrete. The trucks sat on a concrete hill of their own making, and the water from the hoses would flow richly colored streams down the side of the hill, gradually extending the concrete into the river. By now the cove itself, as an indentation of the river bank, has completely disappeared. I don’t quite know why, but the whole idea of this transformation, as well as the beauty of the concrete, pleases me much more than the loss of the cove bothers me.

ported not only me but the watchman’s shack I was in, roads over which big dump trucks were traveling with unprocessed garbage, and three factories. It was impressive that my informant had developed no polite synonym for processed garbage. It was also impressive to wander for hours over this “ground” by foot and in the car, smelling a completely different chemical smell every ten feet. I wonder if future factories built on this are going to grow neat lawns (having by the addition of an ingenious new chemical caused the grass, which would otherwise grow purple, to turn green).

Out near the Newark Airport one day I found myself at a large dump area, covering what I imagine is about one hundred acres of marshland on the edge of Newark Bay. This dump area was heavily guarded against spied trying to get a long distance photograph of the New York skyline, saboteurs trying to blow up the New Jersey Turnpike, picnickers, and the like. The very pleasant man I had to call to get in to photograph told me that the land I was standing on was processed garbage. This land of processed garbage sup-

In the middle of the city the battle between the stuff of nature and the stuff of mankind is one sided. On the edge of the city, on the other hand, it is still fairly lively. There are constant contradictions of city material, like the fact that New York in the early fall is surrounded by sunflowers - not scraggly, dusty little things but big glorious Kansas sunflowers. Your find them by the railroad tracks on the north bank of the Harlem, among old beached barges in Edgewater over on the Jersey shore, in the interruptions

Charles Pratt of the concrete surface in Queens along the East River. They cannot be found on Manhattan, because the concrete crust is unbroken, covering real estate that must have accounted for, inch by inch. They cannot be found in Central Park; because the thing about sunflowers is that they are raucous and disorderly. They parks are supposed to be seen in a kind of middle distance, the tall buildings on the edge rising behind a scene that is the closest we can get in the nineteen-sixties to a Currier and Ives print; the sunflowers cannot be seen any way but close, because big as they are, they seem camouflaged by the bits and pieces of concrete and steel around them, and even by the ground itself, which ahs more to do with concrete and steel than it has to do with them.

pole with ONE WAY arrows. On special anniversaries in the dark of the moon, I’ll pipe steam through the cracks of the cast-iron disks, and I’ll be set. Actually, these artifacts are quite beautiful in themselves without association. I suppose that they were designed and the molds for them were made in the early part of this century, when ornate cast-iron work was prevalent. It’s a style you might call New York City Baroque, and you see it everywhere in the city, but you notice it more when it spreads to the outskirts.


In a geographical sense the highway is not necessarily part of the edge of the city; rather it is an extension of urban material into the country. Every city contains its own specific When a highway is built, the right set of recurring details - a certain style of way shifts for itself, despite the efof lamppost, street marker, manhole forts of landscaping experts whose cover, drain cover. In the middle of impossible ambition seems to be lay the city these are hidden by crowds, a formal garden (or, at least, a golf by the size of the buildings, by the course) alongside hundreds of miles constant line of parked cars. All of of concrete. What results despite a sudden, arriving in some remote the effort, is an abrupt intrusion part of Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx, you are surprised to find the same familiar faces from the middle of the city. It’s also surprising to discover how important a part of your experience these things are. When I retire to my desert island I’ll satisfy my nostalgia by laying down about twenty square feet of asphalt (or have the Sicilian Asphalt Company travel to my island and lay it down for me with the accompanying smell of cooking). Into this patch of asphalt, I’ll embed one of those square hunks of cast iron with DWS or CASTKILL WATER GATE on it, a couple of round manhole covers with things like BPM on them, a fire hydrant, a wire trash basket, and a

into a place of softer material like wood, leaves, and richly textured rock. This material is totally different from concrete, cannot easily live right alongside it, and therefore a no man’s land is created - again, like all edge-places under the vast open sky. This is a land where reality is passed at 60 mph. We think of the highway as the destroyer of wilderness, but actually it is our own wilderness, now that the more familiar kind of wilderness becomes classified as recreational area and becomes mucked up by garbage cans robbed by corrupted raccoons. Your car breaks down on a superhighway, and, once stopped, the specific bits and pieces around you represent virgin territory, never before seen by man standing still. Having stopped and got out of your car, you look at what is around you on the ground and how this relates to you standing on it and to the sky and land around you and piece of land you’re standing on, and you realize that the chances are that nobody has ever been exactly where you are in this wilderness of movement and probably nobody ever will be again.



Edges Of The Emerald City Tearing along in a car my tendency, as one who is concerned with the look of reality, is to stop whenever I feel like it (which in some areas might be every ten feet), because how can you experience the specifies of anything going by that fast? Of course, every time I’ve done this, things have changed completely when I have got out of the car. Stopped, I’ve arrived at a place which must be understood from the beginning, because it bears no relation to the world at high speed. I can remember the time, in the Northeast anyway, when they began to build roads without traffic lights, overhead wires, used-car lots, Tastee-Freezes, and other interesting things. (On a spur of the Jericho Turnpike on Long Island, I remember seeing a place which specialized in hot knishes and malteds.) The idea then was to devise a kind of English country lane in concrete. With a good deal of accuracy, these were called parkways, there being a thing line of elegant landscaping between you and the rest of the world. It is very irritating to be reduced to a crawl along one of these roads and

discover that there isn’t a picturesque part of all this existing complicainn around the next bend, but just tion - standing out very clearly for the same car blowing exhaust at you. one split-second. Your connection with this one this is very intense and Now that points A and B are farther very clear. It is completely differapart, the scenery is more expensive ent form the connection you would to put up, and they don’t try to fool have if you were standing still, with us any more - now we have the sur- the sky above and all around you. face of the moon, which is more like the real substance of Highwayland. I have never lived by the side of a From time to time we have indented highway or spent large consistent Howard Johnsons to remind us that chunks of time beside one-as would we are all part of the Great Scheme someone who works in a gas station, of Things. To me anyway, this for instance - so I definitely have a moon-surface quality exists even visitor’s point of view toward the when the concrete sits on top of real points between A and B. As a matfarmland. I’m sure that that things ter of fact, nobody nowadays lives over there is a real barn and silo and alongside the new highways in the not a movie projected against the way people once lived and still live side of the tunnel I’m going through, alongside the railroad tracks. The but from where I am at 60 mph you squatters are now mostly factories can’t tell me I’d smell manure in it. with pompous lawns holding back The reality of Highwayland is the the wilderness, undefended hitchNew Jersey Turnpike around Eliza- hikers (illegal), people standing by beth and not the New York Thru- broken-down cars, and Howard way in the central part of the state. Johnsons. Their world is totally difIn other words, there is not way to ferent from the world of movement. have two purities at the same time. I remember going by a hot dog stand alongside a highway in a particuObviously, one solution to the con- larly monumental part of the New fusing transition between the land Jersey meadows. The movement going by and the land standing still along this road was frantic, because is not to try to make the transition it is a connecting spur where people, at all. I have two friends, photogra- coming off a superhighway, haven’t phers, who went across the country yet had a chance to adjust themin a car. One of them drove, existing selves to suburbs. A farm stand and completely in the world of movemtn a thin, interrupted strip of houses by the very fact that he was driv- and small factories and this hot dog ing; the other, being the passenger, stand lay between the pavement and abandoned the familiar world she the vast meadows. I stopped, feelhad known all her life and started to ing as I always do that this was suiphotograph out of the window. The cidal or illegal or both, and standing photographs which resulted were by the side of the raod I was mostly a complete image of a crazy world aware of the world at 60 mph I’d left of this kind of movement. It I a behind. It was surprising that the world where what you know to be man with the wagon was very calm a piece of earth which exists by it- and very cheerful. He had about self, with all kinds of complications three different kinds of relish, sauerthat you could spend year examin- kraut, catchup, and honest to God, ing, rushes by with one thing - on gravy to go with the hot dogs. After

Charles Pratt about a minute this specific world bright umbrella, nice man, fancy hot dogs, and scrubby grass with the marshes stretching out and the very big bright sky above became a good place to be - not an anachronism and the cars cruising by became an idiotic but necessary background. A couple of days later I passed by and, in spite of my memory of the time I’d spent there, I had the familiar thought that that was a pretty peculiar and lonely way to make a living. Gas stations are very much the same; that is, they are owned by the same old familiar companies with the same old familiar artwork and miracle ingredients. So it is always a surprise to find that the people working in them are residents of some town or another instead of anonymous creature of that particular stretch of concrete you happen to be tearing along. As a matter of fact, it’s rather surprising to realize that

every inch of highway (at least in the when they surrounded the virgin Northeast) is a part of some town. island of Manhattan, and they have always been so. When the present Among all of the familiar furnishing system of gridded streets was first of the gas station, the nicest is the laid out in 1811, the commissionstrong of flags, varies with brightly ers were questioned as to why the colored whirligigs, which are put plan did not include more than a up to attract attention and make life few small parks. (The present Cengayer. They remind me of the dock tral Park has been omitted.) They pennants going crazy in the stiff replied that, as opposed to London breeze of clear summer afternoons and Paris with their “small streams,” when I was learning to sail at sum- “those large arms of their sea which mer camp. Then, this same frantic embrace Manhattan Island, render noise meant that I was going to have its situation, in regard to health and to face some challenge from the el- pleasure, as well as to convenience ements, perhaps ending in disas- of commerce, peculiarly felicitous.” ter. It is wonderful to be reminded now, beside a dry urban highway, The reason for this felicitous situaof this bright and nameless terror. tion is that the rivers and the Upper bay are real physical barriers to the city, providing and, by their strength, maintaining its shape. Seen from the edges of Jersey City, New York Despite pollution, New York Harbor rises out of the water as the Emerald and the two rivers are glorious. They City rose from the conveniently flat were glorious in Verazzano’s time plains surrounding it in illustrations




Edges Of The Emerald City from an edition of The Wizard of Oz which I remember from childhood. Greater New York spreads out on all sides (if you consider the new jersey urban complex virtually a part of Greater New York), but down by the site of the original New Amsterdam there is still very much the same shape, even more clearly defined by the vertical mass of buildings. The higher and more massive the buildings get year by year the lovelier this part of the city becomes, just because of that appealing shape. So the people high in the office buildings of the financial district admire the harbor and the boats, and the people on the boats admire the office buildings. It’s a great mutual arrangement.

string of beads, for example. The two worlds are dramatically different in other ways. There is a feeling of free movement not to be found on the inside. This may be simply river, navigable by something as big as a tug, is broader than any highway or street, and the open sea is broader than anything. The wheel doesn’t have to be gripped as hard, even to steer a compass course. There seems to be an ease of arrival and departure. When I first arranged to spend some time on a tug, I was told by the front office that I could board her just north of Pier A down by the Battery. I did so, whereupon the captain called the dispatcher on the radio and told him that the photographer had just arrived.

Coming close in under the wall of the buildings in a small boat, I discovered a strange, calm world sprinkled with souvenirs of the past. Facing the river, and only seen from the water, there is an old pier shed painted in large stars and stripes. It was fixed up to welcome the soldiers home at the end of the World War II, and when the pier fell into disuse the decorations just naturally stayed there. As you go by, you can easily imagine confetti, band music, and girls in those outlandish clothes they wore back in 1945. it is ghostly in a pleasant way (after all, the homecomings were happy occasions), but really it doesn’t seem any crazier than the helicopters landing at the heliport right alongside it. The waterfront seen from the river is full of surprises and in fact is one big surprise in itself.

I heard the dispatcher ask the captain where I wanted to go; the captain said he didn’t know and turned to me. I said that, what the hell, all I wanted to do was hang around while they did what they had to do. This seemed to confuse everyone, and for one horrible moment I thought that through some nightmarish misun-

The world seen from the river is an improvement over the world of the landsman. The frantic glare of a highway at night is transformed by distance over the water into a lyric

derstand I had chartered the tug for the day and would be presented with a bill for five thousand dollars at the end of the month. Actually it turned out that there wasn’t any jobs scheduled for the afternoon, and the tug people felt we might just as well go for a spit as hang around, listlessly tied up to the seawall. Hanging around on the tug seemed dandy to me; I was already a thousand miles away from things belonging to the inside of the city, like the Lexington Avenue I.R.T., which had brought me downtown, and I wanted nothing more. However, I was urged to choose the place I most wanted to visit in the harbor, and confronted with this dream of luxury come true, I naturally couldn’t think of any place. Reverting to childhood, I picked the Statue of Liberty. What I figured to be millions of dollars worth of diesel engine started up by what must have be at least five-dollar-an-hour talent, and, burning our weight in ten-dollar bills every minute, off we went to fulfill my whim. It was the closes I’ve

Charles Pratt ever been to being Aristotle Onassis. The tug company’s motive here cannot be found by reference to standards as you would likely find inside the city - nobody thought I was a Life photographer, and, although I had mentioned to the front office that I was working on a book, this did not offer any particular publicity advantage to the company which they or I could then see. It is most probable that this was simple example of corporate and personal hospitality; I had expressed a great deal of interest in their world, they could easily understand that interest, and the trouble and expense involved in showing me around seemed minor to them. How simple, and how rare an attitude this is. It would seem that there are no arbitrary rules in the world of the harbor - only ones relative to performing feats of shiphanlding in tricky circumstances. Later, it was strange to get ashore by climbing over fifty yards of nested tugs, after spending the afternoon on the afterdeck of the outermost one, to reach Pier 11, then to walk through the big, dark, empty pier shed and emerge onto West Street filled with business-suited types on their way to the New Jersey ferries. It is possible to get from the water to the city streets more easily and more informally than one would think. The wall of the pier sheds is not solid, and tugs take on water by hooking up to ordinary city hydrants. I had seen them do this from the land, and the connection between the inside and outside hadn’t seemed particularly strange to me, but form the deck of a tug this proximity of familiar hydrants, street signs, car and buses, all functioning in their usual interior way, is peculiar indeed. All kind of over blown images come to mind, like the

city island as a huge sow giving suck. being away from home fro days at a time. Therefore he had been usTugboat men, working skillfully in ing a great deal of normal company their unique world just outside the politics (“I mentioned it to him, he high wall of the city, seem to me to promised me,” etc.,) to get a job as a lead truly romantic lives. Like sail- dispatcher in the front office ashore. ors, lumberjacks, railroad engineers, I told him of my romantic notions cowboys, and bridge builders, they about his job, and he had great conare guaranteed a place in heroic bal- tempt for them, maintaining that his lads by occupation alone. Knowing was just another job whose quality this, I wondered how conscious they depended on time and money. The were of what I would certainly feel strange this was that he knew perare the fringe benefits of romance fectly well what I was talking about, although I had put my romantic notions purposely in a very naïve way. As we went up the bay toward towers of the Emerald City, he had to admit that it was pretty wonderful sight, no matter how familiar; it was just that he wasn’t going to fall into any traps which might compromise his professional dignity.

and real beauty in their jobs. One of the captains I traveled with gave me a clue - at least to his own feelings. He was a young man who had received his mater’s license at the age of twenty-four, by no means a small accomplishment. I guessed that he was then in his early thirties. He told me that he worked as much as a deckhand as he did as captain, because he could make just as much money. It other words, he now claimed to find no satisfaction in exercising a responsibility he must have worked hard to win originally. He had a new home in the suburbs, and he wanted to see more of his family than he could in a job that meant

I knew and remembered this feeling: when I worked as a stage manager for Broadway shows, at the end of the evening’s work I hardly ever walked out of the stage door onto a street filled with the audience without feeling glamorous, and yet to have expressed anything but total boredom would have been unthinkable. Dignified reticence, though, is hard to maintain in the sitting of New York Harbor, and I was pretty sure that this man would never get very far from the glory both the real glory and the cliché glory - of this particular edge-land.

t t a r P s e l r a h C


Edges Contemporary  

Magazine Spread Desiree Priser © 2013

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you