Volume 18 • Issue 39 | February 10 - 16, 2006


“The Lost Waterfront”
Photographs by Shelley Seccombe
On view through Oct. 31
South Street Seaport Museum
12 Fulton Street
Call ahead for hours
(212-748-8600; southstseaport.org)

Shelley Seccombe

Shelley Seccombe’s photographs bring back scenes from a forgotten New York, like “West Street in Snow,” featuring the old elevated West Side highway under demolition, and the still-standing Twin Towers.

On the waterfront, before it was green

By Nicole Davis

It’s easy, if you don’t live or work near the water, to forget that Manhattan is surrounded by it. It’s easier still, while jogging or lounging or kayaking along the parks that now dot the west side from Battery Park to W. 55th, to forget that those green acres were once home to a working waterfront, filled with sailboats and oyster ships and later tugs and scows and football-stadium-sized pier sheds housing meat and produce and manufactured goods. For roughly 150 years, from the time Robert Fulton launched the first steamship from the Christopher Street pier in 1807, to the 1950s, New York was the greatest port in the country. Then came the rise of container shipping by rail and truck, which shuttered New York’s booming maritime industry and many of the 60-odd piers along the Hudson. Commercial activity started to ebb, and a whole new cast of characters flowed onto the abandoned piers. Fortunately, for those of us who weren’t around to witness this flux, we have Shelley Seccombe.

“There are many people in New York who have no idea that the waterfront was any different from what it is now,” says the 67-year-old photographer, just a few blocks from the South Street Seaport Museum where her photographs of the old Hudson River waterfront are on view through October. Over coffee, she explains what it was like in the 70s and early 80s, the period her exhibit covers.

“People hung out on the piers…There were dance concerts, there were always people doing exercises and jogging and walking their dogs and then there were the performers, the people who came and played their instruments.”

Just as this reporter is about to say that her description of the past sounds pretty much like the present, Seccombe mentions the fires.

“Then there were all these fires on the waterfront. Some of them may have been arson fires, [but] there were [also] people around smoking, and the decks of the piers would start to catch fire and the fireboat would come.” Someone even set her own car on fire once, when she parked it in a lot along the river. “It was very colorful,” she says, smiling at her choice of words. “I think I saw [taking these photographs] as keeping a record.”

That record — those 25 photographs on the third floor of the museum — depicts a gritty New York in glorious decay. Dilapidated piers jut out into the Hudson, their frames exposed like skeletal remains. At the edge of one empty pier, a woman curls into an unfathomable yoga pose, mirroring the derelict pier in the background, whose structure is in such bad shape, it looks as though it’s melting.

In many of the photographs, you can also catch glimpses of the old, elevated West Side highway, known then as the Miller highway. By 1973, it had deteriorated so badly that a cement truck on its way to make repairs to the aging roadway caused a 60-foot section of it to collapse. That was around the time Seccombe began photographing the piers in earnest, exploring the waterfront near her Westbeth apartment where she and her husband David still live and where they raised their daughter, who appears in some of the photos. A Midwesterner by birth, Seccombe was drawn to the water from the moment she moved into the subsidized artist apartments at Bethune and West Street. From her window she could still see the waterfront “teeming with commercial activity.” and Seccombe says she took at least ten trips on tugboats, swapping prints for rides so she could photograph the piers from the river. Many of them are gone now, like Pier 49, whose remaining piles poke out of the Hudson today like thick cattails. Seccombe remembers when it was still intact — well, just barely.

“One time I was photographing outdoors and I saw someone with a dog on the pier and suddenly the dog disappeared. [It] had fallen in a hole, and a current carried the dog out into the river. The man jumped in to save it, and I went running for help.” The piers, she says, were riddled with breaks in the decking where you could trap your foot and break a leg. “It was not all that pristine and comfortable,” says Seccombe. And yet New Yorkers still managed to find a way to lie on them. One photograph displays sunbathers on the old Pier 51, which has since been reincarnated as a Hudson River Park playground. Back then it was on the verge of disappearing into a watery grave, and laid accordion-like in the river. At its edge, just before the steel bars sticking out from the end, a few extreme sun worshippers spread out blankets to catch some rays. Seccombe says there were days the edges of these piers, hidden from the street by elegant head houses in front, were covered with nude sunbathers. (Don’t get too excited. She kept those racy images out of the show.)

A few of the digital prints, made with the help of Nancy Sirkis from Seccombe’s stash of negatives and slides, also show the Twin Towers still standing. In one, the smoke and flames from a burning pier crowd out the image of the Towers in the background, a grim foreshadowing of 9/11. Seccombe isn’t sure which pier it was — 46 or 48—because she didn’t take good notes when she first switched careers from violinist to photographer and photography teacher.

“Although it’s early work, it’s some of my best work,” says Seccombe. “I’m always surprised when I go back to it that it still looks pretty good, even though I was in many ways less technically adept than I am now. I was so involved in it, I guess because I had never lived on the water,” says the Illinois-born photographer.

Today, Seccombe still takes pictures along the waterfront, particularly of street performers who bring some of the old flavor back. But the grime and the grit are gone. In its place, as photos donated from Friends of Hudson River Park show, are manicured lawns and reconstructed piers where even the people lounge in an orderly fashion, seated almost in a straight line at the edge of the newfangled Pier 45.

Increasingly, however, Seccombe is turning away from the waterfront and into the heart of the country, where she travels frequently to see her daughter in Phoenix. On her road trips with her husband through the Heartland and the Southwest, she finds herself stopping in places like Kansas to photograph orange piles of sorghum and old grain elevators — yet another symbol of industrial decay.

“I hate to say that I only take pictures of things in decay,” says Seccombe. “But it’s difficult to shoot something that’s inherently beautiful in a way that will capture people’s attention.”


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