Along Hudson River Park is a seemingly long forgotten and dilapidated docking pier. Pier 54 is located on West 13th Street in Chelsea, Manhattan near the High Line. The water of the Hudson River laps softly against what is left of the abandoned dock, as the ruins of the pier slowly sink into the river. The sign in front of the dock is a rusting iron arch over a rectangular entrance on the street, which sits in stark contrast to the shiny and modern Manhattan skyline. While Pier 54 appears to be another run down and solitary structure, the dock contains much more history than meets the eye. People walk around Hudson River Park, some aware of the significance of Pier 54, while others just give it a passing glance. After seeing the pier on my first trip into Chelsea, I was intrigued by its presence and soon decided to research its history. Though it is a seemingly forgotten landmark, Pier 54 was both a significant starting point and destination for famous ocean liners during their prime decades. Accordingly, the pier should be preserved as a reminder of its influential past.
Built in 1907, Manhattan’s Pier 54 was originally a dock for the Cunard ship lines as well as the White Star ship lines (Barclay). Painted on the arch at the entrance to the pier, the words “Cunard” and “White Star” overlap one another (“A Gate to Remember- Pier 54”). The two ship lines were each other’s biggest competitors in the 1930s, but after the onset of the Great Depression the two lines were in great financial trouble. Because of the scarcity of money during this time period, Cunard and White Star merged companies in 1934, “creating Cunard White Star Limited” but changed to just “Cunard” in 1949 (Brown). The companies contributed to the huge increase in popularity of ocean liners, which provided a means for crossing the ocean faster and “easier than ever before” (Weidenfeld). In this way, the Pier is a crucial symbol of the technological advances which helped facilitate trade and transportation.
Interestingly, Pier 54 is the site where multiple well-known ships either docked at or were supposed to dock at. For example, Pier 54 was the planned landing site of the Titanic. After the Titanic tragically sank in 1912, a ship entitled the Carpathia rescued 675 survivors and brought the survivors back to Pier 54 on April 20th, 1912 (“Chelsea Piers History 101”). Additionally, a British ship called the Lusitania left New York on route to Liverpool, England from Pier 54 in 1915 but was later sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. The sinking of the luxurious Lusitania killed “1,198 people, including 124 Americans” (“Chelsea Piers History 101”). This tragedy was the catalyst for forward movements in World War I and “played a significant role in turning public opinion against Germany” (“Lusitania”). If more people were aware of the role Pier 54 played in the past, it could serve as a symbol of these famous ships and those who passed away on their journeys.
The pier was used as a functioning dock for about 60 years. Then, the ocean liner era ended in the 1960s and, as a result, the dock went unused and vacant for three decades (“The Demise of the Steamship”). In 1991, the “pier terminal structure…was demolished” because of its decrepit appearance and lack of usage. In 1998, Pier 54 was added as a part of the Hudson River Park and the pier is now used to hold functions and concerts (Geberer). Unfortunately, all that is left today of Pier 54 is the iron entrance. The dock on the water has already been torn down in preparation for demolition of the Chelsea Piers. Though the metal entrance still stands along the Hudson River Park, the actual dock for the pier is gone and, therefore, Pier 54 is now merely a rusting façade.
The other piers along the Hudson River Park are known as the Chelsea Piers. Construction began for the Chelsea Piers in 1907, and the piers were open for use in 1910. For 50 years, the Chelsea Piers “served the needs of the New York port.” The piers were first used as New York’s “premier passenger ship terminal” and “then as an embarkation point for soldiers departing for battlefields of World Wars I and II,” and ultimately “as a cargo terminal” in the 1950s and 1960s (“Chelsea Piers History 101”). Piers were extremely important until the 1960s, mainly because it was the only way to travel across the Atlantic. Additionally, in order to engage in trade with other countries it was necessary to have well-developed sea transportation methods. Manhattan was the overall most popular hub because of its dense population and its central location in relation to other major American cities, as it is located on the coast between Boston and Philadelphia. However, the need for ocean liner travel dwindled as airplanes became the primary means of transportation across the Atlantic. As a result, the Chelsea piers became an unused part of the city, causing them to slowly deteriorate (“The Demise of the Steamship”).
Today, the Chelsea Piers are no longer used for their original purpose. Some of the Chelsea Piers were torn down in order to build a massive sports complex. One of the piers was also turned into a small garden with a playground. The piers are slowly being either demolished or developed as commercial spaces. Pier 54 is no exception, as there are current plans to repair and redesign the pier into “Pier 55,” which will be a modern “2.7-acre park on a manmade island in the Hudson River” (Saffron). Pier 55 will be the complete opposite of the original Chelsea piers with its sleek, curved design and modern building materials rather than an old, rusted iron structure. The park will cost over $200 million to build and the plans for the park are currently being orchestrated and paid for by famous designer Diane von Furstenberg and businessman Barry Diller. The new Pier 55 park will be a large manmade island with plants, trees, and event space. Progress is slowly being made to build the park as columns are being placed into water to prepare for the placement of the greenspace. As the foundation is set for the park, the vision is slowly coming to life and the park will soon be enjoyed by Manhattanites and tourists alike. Pier 55 will be considered the new and improved Hudson River Park, completely replacing all elements of the old park (Warerker).
The idea for a big and beautiful park sounds intriguing and useful. However, many New Yorkers are opposed to the construction of a park on the Hudson River Park docks. There have been several lawsuits filed against the construction of this park which have thwarted efforts to build it. In June, the City Club of New York filed a lawsuit against the constructers of the park which declared that the original structures must undergo “not just a state Environmental Assessment Form, but a full Environmental Impact Statement before construction on the park can proceed” (Rosenberg). These environmental inspections require that the original Hudson River Park must be cleared by environmental officials who will determine whether the area is environmentally sound enough to undergo the construction. Environmentally concerned Manhattanites believe that the Hudson River Park should stay as it is and that the area is too fragile to be interfered with so intensely. Additionally, there was an uproar when Barry Diller was named the developer of the project rather than someone else more qualified. The main concern with Diller was that many Manhattanites believed the construction project was merely handed to him due to his wealth rather than his qualifications to successfully complete the work (Bagli). Based on this uproar against the construction, it raises questions as to whether these old piers should be torn down to create this new park.
One might argue against the preservation of historical sites because it is equally as critical for society to move forward rather than to get stuck in the past. It is true that if all sites with some past significance were preserved, a lot of the modern world today would not be built. For example, many historical “battles,” “long-vanished mills,” “town greens,” and “cemeteries” were scattered throughout and used in Massachusetts at the time of the old colonies and settlements. The important sites are now remembered by commemorative iron signs; therefore, they are still recognized without taking up tons of land (Marstall). If all of the old ground which housed these landmarks were protected, the state as a whole would be full of dilapidated buildings and it would be very limited on available space. Similarly, it is impossible to protect every portion of the ocean liner era, as this would require all old piers and ocean routes to be left unchartered. However, in preserving some pieces of certain eras and events, we are able to remind people of influential inventions, people, and movements of the past. Erecting an engraved sign in something’s honor or preserving one pier highlights significant events rather than tearing everything down and commercializing the space. It then becomes part of the formation of modern day society and connects us to the struggles and victories of the past.
Though a new and sprawling island park would be a great addition to Manhattan, Pier 54 should not be torn down to create this park. Instead, the money being put forward to construct this modern area should be put toward the repair and restoration of Pier 54. The pier is an important piece of New York and its history. In having so many old, historic buildings “tourists and longtime residents are able to witness the aesthetic and cultural history of an area” (Rocchi). It is necessary to remember and understand the past to honor its cultural roots and those who made growth and development possible. Without reflecting on history, our society would be very egocentric and narrow minded by only focusing on today and the future. Preserving pieces of historical events is crucial in preventing society from becoming too modern, which would be completely demolishing old sites to make way for consumerist-coveted stores. Historical sites are too often destroyed to make room for more modern and 21st century materialistic and commercialized places. For example, in my hometown a cranberry bog was shut down and destroyed to build a new shopping center. In Massachusetts, cranberry bogs have been prominent since the first bog was discovered in 1816 but are quickly being torn down due to the decline in agriculture (Von Blokland). As the bogs are becoming scarce, the ones remaining should be protected and preserved or Massachusetts will lose part of its historical identity. In the same way, as the Chelsea Piers are torn down more of New York’s identity as a prominent ocean liner port diminishes. Unfortunately, people are less likely to become aware of the struggles from the past as physical reminders of prominent eras continue to dwindle.
Pier 54 and the other Chelsea piers should not be torn down to construct a new park due to the rich histories the piers hold. This rusted iron entranceway used to be a frequently used transportation entrance and it should stay where it is as a way to push people to research these landmarks. If I had not stumbled upon the intriguing pier entrance while exploring Chelsea, I would not be aware of its role in history. I was drawn to Pier 54 because it was an unmarked structure along the water that looked like it had once held a lot of importance. By researching Pier 54, I learned about a long-forgotten piece of New York history and enriched my knowledge of my new city. Physical reminders of influential places urge people to be curious and to put an effort into exploring the history of their surroundings. Pier 54 is a symbol of those who died on the Titanic and the Lusitania, as well as those who were rescued by the Carpathia (“Chelsea Piers History 101”). Pier 54 is also a symbol of the ocean liner era; therefore, it is crucial to preserve it, as it signifies multiple pieces of American history that deserve to be remembered.
“A Gate to Remember- Pier 54.” Forgotten New York. WordPress, 24 May 2012. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
Bagli, Charles V. “Clash of Titans? Opponents of Pier 55 Have Secret Backer, Media Mogul Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 Sept. 2016. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
Barclay, Christian. “Portal to the Past: The History of Pier 54.” The High Line. Friends of the High Line, 6 Nov. 2014. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
Brown, Margaret. “History of the White Star Line.” Between the Lions. WordPress.com, 01 Feb. 2012. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
“Chelsea Piers History 101.” Chelsea Piers New York. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
“The Demise of the Steamship.” Infoplease. Infoplease, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
Geberer, Raanan. “The Dark History of Pier 54.” Straus Media. Straus News, 2 July 2015. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
“Lusitania.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 07 Dec.
Marstall, 2011 Chris. “History, Preserved in Sturdy Cast Iron.” BostonGlobe.com. Boston Globe Media Partners, 30 Oct. 2011. Web. 10 June 2017.
Rocchi, Julia. “Six Practical Reasons to Save Old Buildings.” National Trust for Historic Preservation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, 10 Nov. 2015. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
Rosenberg, Zoe. “Pier 55 Appears in Court to Argue, Again, That It Should Proceed.” Curbed NY. Curbed New York, 07 Sept. 2016. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
Saffron, Inga. “They Craved Paradise.” New Republic 246.1 (2015): 50-51. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2016.
Von Blokland, Christine. “Cranberries in Massachusetts: A Sweet-Tart History.” TravelSmith: TravelCenter. TravelSmith, 18 Nov. 2015. Web. 09 Dec. 2016.
Warerkar, Tanay. “Pier 55’s Futuristic Floating Park Will Be Home to 400 Plant Species.” Curbed NY. Curbed New York, 17 Nov. 2016. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
Weidenfeld, Lisa. “Revist the Glamour of the Ocean Liner Era at the Peabody Essex Museum.” Boston Magazine. Metro Corp, 19 May 2017. Web. 29 May 2017.