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Recognizing Systems

The panorama above was created by Irving Underhill in 1913, and it shows the Brooklyn waterfront, the East River, and lower Manhattan from a vantage point in Brooklyn Heights. The Heights is on a bluff with a deep drop down to the river, so you can get an elevated view like this without much difficulty. While everyone’s first reaction is to look at the collection of old-fashioned buildings in general and a number of famous structures – the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, the Woolworth Building almost lost in the haze off to the left of the Brooklyn Bridge’s far end – that’s giving in to presentism. To Underhill, or anyone else in 1913, the buildings aren’t necessarily old-fashioned, they’re what buildings in a city look like. So to get over our twenty-first century bias, it’s helpful to focus on why various details are what they are.

For example, in the center foreground is the Fulton Ferry terminal in Brooklyn. That ferry line, connecting downtown Brooklyn to lower Manhattan, is the oldest in the city and one of the oldest in the country, dating back to the first half of the seventeenth century. Robert Fulton bought the line in the early nineteenth century and began running steam-engine boats there…which is why the streets running down to both terminals are now named “Fulton Street.” John Roebling’s stated purpose for the Brooklyn Bridge was to kill off the ferries, but that took a long time to happen. The bridge opened in 1883; in 1888 the Fulton Street elevated train in Brooklyn opened from a station next to the ferry terminal as far east as Nostrand Avenue. The ferry terminal is the building in the center with the large square tower and a steep mansard roof, and the elevated station, with a train, is just to its left. A form of transportation can be run by private companies, as the elevated and ferry were, or municipally owned, as the bridge was after the then-separate cities of Brooklyn and New York bought all of the bridge company stock during construction. Regardless, the purpose is to move people or freight for point A to point B. The ferry without the el or streetcars was limited to helping people who lived or worked fairly near the waterfront. The el without the ferry was good for transporting people within Brooklyn but would miss out on the lucrative and vital cross-river commuters. Together, and with the added elevated lines near the Manhattan ferry terminal, this was a system. It was killed off not by the bridge (which competed with the ferry but not the rest of the system) but by the subway, which duplicated, better, all three parts. Having the el end at the ferry was not an accident.

Another example is the land use. This was a working waterfront for freight, and had been for a long time. The bluff made for an easy separation of uses, with industrial use down at the river and residential up on the hill. Almost all of the buildings visible in the photo are warehouses, located where they had easy access to the dock. One of the few exceptions is the directly below (in terms of the photo) the near tower of the bridge: it was a hotel. One of the warehouses, on the left, is labelled Adams Express. Adams was at that time a competitor of American Express in the “express” business, that is, moving packages quickly. At some point, Amex got out of the express business and into banking, while Adams did not. These two companies and other express companies had warehouses around the city as well as stables to house their horses and carts, and later trucks. Again, being near the docks made sense.