Episode 4 - Coastline Cultures: The Evolution of Manhattan’s Waterfront

June 4, 2021


Episode 4 - Coastline Cultures: The Evolution of Manhattan’s Waterfront


Luc Sante: New York is the least preserving of all the major cities that I know personally. The Rem Koolhaas quote that I use: “New York is a city that will be replaced by another city.” That’s a fundamental truth about the place. Various pasts are superimposed onto other pasts.

Catherine Seavitt: If you look at geological time. It’s only going to change, like the only stable thing that we can understand is that it won’t be the same. That the sea level will be different. The coast will become something else. The people that live here will do something else or move somewhere else and life will . . . if it continues, carry on differently.

Carrie Mae Weems: That’s author Luc Sante and architect Catherine Seavitt. I’m Carrie Mae Weems. Welcome to Artists Among Us, a podcast from the Whitney Museum of American Art that reimagines American art and history.

In this five-part season, we’re looking at the changing landscape of the Meatpacking District of New York through the lens of artist David Hammons’s sculpture Day’s End. In episode three, we explored the communities that frequented the piers.

In this episode, we look at an aspect of Manhattan that we don’t tend to think about, and one that has experienced radical changes—its coastline. It, too, becomes part of Day’s End’s meaning. With sculpture, materials and processes have an enormous impact on the way we understand them. A glossy, luminous statue carved from marble feels very different from one molded from clay. Day’s End is different again. It’s been designed to stand permanently in the Hudson River. Storms, rising sea levels, and other aspects of global climate change have been part of the work’s conception from the very beginning. Building it has required an effort to anticipate the future—but it also carries echoes of the past.

As a refresher, let’s remind ourselves of what this sculpture actually looks like. Here’s Adam Weinberg, Director of the Whitney Museum.

Adam D. Weinberg: It’s a building without doors, without windows, without walls, without ceiling, without floor. So it’s not a building, it’s sort of like a drawing because it’s a drawing in space, but yet it’s not physically a drawing, it’s a sculpture. It’s like how people draw stick figures in a way. This becomes the kind of steady state frame through which we see other things as it evolves and changes.

Catherine Seavitt: The frame is exactly the size of the old pier building that Gordon Matta-Clark carved.

Carrie Mae Weems: In 1975, this building became the first Day’s End. It was torn down four years later.

Adam D. Weinberg: It doesn’t look that big. But you realize that it’s 300 and, I think, 45 feet long. It’s longer than the size of this building itself—the Whitney building. It’s absolutely, I would say, massive, but it’s not massive because there’s not mass to it. It’s enormous in its shape.

Catherine Seavitt: So, it shows you that kind of ghost-like memory like, “I remember how big it was.” I remember the space it contained, but it somehow becomes very ephemeral at the same time where the air and the light can pass right through it.

Carrie Mae Weems: To create the sculpture, a team of architects, engineers, ecologists, and manufacturers came together to collaborate with David and the Museum.

Catherine Seavitt: What’s been really interesting about Day’s End and the collaboration we’ve been doing here is really thinking about the site around the project and how the Whitney’s neighborhood in some ways is part of the project. So, how the structure of the sculpture actually starts to give readings to that sort of ecological history of the waterfront at the Whitney site.

Carrie Mae Weems: Jessamyn Fiore, is the . . .

Jessamyn Fiore: . . . curator as well as the co-director of the Gordon Matta-Clark estate.

I think that when you look at the old photographs of Day’s End, particularly the ones where you see the skyline in the background, and I’m so excited to compare those to what is going to be that same angle with the David Hammons sculpture, because I think it is going to be shocking, just that snapshot of how much this side of Manhattan has transformed.

Carrie Mae Weems: Matta-Clark made Day’s End knowing full well that it would one day be gone. And Hammons has worked with the ideas of transience and ephemerality before, too. Indeed, earlier in this series we looked at one such work that brings up these questions. It’s called the Bliz-aard Ball Sale . . . fantastic work of art!

NYU professor of media studies Laura Harris.

Laura Harris: The very famous performance piece in which he spreads out a blanket and then offers snowballs for sale on the streets of New York.

Carrie Mae Weems: Art historian Kellie Jones.

Kellie Jones: In winter, in pop-up markets, or they’re alternative markets people used to have around Cooper Union and elsewhere, where people put a blanket on the street and sell you a few little things. So he would sell snowballs.

Carrie Mae Weems: Artist Glenn Ligon.

Glenn Ligon: The snowballs on the street wasn’t announced. It just happened. 

Catherine Seavitt: I love David Hammons’s piece with the snowballs when he sold snowballs down on Cooper Square. And I think there’s nothing more ephemeral than something that melts away. And I always wonder, and others have wondered, “What does it sound like when ice melts? Is there a sound?” And then when you expand that question, “What does it sound like when the glaciers are melting? What does climate change sound like?” Certainly sound and things that melt away are probably the most ephemeral things there are. It’s there and then it’s gone. Those snowballs are just sort of the best idea or way of capturing something about ephemera that the piece does as well.

Carrie Mae Weems: The Bliz-aard Ball Sale happened in 1983. Much later, in the summer of 2019, David revisited the work for an exhibition held in Los Angeles. Framed on the wall was an old letter from a prospective collector—the name was blotted out—and the collector hoping to buy one of the snowballs. But the collector had a complaint. The snowball was too expensive, and no insurance company would insure them. Near the letter, there was a bowl holding just about a melted snowball’s worth of water.

It was David’s way of saying, you can spend all the money you want, but you can’t stop time. Eventually, someone’s going to unplug that freezer. I like to say, money won’t change it, but time will take you on. Compared with the enormous Day’s End, this new look at an old work is simply a modest gesture. But in both works, there’s a bow to the unstoppable natural force of nature. But of course in the Hudson River, those forces have a different kind of force—a brute force.

Ecologist Bernice Rosenzweig.

Bernice Rosenzweig: What really changed the face of what Manhattan looked like in terms of its modern or its pre-development landscape was the most recent ice age. So, during the most recent ice age, around roughly fifteen-thousand years ago, the glaciers, we have ice glaciers in the far North, and we have sea ice in the Arctic. During the most recent ice age, the glaciers made it as far South as New York City and they got just South of Manhattan. So they run through Brooklyn and parts of Staten Island and that’s where they ended. But Manhattan itself, like many other northern U.S. cities, was just carved by glaciers. So you can think about how these enormous walls of ice just scraped over this very hard rock and carved it away over thousands and thousands of years.

Eric Sanderson: Because of the geological history of Manhattan, because it was a glaciated landscape, when glaciers retreat, they leave these sort of beds of sand and silt and till over the top of the bedrock. The bedrock was scraped down by the ice, and then these sediments were laid on top of it, and then that’s what the soil and the vegetation forms on.

Bernice Rosenzweig: The Meatpacking District is on somewhat higher ground. In feet I’d say maybe 20 feet above sea level. Whereas if you go further South into what most New Yorkers would call Lower Manhattan, it was actually much lower in elevation and there were natural springs and there were also actual freshwater streams and tidal creeks that crisscrossed across the landscape.

Eric Sanderson: There’s an early description that talks about a small valley amongst three hills, a small triangular valley, which is pretty much where the Whitney is today. There was a beach. You wouldn’t have to walk too far to find another stream or spring to drink fresh water. Sixty-six miles of streams on Mannahatta.

There is something really lovely about a stream. I always love the place where streams come out to the ocean. Imagine the beach and the fresh water running across the beach and into the Hudson River, where the Whitney is and the West Side Highway. It blows the mind.

Bernice Rosenzweig: There are places where the city has invested, or the state in some cases have invested, in creating parks that really do try to recreate the natural landscapes and the natural ecosystems that were there pre-development. They’ve restored a lot of the pre-development wetlands or attempted to restore a lot of the pre-development wetlands. If you look at the right angle, maybe you can pretend you’re seeing what the Lenape saw before European settlement in this area.

Carrie Mae Weems: Educator and Riverkeeper president Paul Gallay.

Paul Gallay: Close your eyes and imagine Manhattan four hundred years ago. The shoreline was different. It was all natural, none of the fill that’s been brought in to make the coastline so homogenous and flattened out existed. You had sinuous coastlines and you had near shore communities of wading birds, vegetation above and below the surface. You had an intertidal zone that was filled with mussels, clams, and oysters. And critters that made the biodiversity of the Hudson legend.

Eric Sanderson: It’s this sort of biogeographic boundary, and then it’s this really important place for migratory birds, because of the way it fits into the Northeast coastline, and not to mention the fish runs that would have been going up and down the Hudson River, right off of where the Whitney is today. But I often think about [Henry] Hudson, because Hudson, he was looking for something that we have in abundance, which is things from China, and international trade. That’s what he wanted, and he missed the thing that was so valuable about the place he was in then, which was the ecological value and all the relationships of all the plants and animals, and the long-term history that had created that resilience in the place before him, but he was completely blind to it. Of course, today, that’s the most valuable thing. We can’t find a place that is as wild as Mannahatta was four hundred years ago.

Paul Gallay: Before the European first contact, it was said that during the spring migrations of the dozens and dozens of species of fish that make the Hudson their home, that there were so many fish during those spring runs that you could practically walk on the backs of the fish. The river didn’t run blue with those times, it ran silver with the sun glinting off the backs of those fish.

Carrie Mae Weems: Conservationist Pete Malinowski co-founded the Billion Oyster Project and is its executive director.

Pete Malinowski: There are accounts of people sailing into New York Harbor and catching fish just by lowering a basket over the side of it and pulling it back up. If we were here then, our view would be full of fish.

Carrie Mae Weems: Curtis Zunigha is a Lenape Indian.

Curtis Zunigha: There’s a tidal basin part that flows inward, and then you’ve got the ice and snow flow down river toward the open bay. So, you’ve got these different currents going on.

In our Lenape ways, the waters are a female spirit. With those tides and its constant movement, there’s a connection with that spirit, even connected with the moon, which is also a female spirit, the moon affected tides.

Eric Sanderson: You can imagine, a raindrop falling four hundred years ago would fall, come down through the trees, and maybe down the trunk and into the soil. Then, if the roots didn’t pick it up or something there, it would flow over the course of the bedrock through these beds of sands and silts, and then emerge into a spring or a stream, and then flow, trickling down to the shore.

Paul Gallay: You had no barrier. There was no hard barrier between the river and the Island of Manhattan. You had temporary villages that were seasonal, the Native American communities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would have these settlements and go from one to another depending upon the season, depending upon the sources of food and shelter that made most sense for the season.

Carrie Mae Weems: George Stonefish.

George Stonefish: Most New Yorkers, if you ask them, “What Natives met the Dutch?” They don’t know. They don’t know it was the Lenape. All they’ll tell you is “We know they sold the island of Manhattan for twenty four dollars.” We came from this area, and we were chased, ultimately, and we were massacred at that one spot that we are present at now. And that whole history, people should know of.

Curtis Zunigha: A lot of things that were written in books were done by these historians, and people in the military, people in trade and commerce, people in the churches, missionaries and the like, they wrote extensively about the Lenape, and many other tribes. So, in a lot of ways we have to learn from their history.

I’ve been asked to come back and speak at functions: “Will you come and do a land acknowledgment statement?” And yes, I can acknowledge that yes, we are on the Indigenous lands of the Lenape people, and I can tell brief stories of history. But that still puts us in the past. It’s time to raise our voices. I not only want land acknowledgment, what I want is land equity.

We’ve lost so much. We have lost so much traditional knowledge. Now, we’ve not lost our culture. I can still pray in Lenape.

Carrie Mae Weems: Geologically speaking, the greatest change to Manhattan may have occurred during the ice age nearly 20,000 years ago. But the invasion of the Dutch and the violent uprooting of the Lenape in the early sixteen hundreds severely affected the coastline as well. 

Eric Sanderson: A lot of people ask me, what do I think the biggest change was in Manhattan, in the last four hundred years? I actually think the probably most dramatic changes were right after the Dutch came to settle in 1624.

Paul Gallay: The shoreline very quickly went from being bucolic to industrialized. And everything shifted, everything shifted so hard and everything that we did to the waterfront to create that industrial boom became just a remnant. And we had decades and decades and generations of industrial and economic glory because of those changes. And then when everything shifted, we suddenly realized that now the bill had come due and the ecosystems had been destroyed and the coastline was also just falling into the water and just a terrible remnant of even what it was.

Carrie Mae Weems: Artist Alan Michelson recently made an augmented reality installation at the Whitney called Sapokanikan.

Alan Michelson: . . . which, in the Lenape language is thought to mean tobacco field, or place where tobacco grows.

Carrie Mae Weems: It offered visitors visions of what the Museum’s site may have looked like when the Lenape lived here.

Alan Michelson: The work consists of a ring of virtual tobacco plants. And the tobacco plants are good sized plants, and I based them on my sister’s garden at Six Nations Reserve. I was fascinated by the fact that the name of that Lenape settlement had survived, and that the Whitney landed on that site four hundred years later. So it’s a significant site, a significant Native site, one of many that basically are covered with concrete and buildings. Not just in Manhattan, but across the country.

Carrie Mae Weems: Michelson invites us to reflect on what once existed in this spot.

Alan Michelson: It was a way of putting something there that was both there and not there. And that’s maybe how a lot of Indigenous sites function. There was something there, it’s no longer there, and how do you grasp that? So this was an attempt to embody something that would carry that message.

Curtis Zunigha: Some of the stories that I share about our history have to start with creation and lifeways that went on for several thousands of years on this very land, this place that we are now, in a larger geographic environment that stretches all the way from—I’ve got to get my orientation here—stretches all the way from the foothills of say about the Catskill Mountains, once you get north of there you’re in Iroquois country, but say from there all the way down the Hudson River, down to New York, further past all of New Jersey, and you get down into the Philadelphia area, Delaware River Valley, all of that, that’s our original homeland. 

Eric Sanderson: All the ways the Lenape had been shaping the landscape for thousands of years all changed pretty much overnight. Then, the Dutch, they brought in other things. They brought pigs, and cows, and things they didn’t mean to, rats and things, which changed the ecology. These big mammals, introducing them to a landscape that wasn’t used to them. That’s a big change. Then, diseases that are associated with that too came with them. I think that was probably the most dramatic change.

Carrie Mae Weems: Architect Catherine Seavitt.

Catherine Seavitt: I feel like when one thinks about the landscape or ecology, it’s an invented word. It goes back to a Greek word that gets picked up in around 1840, 1850. And it’s loosely translated as the household of nature, which I’ve always loved, because it’s about how things work together in systems as opposed to individual fish, bird, plants. So, the household of nature really encompasses everything and everyone and how they interact. And those transactions and interactions are fluid. They change over time, but they’re always there and there’s often traces of them embedded in even the soils or those filled land. Who knows what it’s encompassing, but there are people, and animals, and plants, and seeds all part of that whole household. It’s landfill. It can be anything. It’s not just nice, clean soil from somewhere tightly stacked up.

Carrie Mae Weems: Guy Nordenson was the structural engineer who oversaw Day’s End.

Guy Nordenson: Historically, the bottom of Manhattan Island has been expanded over the years, repeatedly, sometimes formally, sometimes informally, by just dumping all kinds of things over the edge, usually on the inside of some kind of wall that contains it, you know, so the, the general approach is you build a water, a wall out in the water, and then you displace the water with landfill. And that went on throughout the mostly nineteenth century.

Bernice Rosenzweig: When landfilling operations happen today in the United States, it’s typically done with clean sand, and there’s so much demand for that type of clean sand that it’s actually in short supply globally. But historically, whatever was available was used for filling land. So you had the supply of stuff, whether that was coal ash, whether that was construction debris, whether that was soil or clay from an excavation, whether it was bricks, whatever just happened to be available. And you had this demand for space as the city grew and developed.

They weren’t thinking ahead about sea level rise, or coastal storms, or things like that. And so they tend to be the lower parts of New York City today. So the areas that are more prone to flooding.

So it’s really an interesting story, and it’s really a mystery as to what’s actually there. And some researchers have started to do some work to try to reconstruct what those landfilled sediments are like. So it’s really kind of an unknown. But it’s really interesting to think about how our human activities really drove these radical transformations of the whole landscape and define our city today.

Carrie Mae Weems: Kellie Jones is an art historian.

Kellie Jones: Creative Time had a program called Art on the Beach, which was on New York City landfill, leading up to its being taken over and made into luxury housing of Battery Park City. So this area of lower Manhattan, which is a landfill area, discarded shoreline, if you will, is transformed into spaces for artist projects for a number of years.

Carrie Mae Weems: Guy Nordenson.

Guy Nordenson: I got involved in the one in 1985. And most of that was empty land and quite sandy. So it felt like a beach.

Adam D. Weinberg: As it turned out, Guy had met David once before when David did his Delta Spirit piece in Art on the Beach.

Guy Nordenson: Hammons was there every day that I was out there, building our project, hammering away at this shack, which he had covered with bottle caps. It was a small building, tall and thin with a peaked roof, and just covered up with all kinds of things that he nailed onto it. But on a platform, so it was it, you know, again, being on the beach, in the presence of water, you kind of had the feeling that this was, you know, raised up a little bit to get out of the water and in the event of flooding. So it sort of captured the spirit of being on the edge in a place that could potentially flood.

Kellie Jones: He based it, as he told me at that time, in vernacular architecture. He actually did work with an architect, but he wanted it to seem just more vernacular, things that people, just, who were untrained, in some ways, will put together. “Something that is,” as he said, “nothing fits, but everything works.” And is all thirty-second off an inch, right?

It also becomes a space for performance where Sun Ra comes and performs. So it’s actually a functional space, and looking at it from another angle, we can also see it as a community center, in another way.

So I think those are some of his inspirations. But also, we can think about the fact that it’s on the beach.

He’s done pieces at the water, pieces that are kind of at the edge of our existence, our human existence. Something that takes us to just the edge of land, the edge of the city, the edge of the country.

I mean, he’s already been, the beach was one of his sites on the West Coast. How is this beach different? How is the Hudson River different from you know the Pacific Ocean? What’s the difference? What’s the difference when New Jersey is right across the way? What’s the difference, when you have the Statue of Liberty down the street?

Guy Nordenson: He didn’t just show up, build the thing and go away. He was there, the entire duration of the process, which was quite different than I think most of the other installations there. And so it was a kind of occupation, you know, and that, that, that I really, I was really struck by and I think that, you know, spiritually and, and in many ways, you know, Day’s End is that kind of presence and occupation, you know, very different in that it’s, I mean, it’s spiritual, also, right. But it’s all about absence as well as presence.

Carrie Mae Weems: We might imagine Day’s End as a frame, a container of sorts, through which you could see the city, the coastline and, over time, bear witness to the changes that will continue to come.

Guy Nordenson: In terms of the structure, it seemed pretty clear from David Hammons’s sketch what it would be. There were details that evolved over time, but I was excited about the potential for it being quite thin in the spirit of what the sketch showed and what that would mean structurally how that could be done.

Catherine Seavitt: It’s always interesting to think about something that stays in the same place while everything around it is changing.

Guy Nordenson: The poles above the water stop above the water and are set on concrete columns that come out of the water. Those are located so that when the tides go up and down, they’re going up and down along the concrete columns so that the upper structure which is steel doesn’t get in the water except maybe in a storm. Then underneath that concrete, there’s piles that are driven piles, steel. They go all the way down to the rock. There’s actually 150 feet of structure really below the water even more if you include the water depth. Then, above that, you have the structure which is about 50 feet tall. It’s like an iceberg. There’s more below than there is above.

Bernice Rosenzweig: What really stands out about human-induced climate change is that it’s happening so fast. We’ve just taken so much carbon that accumulated over such long time scales and just released it in really two hundred years, most within one hundred years. And if we keep doing that at an increasing rate, the climate is going to change just so much faster than it does as a result of all of these other factors. As the globe warms and sea levels rise, the water is also going to get warmer, and warmer waters, warmer coastal waters fuel stronger storms.

Guy Nordenson: When you build a structure like a bridge or the sculpture, then you're out in the elements. So then, you’re not only worried about extreme events like hurricanes or floods or earthquakes for that matter, but you’re also worried about the daily wear and tear, corrosion, waves, all that.

Paul Gallay: And by 2050, the projections are that we’re going to have 20 inches of sea level rise by 2050, that’s only thirty years from now. We don’t know what our communities will look like after that sea level has risen. We don’t know whether we’re going to be able to be resilient in our current configuration as a community when those storms become more frequent and when the flooding becomes more frequent, which is why New York City now faces a defining moment. 

Guy Nordenson: Clearly the sculpture, ninety-nine percent of the time is just going to see the tides going up and down, but there will be occasions where there’s a storm, heavy wind, even things that might hit it, ice, so I think I was pretty tuned into the fact that there’s a lot of different things that come down the river that could have an effect, that we’d have to take into account.

Catherine Seavitt: It’s being designed as a structure that will be impenetrable to corrosion or what would have been called rot if it were made of wood. So, it’s trying to be outside of time. I think that’s really interesting. And it’s beautiful and that it has a kind of way of being there, and then disappearing. I think it will disappear at night. It’s not to be lit at night, and I think it will start to fade in certain light conditions or reflections of water and sky. And atmosphere may make it even more ephemeral. Yet, it’s being designed as something that’s very permanent. That it won’t fail, that it will not collapse, that it will not rust. So, it’s both present and absent at the same time. It’s very interesting.

Alan Michelson: It’s trying to surface something that is otherwise not visible. And I think it’s a good thing. I think people live that land a certain way for a long time, and the fact that things have changed and that that land no longer sustains that kind of activity is not a reason for it to be forgotten or for it to be completely erased. So I think it’s important to do public monuments, but I don’t think they have to be the way they’ve typically been in this individualistic, American way where it’s just white male generals and things, commemorated in statues. I think they can be much more relevant and beautiful. And I hope that David’s monument does that down there.

Carrie Mae Weems: Choreographer Bill T. Jones. 

Bill T. Jones: It’s kind of a brilliant idea that he wants to recall a building that is no longer there. A building that represented the masters of industry that have built this town. When they looked at it, a beach front, what they saw was an opportunity and they polluted it and made it ugly, ugly, ugly. David Hammons comes on years later, in light of the brand new glowing Whitney Museum. And he wants to bring that ghost back. What is he driving at? It sounds like he’s in love with the artist as a magician. The artist is a provocateur who does not have to make objects, but the gestures are as eloquent as any object you could make.

Narration: You have been listening to Artists Among Us, a podcast series from the Whitney Museum of American Art. Now that we have come this far, in the final episode of the series we’ll return to the sculpture that inspired it, David Hammons’s Day’s End

Laura Harris: Does the Hammons piece conjure the ghosts of those who were removed or are still being removed to make space for the renewal of this part of the city? The ghosts or the shadows, that are perhaps still warm, and that he wants us to perceive here? If it is a monument, who or what is being memorialized here and to what end? Is that memorialization celebration or mourning?

Narrator: Thank you to everyone who contributed to this podcast: Catherine Seavitt, Guy Nordenson, Laura Harris, Paul Gallay, Glenn Ligon, Jessamyn Fiore, Eric Sanderson, Bernice Rosenzweig. Adam Weinberg, Kellie Jones, Luc Sante, Alan Michelson, Pete Malinowski, and Bill T. Jones. Thanks also to oral historian Sara Sinclair, who interviewed George Stonefish and Curtis Zunigha. Special thanks to Elle Necoechea, Sofia Ortega-Guerrero, Aliza Sena, Jackie Foster, and Helena Guzik.

Thank you to our host, Carrie Mae Weems.

Original music for Artists Among Us and Day’s End was created by Daniel Carter and his collaborators.

This podcast was produced by SOUND MADE PUBLIC, with Tania Ketenjian, Katie McCutcheon, Jeremiah Moore, Mawuena Tendar, and Philip Wood. It was produced in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art, including Anne Byrd and Emma Quaytman.

The Whitney is located in Lenapehoking, the ancestral homeland of the Lenape. The Whitney acknowledges the displacement of this region's original inhabitants and the Lenape diaspora that exists today as an ongoing consequence of settler colonialism.