Up until the early 1970s, ship-borne cargo was transported as “break bulk,” meaning inside the holds of freighters, stacked on wooden pallets that had to be loaded and unloaded by scores of longshoremen. These hardened workmen shaped-up every morning on the waterfront at the entrance to dozens of finger piers that jutted out into the bays and rivers separating Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Agents from the stevedoring companies that ran each pier selected who would work that day based on seniority, favoritism, the union’s orders, the mob, kick-backs or having a rabbi; troublemakers didn’t work.
Those working that day descended ladders into the bowels of these break bulk freighters in the same manner their forbearers did. Dressed in cover-all’s, work boots, tattered sweaters or sweatshirts over flannel shirts most days of the year, they manhandled the pallets, hooking them onto the ship’s cranes that lifted the contents over the side and down onto the apron of the pier. Forklift operators scooped up the cargo stacking it inside the shed that covered the pier.
The older wooden sheds were almost alive, a place that grabbed onto your senses. The wood absorbed a complex combination of aromas from the commodities stored there over the years. Cargoes accumulated waiting delivery to their destinations: bags of coffee, cocoa, chocolate and tea, bales of unprocessed gum, molds of rubber, timber of every size and description and rolls of newsprint. Some items arrived damaged, their contents staining the floor. Residues of olive oil, beer, whiskey, tomato paste and sugar, tins of sardines in oil or tomatoes, anchovies, herring and mackerel. These powerful odors assaulted the eyes and the nose of anyone entering the pier, especially first timers or outsiders.
These piers were dangerous places. Every aisle was a canyon. Stored cargo rose twenty-feet or more with pallets stacked five or six high. They were subject to landslides if uneven or if the weight of the topmost load crushed the cargo beneath. Cargo shifted and crashed to the floor without warning.
Both four-legged and two legged varieties of rats and other vermin would bite if surprised. The four-legged ones were omnipresent, the two-legged ones were rarer but just as dangerous. It was not wise to interrupt a drinking session, a craps game, or to suggest having witnessed ongoing theft or a shakedown.
Courtesy required a visitor to meet first with the Checker before entering the pier. The Checker controlled the pier and his shack guarded the entrance from the street. Today, he’d be called a fixer. The checker expedited what was needed and what had to happen to release cargo from the pier. This was his world. He knew US Customs, union rules and who needed to be paid and how much. The smart visitor came prepared, paid what was needed, followed instructions, had his cargo loaded onto waiting vehicles, tipping the men delivering it, and exited the pier only after the Checker knew he was leaving.
Nor was it wise to frequent the bars in the surrounding neighborhood. They were the exclusive realm of the longshoremen and warehousemen who were not interested in the company of strangers, especially those wearing a jacket and tie.
Many of the piers had been active since the mid-1800s. They developed their own language, customs, hierarchy, code of honor, justice and punishment. Because it was a complex society, it was hard to imagine how fragile it was and how quickly it would disintegrate. In 1969, the finger piers in Brooklyn were all active but by 1975 they were deserted except for squatters, vandals and varmints.
Cargo now arrived in steel boxes on container ships bound across the harbor for the new terminals at Port Newark and Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. The backwater infrastructure serving the Brooklyn piers ceased to exist as did the bars and sandwich shops. Fires, either accidental or deliberate, destroyed several piers and buildings. Others were torn down.
For years, the waterfront remained silent and abandoned due to archaic zoning laws that prevented anything but industrial development. Finally, Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the guise of bidding on the 2012 Summer Olympics seduced the City Council to change waterfront zoning.
As if by magic the waterfront began to transform. Real estate developers designed new apartment towers in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Industry City, those abandoned factories and warehouses in Sunset Park, have been born again into broadcast studios, think tanks, a Fairway’s supermarket, an Ikea and on it goes. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, long a backwater since the navy left, rose from the dead as did its surrounding neighborhood.
The more modern Brooklyn piers, Piers 1 through Pier 11, rebuilt by the Port Authority in the late 1960s, were converted into parks and other family friendly fun places with water taxis and ferries connecting the lot. Welcome to Twenty-first Century New York City!
No denying that, but for me, a bit sad. It is as if those Brooklyn piers, their commerce, energy and the men who made it come alive never existed.
I worked on the waterfront for two years, 1969 to 1971 especially in Brooklyn. I spent considerable time on one pier in particular, “The pier at the foot of 29th Street.” I even treasure its peculiar name.
I was 25 the first time I set foot on that pier and I learned much there, I learned about working men, tough guys, how to get along and survive and life itself. In my mind, that pier is as real and vivid as it was back in the day.
Author’s note: An earlier version of “Brooklyn Piers” appeared in “The Big Orange Dog” my 2011 anthology of pieces I wrote between 2000 and 2010 before I began this blog. If you are interested, a Kindle version is available on Amazon. The price is right, but I have no idea where the proceeds, if any, go.