New York City is a pretty impressive place. When we are in the middle of it all, trying to get to work, or run errands, or just get from appointment to appointment, it’s hard to remember how impressive it is. Sometimes it’s good to detach from this amazing city, and look at it through the eyes of a tourist, or a newcomer. It can be an eye-opening experience to walk down the street and see things with fresh eyes. When I’ve had the opportunity to do this, especially in Manhattan, I’ve always seen new things that I’ve never seen before, and it helps me appreciate the complexity and beauty of this truly great city.
We all know that all kinds of industry built this burg, and all modes of transportation enabled people and goods to move through the city. I’ve always been fascinated by our industrial heritage, and the ingenuity it took, and still takes, to make the most of the topography that made building a city here in the first place such a great idea. The great natural harbor, one of the finest in the world, made shipping one of New York’s most lucrative and successful businesses. Shipping made everything else possible.
In 1861, the Long Island Railroad built a terminal on Hunters Point, directly across the river from what would become Midtown Manhattan. During the Civil War, this area became a great industrial hub, consolidating goods and produce from all parts of Long Island, for distribution throughout the Union. Following the war, the villages in the area consolidated into Long Island City, with the Hunts Point area just the beginning of the industrial zone that stretched all along the East River waterfront. By the dawn of the 20th century, Long Island City had the highest concentration of industry in the entire United States.
The Queensboro Bridge opened in 1909, making LIC even more accessible to Manhattan. It was followed by the 1917 Second Avenue El train. Long Island was now tied to the fortunes of Manhattan; as accessible as Brooklyn, closer than the Bronx. Industry in LIC continued to grow, as did connections to the rest of the city. Today there are six tunnels and five bridges joining Long Island City to the rest of New York City. No wonder it was such a perfect place for industry of all kinds. But nothing lasts forever.
After World War II, everything changed. The last forty years of New York City’s history saw industry leave all parts of the city, moving out of state or overseas. New technology replaced many of the old companies, making them redundant and unnecessary. Factories emptied out, and sat abandoned. As the city changed, so did Long Island City. In the last 20 years, new kinds of manufacturing revitalized some of the old factories, while others became residential lofts and apartments. Cultural institutions opened, and this part of the city came alive again in an entirely new way.
The most interesting part of this rebirth is the new attitude of recycling and reusing the artifacts and instruments of the past. New York City has a long history of tearing down the past and building anew on top of the rubble. Sometimes that’s good, but often we lose a great deal of our history and culture in the process. Yet in spite of this rush to build new, New Yorkers can get nostalgic and possessive about the strangest things. They might not hesitate twice to tear down a building that’s stood for well over a hundred years, but will become fiercely possessive of an iconic piece of signage, or a local landmark. Take the river, the industry, the link to Manhattan, the history, the iconic pieces of New York, and the idea of reusing the past, and put them all together, you have the unique and innovative Gantry Plaza State Park.
Rail lines were the lifeblood of New York City’s industry, transporting goods in and out of the area. The entire New York City area is crisscrossed with rivers and bays, separating not only Queens from Manhattan, but Brooklyn, and New Jersey from each other as well, all part of the great metropolitan economic powerhouse. It would have been extraordinarily difficult and expensive to have built all of the necessary bridges and tunnels to connect the city for all of this industry, especially in the late 1800s.
So some innovative people came up with the idea to use boats. Well, more technically barges or rafts, to take not just the goods from place to place, but the train cars themselves. That way they could just get back on a track and keep going. Unloading and loading again would not be necessary. While the idea of floating an extremely heavy train seems impossible, it was just a matter of engineering and physics, harnessing principles that man had been using for centuries. They figured it out, and soon train cars were floating across rivers and bays, making a train trip between Brooklyn and New Jersey possible, as well as Manhattan and Queens.
The hard part was the landing, getting the train car off the float and onto land. They used what were called float bridges, which were partially floating decks on pontoons. They rose and fell with the tide, and were connected to the shore. It could be tricky getting the train car from the float bridge to the tracks. In the early decades of the 20th century, engineers figured out a better way to do this, building gantries that stood at the shore, which raised and lowered the transfer bridges and the railroad cars with it, to the shore.
The gantries in Long Island City were designed using a patent by James B. French. He designed the first such gantries in 1911, for the New York Central Railroad, on 69th Street, which are still there. The LIC gantries were built in 1925, and are two double gantries, capable of transferring four trains. The gantries are actually huge cranes that picked up the boxcars from the float and transferred them onto train tracks that once ran up to the edge of the water. Those tracks could either go on further points on Long Island, or upstate and on to New England, via the Hell Gate Bridge. They could transfer 100 ton cars, and were amazingly fast and efficient. The equipment part of the gantry is hidden under the wooden shed at the top of the structure.
By the 1970s, however, things had changed. Not only was industry well on its way out of Queens, shipping had changed. The entire Port of New York/New Jersey was now equipped for container ships and trucking. Rail shipping had declined greatly, and the gantries and rail lines of Long Island City were abandoned. Of course, graffiti and vandalism and general neglect followed, as New York City endured the near-bankruptcy of the 1970s.
Twenty-some years passed, and Long Island City was being reborn. Not as an industrial hub this time, but as a residential area. No matter how bad an area gets, the waterfront and close proximity to Manhattan will guarantee its rebirth, sooner or later. The old LIRR train yard, piers and the gantries were seen as an ideal place for a park. It would be a state park, not a city part, and the gantries would be a part of that park.
Landscape architects Thomas Balsley Associates were commissioned to design the first part of the new park, incorporating the piers, the float bridges and the gantries into their design. Thomas Balsley worked with Lee Weintraub, another New York City landscape architect, and Richard Sullivan, an architect. The LIRR tracks were removed, but the architects left traces of tracks, and outlined where the removed sections were with dark bricks. The entire area was reworked into a great park with an amazing one of a kind view of Manhattan and the United Nations building.
Four finger piers were constructed, all different, with innovative wave benches, a “fishing pier,” and a more contemplative “stargazing pier” with chaises. There are playing fields, handball and basketball courts, a playground, and a promenade along the river’s edge. The second phase of the park was designed by the New York City landscape architecture firm, Abel Bainnson Butz. The first phase opened in 1998, the first part of the second phase, a six acre extension, opened in 2009. It’s 12 acres today, but when the entire park is finished, it will encompass 40 acres.
Included in the park is an iconic Pepsi Cola sign that used to blaze in neon glory from the Pepsi plant that stood on the Hunters Point waterfront. Like the Dominos Sugar sign, the Silvercup Studios sign and other iconic signage, this was a must for the park. The sign, actually a large billboard, was built by the Artkraft Strauss Company in 1938, and once stood on top of the Pepsi bottling plant here. The “P” and the “C” letters are 44 feet high. When the sign was refurbished in 1994, by Artkraft Strauss, which is still in business, they added the modern Pepsi logo on the neck of the Pepsi bottle.
All in all, Gantry Park has become one of Queens’ most popular parks, and a tourist destination. Countless weddings are photographed here, catching the view of Manhattan in the background. It’s one of those places where you have to take pictures. The view is just incredible, both during the day, and at night, when the city is lit by millions of lights. Even the most jaded New Yorker can be impressed and inspired by this view, taking in the remains of the industries that built this city, and the wealth and ingenuity that built New York and still makes it the destination of choice for people all over the world. It’s really very cool! GMAP
(Sources: Kevin Walsh’s Forgotten NY, Christopher Gray’s NYT Streetscape column, NYS Parks. Photograph: Airbornelawyer for Wikipedia)