This is a guest post by James Fisher, a professor of theology and American Studies at Fordham University and the author of On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York. He is Care2 blogger Kristina Chew’s husband.
The Port Was Their Place
On August 16, 2011, I experienced my first and only glimpse of the Statue of Liberty from the magnificent vantage point of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s 88th floor executive offices in the World Trade Center’s North Tower. I had just ascended from a tour of the complex’s six subbasements and its famous foundation-level “inverted bathtub” design with Frank De Martini — the WTC’s construction manager and a devoted curator of the complex’s history and architecture — and my friend Angus Gillespie, author of the finest study available of the WTC’s origins and development.
Only weeks earlier I had returned to New Jersey with Kristina and Charlie after seven years in the Midwest. The first course I was to teach that autumn at St. Peter’s College — just across the Harbor from the WTC in Jersey City — focused on the history and culture of the Port of New York and New Jersey, news that both bemused and heartened Frank and executives of the bi-state agency who shared their time with Angus and me on that sultry August afternoon.
It was clear these folks loved the Port and its history and lore: it was their special place and they tended this privilege with an affection that belied the Port Authority’s reputation as an opaque, inaccessible agency beholden to political interests on both sides of the Harbor and unresponsive to public concerns. As far back as the 1940s, according to the agency’s historian, executive director Austin J. Tobin was deeply “touched by the romance of the harbor,” a sentiment he nurtured and conveyed to his staff. As I discovered in my own research, Tobin had exerted his quiet clout in autumn 1953 to enable Elia Kazan and crew to shoot the 1954 movie On the Waterfront on Port Authority-owned piers in Hoboken, after the filmmakers were informed their lives were at risk should they persist in their initial plans to shoot the picture on Manhattan’s West Side.
The classic film On the Waterfront (1954) depicted the Port at in all its violence and glorious beauty. The heroism it depicted was renewed—in all too real life–on September 11, 2001, when Frank De Martini and dozens of Port Authority executives, policemen, and other personnel were killed; many — like Frank — while ushering others to safety.
The following day, I was among hundreds who reached the site to bring relief supplies to rescue workers via police vessel. It was a terribly hopeless feeling. I’ll never forget the ride back across the Harbor, and the look on the faces of two Jersey City cops who sized me up before pointing at my lower legs: covered to the knees with ashes.
In the days and weeks that followed, the spirit of the Port was incarnated in stories of firemen and cops and brokers who shared a historic link to the Harbor and waterfront, often through the memory of longshoremen ancestors who had worked the piers of the West Side at a time when the Port was the great metropolis’s most special place.
The World Trade Center was designed by officials at the Port Authority as a hub for productive maritime-related commerce in the world’s greatest harbor and around the world. Austin J. Tobin, grandson of a Brooklyn longshoreman, had struggled for decades—almost entirely behind the scenes—to overcome the organized and less-organized criminality that had plagued life in and around the port since the late nineteenth century.
With the advent of the Port Authority-backed Waterfront Commission in 1953, control over hiring in the Port was shifted from mob-controlled piers to the new agency’s hiring information centers. But by the time the World Trade Center was opened in the early 1970s, container technology had rendered the piers of Manhattan’s West Side obsolete: the epicenter of the Port shifted to container facilities at Newark and Elizabeth in New Jersey.
The Twin Towers were like thousand-foot vertical piers, soaring up and away from the often violent, yet deeply compelling history of the sea-level docks of the West Side. The Port Authority’s insistence that the Twin Towers site be moved from its originally planned location on the East Side to the West linked the project to the agency’s recently acquired Port Authority Trans Hudson (formerly the Hudson and Manhattan railroad “tubes;” now PATH) light-rail connections to New Jersey. The move affirmed the agency’s self-identity as a kind of third state in the region, coordinating transportation and infrastructure improvements within a twenty-five mile radius from the Statue of Liberty.
The Trade Center struggled in its early days; the diversification of its tenant base in later years saved the complex while shifting its focus from maritime trade. Yet at is heart it remained a monument to this special place, the Port of New York and New Jersey, and the special people who made it great and whom we will never forget.
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Photo by Gavin Costello from Wikimedia Commons