Wednesday, April 9, 2008

"If a ship’s not moving, it’s losing money,”

HiddenHill Production crews transformed the cobblestone [sic] streets of the downtown historic district into Broadway of New York City in the 1850s. The south side of Hamilton Street between Water and Front Streets became New York's South Street seaport in the 1840s, a place that captivated Whitman...

-- from a press release in today's Standard-Times

About a hundred years ago, a 350-foot steel barque rolled into the waters off Hamburg Germany and into the hearts of anyone who's ever heard the words "You do it for the ship!" intoned by Captain Irving Johnson during his legendary autobiopic Around Cape Horn, filmed by Johnson as he "crewed" on Peking. Although folks are quick to point out that, as a Laeisz Flying P Line nitrate hauler, Peking has no real history as a New York ship, the immobile hulk has become an integral part of the New York waterfront over the past 33 years.
For years, the Seaport part of Lower Manhattan was held together with a sociopath's zeal to preserve the atmosphere that made New York City what it is: a city with a powerful, inexorable link to commerce and to the sea. In that reconstructive excitement, a new race of idlers emerged, who rigged ships that would never sail, who told the tales and sang the songs of years past, who taught the skills of a long-gone industry and sometimes used those skills -- though certainly not often enough.
Unfortunately for the historical interpreters and Melville fans, contemporary commerce will always trump history. Converted lofts and "Ye Olde Village marketplaces" best fish markets. And now it appears that Peking may be heading back to Germany. Because South Street Seaport may sell Peking back to Hamburg. Along with whatever other old ships they can get rid of.
I can't imagine the Seaport without Peking or Wavertree or the Ambrose lightship.
I have seen that archetypal skyline from the helm of a TallShip™ heading into New York Harbor. I have heard the cacophonous bustle of crowds on the Staten Island Ferry during the day and marvelled at the peace at night in the twinkling of stars merging with streetlights and office lamps when all you can hear is the water and the hum of those engines. And I was on Peking to celebrate the Statue of Liberty's Centennial. You can pick your own favorite approaches, keep the reds to starboard. Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Newport RI's Rose and Goat Islands, Plymouth MA's circuitous channel, New Bedford's spires and smokestacks.
But what isn't on the charts and holiday snaps is the memory I have of the people: the wharfrats and characters that the Beachdwellers swerve to avoid.
Like South Street Seaport's rigger Lars Hansen who lived on Peking, not just because he was a salty old tar who amused the locals and frightened the tourists. Or his shipmate Jack Putnam, one of the smartest guys I ever met while I was going through my I-wanna-be-a-historical-lecturer phase. He encouraged me in my fancy dress antics.
The memory I have of Jody Gibson. Sure the Izod and Chino crowd called him "Popeye" and snickered at his slops and corny banjo. And yes, I would shake my head and caution them that further poking would result in unpleasantness. Legend names Jody a midwife of Rockabilly, an early champion of Folk, and I can hear him calling a halyard chantey with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" instead of "Blow Boys Blow." He was the guy in Newport who caught the line when I came in a little rough. I still hear his voice, the rough tenor of the bow watch, telling me, "Watch your bearings." Knit brows over smiling eyes. And we were nowhere near a boat.
These people didn't live 200 years ago. They were living parts of their living seaside towns. Maybe you remember them, or their counterparts on your stretch of The Beach. And maybe you'll think about the significance of their natural settings, their set pieces and scenery, those setts in the streets, those historical shacks. And maybe you'll think that there is something to this preservation stuff, something that rises above the depictions of preservationists as obstructionists.
Historical preservation isn't so much about the planks and curbs, but about the people who sailed and walked and worked there.
And those who still do.

3 comments:

Dr. Momentum said...

I thought of you yesterday when Maggie and I were walking near the corner of of Acushnet and Williams. You could see cobblestones and Belgian Blocks right next to each other, which made pointing out the difference very easy. I should have snapped a photo.

ThirdMate said...

Now that's what I'm talking about. There's always someone that people remember as "that guy who points out what a sett/Belgian Block/cobblestone is."

I don't know if that's the way I want to be remembered.

But thanks for thinking of me.

karie said...

I love that there are people out there who actually know the difference!