We really were great ocne and proud of it

RI Historical Society's Insightful Dive Into The Way We Were

Updated 1 year ago David Stone
New York City Not Long After the Turn of the 20th Century
New York City Not Long After the Turn of the 20th Century
Photo courtesy of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society

"Modern engineering is about to undertake another of its gigantic tasks" is how a comprehensive article in the New York Times began. There was no equivocation or political maneuvering for credit. Less than ten years after the subway system opened, we were going to turn the vast marshes in Jamaica Bay into "a great world harbor."

When Judy Berdy told me about the Historical Society's final lecture for the spring season, Port of Empire: How Jamaica Bay Nearly Became a Great World Harbor, I started my research with the Times piece from March 13th, 1910, that described the massive project.

(Note: this lecture is sponsored by the Roosevelt Island Historical Society and supported by Bozzuto Management and Amalgamated Bank.)

I found it hard not to be stricken by the powerful optimism and confidence of New York City in that day as it contrasts sharply with the struggles we go through now to accomplish the simplest things, like basic infrastructure upgrades or expanding and maintaining mass transit as current demographics demand.

Thomas J. Campanella, a Professor of City Planning at Cornell University and Historian-in-Residence of the New York City Parks Department, shares the story of how Jamaica Bay almost became a world-class harbor in a free lecture at Cornell's new Architecture and Planning (AAP) facility at 26 Broadway, New York, New York, at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 15, 2017.

The story is fascinating. As New York City faced the need for upgrading aging port facilities. "New York is the greatest manufacturing centre in the United States," the Times reported. The city needed port facilities that could keep up.

Along with a massive public works project that would fill Jamaica Bay with rows of piers and warehouses, the city would build a shipping canal from Flushing Bay, north of the Hell Gate Bridge, across Queens and Brooklyn that would connect with the Atlantic by way of Rockaway Inlet. The canal, completing a connection that the Erie Canal largely supported from the Midwest, would roughly follow the course of what is now the Van Wyck Expressway.

Imagine the traffic jams that we'd have lost!

What's striking when you look closer is how easily cooperation between local, state and federal governments would pull funding together. It was not going to be simple, but the report is eyeopening in how it reflects the can-do spirit of those days in New York and America.

Sure, our country had its share of problems at the time. Jacob Riis recorded painful class divisions in the City, and President William McKinley had been assassinated in Buffalo less than ten years before. But there was a confidence in the air, an assurance that New York and America were both great, and full steam ahead.

This lecture would be interesting in any case, but the contrast it calls out across a century with the state of things today makes it seem absolutely fascinating.

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