These days, New York City’s waterfront is a maritime playground, but for most of the city’s nearly 400-year existence, the waterfront used to be strictly business. Anyone who wasn’t a dock worker or a passenger on a ship steered clear of the shoreline, as all the action we’ve come to associate with New York City was happening further inland. But up until New Jersey delivered the death blow to NYC’s shipping industry in the 1960s, New York’s waterfront was a fascinating, unique place with rough-and-tumble characters and technological breakthroughs. Now that the formerly abandoned piers are experiencing a renaissance, it’s the perfect time to look into the forgotten history of New York’s waterfront. Luckily for us, there are still a few places in NYC that we can go to experience NYC’s waterfront history firsthand.
South Street Seaport Museum
If you could only visit one place on this list, it should be the South Street Seaport Museum. While the main museum location isn’t open to the public as of this writing, the museum still has several fun and informative experiences for visitors. For instance, you can take a free guided tour of two historic ships, the Wavertree and the Ambrose, where you get to see for yourself how each vessel played a role in the NYC’s development as the most important port city in the country. The South Street Seaport Museum also has a booth where you can actually touch 17th century artifacts like oyster shells and bricks. And those anchors in the front of the museum? Not only are they great props for selfies; they are also centuries-old maritime artifacts! Most museums don’t even want you to breathe on their stuff, so you should take advantage of touching everything you can at the South Street Seaport Museum.
The Waterfront Barge Museum
Isn’t cool that this maritime museum is housed on a former barge from 1914? But the story behind how David Sharps, a professional juggler-turned- museum director, saved this barge and raised his kids on it while operating it as a museum may be an even cooler story. To hear what is possibly the most entertaining retelling of NYC’s waterfront history, you’ll want to journey over to Pier 44 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and visit the Waterfront Barge Museum. Did I mention that the museum has a perfect view of the Statue of Liberty?
Erie Basin Park
This abandoned shipyard turned quirky park isn’t super heavy on New York waterfront history, but if you’re already in Red Hook, it’s worth checking out. If this park gives you Scandinavian vibes, that’s because the IKEA across the parking lot was responsible for converting this area from a former worksite into a playground. There’s more info on how that came to be in this article I wrote about the Erie Basin Park. But the main takeaway is that if you like being able to see historical ruins up close and if you like the IKEA aesthetic, you’ll enjoy visiting this park.
While it’s great that NYC has a renewed interest in its waterfront after decades of neglect, let’s not get too caught up in the pleasure land piers that we forget what came before it. Which one of these sites celebrating New York’s waterfront history do you want to visit first?