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Robert H. Boyle
June 30, 1986
The Statue of Liberty's venerable home port has seen it all
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June 30, 1986

A Harbor Like No Other

The Statue of Liberty's venerable home port has seen it all

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The Statue of Liberty marks the exact geographical center of an area that was officially designated the Port of New York by an act of Congress in 1921. One would hope that Congress placed her there for reasons as historic and romantic as they were commercial and political, but it really doesn't matter: The fact that the grand old Lady of Liberty stands at bull's-eye center of a 25-mile-radius bistate circle covered by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey also puts her, for sure, right in the middle of the most consistently action-packed and hope-filled place in all of American history.

That place is New York Harbor.

The harbor is perfect because, standing as she does in the heaving, lovely, sunny, stormy, lively, killing, promise-filled, polluted, enriching, tumultuous, life-giving, moneymaking, hope-inspiring waters of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty is also located dead center in the heart of the American dream. And in the heart of American commerce and American politics and American failure and American promise and American folly and American heroism. New York Harbor has seen it all.

New York Harbor has served it all. New York Harbor has been it all.

From before the Civil War until the late 1970s, New York was the No. 1 port in the U.S. It has recently fallen to third place, behind the ports of Los Angeles and Houston. Nevertheless, New York had its busiest year ever in 1985, handling 51.3 million long tons of ocean-borne foreign trade worth almost $49 billion, plus almost a million tons of overseas air cargo valued at about $43 billion. It was the harbor, of course, that led to New York's becoming the financial capital of the world, and the cultural and communications capital of the U.S., if not the world. The harbor itself, which includes the Upper and Lower bays, the Hudson and East rivers as far north as mid-Manhattan, as well as several other feeder waterways (see map, page 33), has influenced human life in countless other ways, and it will continue to do so. It is particularly fitting that Liberty Weekend, July 3-6, celebrating the Statue of Liberty's centennial, comes at a time when the harbor is at an important turning point.

In recent years most of the 17½ million people in the Greater New York area have turned their backs on the harbor, considering it little more than a cesspool. Now, spurred on by recent happenings, such as the 1976 bicentennial celebration and the 100th birthday party for the Brooklyn Bridge in 1983, increasing numbers of people are gaining new appreciation for the harbor. Next week's party should be the topper. Most of the other activity around the harbor is less spectacular though more enduring, and could help reverse decades of neglect and decline: the creation of the Gateway National Recreation Area, consisting of shore holdings stretching from Sandy Hook to Jamaica Bay and maintained by the National Park Service; the opening of the South Street Seaport; the defeat last year of the Westway project, a proposed multibillion-dollar highway and real estate development that would have filled and obliterated an important wintering refuge for striped bass; the first steps in revitalizing 18 miles of ramshackle New Jersey waterfront; and the opening of sewage-treatment plants like the massive one between 135th and 145th Streets in Manhattan, not far from the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. That one plant treats 150 million gallons of sewage a day. Until last April, that sewage had poured raw into the Hudson for decades and had included whatever anyone might flush down a toilet or wash down a drain in a hospital operating room, garage, tenement, restaurant, chemistry lab, factory, abattoir or penthouse.

This is not to put too fine a sheen on the present state of the harbor. You can't eat its striped bass because the fish spend a lot of time in the Hudson and are contaminated by PCBs that General Electric was allowed to dump upriver for years until it was made to stop in 1976.

After a storm, the runoff from sidewalks, gutters and streets gushes into the harbor. Anyone skippering a vessel out there has to keep a sharp eye out for floating debris, mainly planks and timbers from rotting piers and abandoned barges and hulks. The Army Corps of Engineers runs three collection vessels to scoop up the flotsam and jetsam: Besides the occasional corpse, these have included a grand piano and a dead giraffe.

Despite the abuse, the harbor continues to be a magnet for an incredible array of fish and wildlife and, of course, people, who, though neglectful at times, seem determined not to let this living treasure die.

When George Washington was president, and New York City the young nation's capital, he fished in the harbor. The fish, known as spots elsewhere along the Atlantic coast, were called Lafayettes in New York, because enormous numbers of them ran into the harbor when the Marquis de Lafayette, who led a band of American soldiers to victory over the British in the Yorktown campaign, paid his farewell visit in 1824.

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