The Urban Lens: Abandonment and decay along the 1970s Greenwich Village waterfront

Posted On Fri, December 29, 2017 By

Posted On Fri, December 29, 2017 By In Features, Greenwich Village, History, photography, The urban lens

Abandoned buildings along the Christopher Street Pier. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.

6sqft’s series The Urban Lens invites photographers to share work exploring a theme or a place within New York City. In this installment, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation shares a collection of archival images by Jack Dowling that documents the crumbling piers of Greenwich Village in the 1970s. Are you a photographer who’d like to see your work featured on The Urban Lens? Get in touch with us at [email protected].

The fetid smell of rotted wood and the Hudson River nearly rises from these photos of the sorry state of Greenwich Village’s collapsing piers in the 1970s. The contrast is stark between the neighborhood’s disinvested, abandonment, pictured here, and its current culture of high rents and pricey coffee shops. Among New York City’s main concerns when photographer Jack Dowling created, “Decay and Rebirth Along the Greenwich Village Waterfront in the 1970s,” were its murder rate and the looming threat of bankruptcy when these photos have taken; the city as a whole has changed drastically in the decades since.

Crushed and abandoned car north of the 11th Street pier head house, around Bethune Street, looking south with the World Trade Center, West Side Highway, and elevated train in view. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.

The photographer, artist, and writer Jack Dowling moved to the West Village from New Jersey to attend Cooper Union in the 1950s and has lived there ever since, currently at Westbeth, an affordable artists’ housing development. He came to Westbeth in the ‘70s, when he was rendered homeless after his East Side loft was leveled.

“The Greenwich Village waterfront underwent an incredible change in the era documented by Jack Dowling’s pictures,” Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation Executive Director Andrew Berman told 6sqft. In many ways, the waterfront, “encapsulated the decay and rebirth of New York City in the 1970s.”

Crushed and abandoned car between West 12th and Bethune Streets, with the Superior Inks Factory (demolished; now site of the Superior Inks luxury condos) behind it. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.

Berman continued:

Industry had largely abandoned the Greenwich Village waterfront, and in late 1973, practically just outside Jack’s window, the West Side Highway collapsed at Gansevoort Street. This set in motion a series of events that included the closure and eventual demolition of the highway, the battle over the proposed Westway, the construction of Hudson River Park, and the transformation of the Greenwich Village waterfront into one of the most desirable pieces of real estate in New York.

Jack captured the Greenwich Village waterfront during the period right after the West Side Highway collapse, when the elevated roadway was closed, the waterfront foresaken and littered with abandoned cars, and the pier heads and sheds were rotting and beginning to collapse into the Hudson. The juxtaposition of this scene with the newly built World Trade Center rising in the distance is particularly striking. It was during this time of abandonment, decay, and neglect that a generation of artists flourished in the newly-opened adjacent Westbeth Center for the Arts, where Jack lived (and still does), a vibrant gay scene took hold along the waterfront, and a residential community first took root in the disused factories and warehouses along the waterfront. Jack captured a pivotal moment in New York’s evolution in the 1970s, when its decay and abandonment sewed the seeds of a creative flowering and rebirth in the years that followed.


Detail of abandoned buildings along the Christopher Street Pier. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.


Christopher Street Pier. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.


Greenwich Village pier, rusted window. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.


Greenwich Village pier, looking north through the empty structure, with the Manhattan Refrigeration Co. building (Horatio and West Streets) visible at right. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.


Greenwich Village pier, looking through an abandoned building. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.


Greenwich Village pier, crumbling along the water. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.


Greenwich Village pier, Hudson River with World Trade Center in the background. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.


Greenwich Village pier, crumbling structure with Financial District in the distant background. Ca. 1975. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.


Greenwich Village pier structure, collapsing into the Hudson. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.


Greenwich Village pier, empty structure. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.


Greenwich Village pier, warped and collapsing. Ca. 1974. © Jack Dowling Collection for GVSHP.

Prints of the photos above, courtesy of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, can be purchased online, with all proceeds benefitting GVSHP.

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All photos © Jack Dowling Collection via GVSHP

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Neighborhoods : Greenwich Village

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