New York City's Forgotten Beaches

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Panoramic View of New York City, 1912.

Waterfront space in New York City is typically thought of as long promenades and vertical development opportunities, but within those 600 miles of coastline is a history that is marked by the ebb and flow of growth and industry.

Elizabeth Albert, visual artist and associate professor at St. Johns University talks about New York City's lesser-known waterfront spaces in her upcoming book, Silent Beaches, Untold Stories: New York City's Forgotten Waterfront  (Damiani, 2016). The book is a combination of art, poetry, historic photography, essays, and short stories about New York City waterfronts.

We’ve featured a few of the historical images side by side with accompanying artists’ works below:

Hart Island 

Hart Island, New York City's still-active potter's field, where The Department of Correction estimates that more than a million of New York City's unidentified and unclaimed people have been buried, with 1,500 arriving annually. Since 1869, the dead have arrived here in plain wooden boxes to be buried by Riker's Island inmates.

Left: Jacob Riis, The Potter’s Field, The Common Trench, c. 1890 courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York
Right: Melinda Hunt in collaboration with Joel Sternfeld Adult Mass Burial with Pages from the Hart Island Burial Record Books New Mass Grave with Pages from the Hart Island Burial Record Books Photographs, rag paper, photocopies, and steel, two parts, each 42 x 48 inches (106.7 x 121.9 cm) 


Blackwell's Island

In the late 1800s, Blackwell's Island was associated with poor conditions, drug abuse, and scandal. To shed light on the inhumane conditions, a young journalist named Nellie Bly committed herself to the Blackwell's Island Lunatic Asylum. Her articles changed the standards for mental health care.

Actor Mae West also briefly lived on the island when she was sentenced to ten days in the women's workhouse for giving "an obscene performance of the play Sex."

Left: Nellie Bly, c. 1890, courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Center: Mae West as Diamond Lil , 1928 courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts 
Right: Spencer Finch, The River That Flows Both Ways (Hudson River, June 12, 2008; Early Morning Effect 9:20 am, Late Morning Effect 11:29, Noon Effect 12:10 pm, Afternoon Effect 3:54 pm, Evening Effect 1:08 pm), 2011, Pigment-infused handmade paper, five panels, each 18 x 24 inches (45.7 x 61 cm) courtesy of Spencer Finch and James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai


Sandy Ground

Sandy Ground, one of the earliest free black communities in the nation, who emigrated from Maryland to make a living through oystering and strawberry farming. It is rumored to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Left: Lewis Wickes Hine, One of the Smallest Negro Oyster Shuckers that I Found on the Atlantic Coast. Usually They Do Not Work the Negro Children. Varn & Platt Canning Co. Location: Bluffton, South Carolina, 1913. courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division 
Center: Alice Austen, Men Opening Oysters, Annapolis, Maryland, 1894 courtesy of the Alice Austen Collection, Staten Island Historical Society
Right: Carrie Mae Weems, You Became A Whisper, 1995–96, C-print with sandblasted text on glass, 26 ½ x 22 ¾ inches  courtesy of Carrie Mae Weems and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York