On The Waterfront: Landfills in Lower Manhattan

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 By: Nathaniel Posner and Scott Schoninger

 This happened at: 25 Pearl Street, New York, NY


New Yorkers are known throughout the country for living in a vibrant and ever-changing environment. Most New Yorkers know this and are, in fact, proud of it. However, what millions of New Yorkers don’t know is the huge change that has gone on below their very feet, and the effect that it has had on their city. The landfills that filled in lower Manhattan throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are a microcosm of the dynamic environment that we call New York City.
Prior to the first landfills being constructed, the boundaries of lower Manhattan extended only as far as Pearl Street to the east, Fort Clinton to the south, and Trinity Place to the west. The boundaries have now expanded 900 feet or more from these areas. The very first landfill was put in place in 1692, expanding lower Manhattan only enough to add in several new piers. However, as sea trade in New York increased many new piers and docks were needed to service the city’s growing seaside economy. Slowly but steadily, new shoreline was added to lower Manhattan, eventually resulting in a shoreline very similar to the one Manhattan has today. However, in the mid-20th century, the expansion of Manhattan by landfill suddenly stopped. Because of the rise of air travel, the passenger shipping industry, once a mainstay in the New York economy, was dying. The halt in the building of new landfills continued until 1972, when construction on Battery Park City commenced. Using material dug up from the construction of the World Trade Center, Battery Park City, the last great landfill project, was constructed to help rejuvenate the debilitated shipping areas of lower Manhattan. By 2001, construction crews had used over 1.2 million cubic yards of dirt to create 90 new acres of land for Manhattan.
The techniques used to construct landfills have varied throughout the centuries. During the 17th century, a technique called “cribbing” was used, in which many logs were tied together and sunk into the landfill to prevent it from falling apart. When logs were hard to find, ships were sometimes sunk instead. This continued until the early 20th century when dirt from subway construction was put into cellular cofferdams, which allowed for much quicker construction of landfills.
Many landmarks of Manhattan are located on landfill, including the World Financial Center, the Staten Island Ferry, Battery Park City, the FDR Drive, the South Street Seaport, Ellis Island, and Riker’s Island.
The landfills of lower Manhattan are examples of several aspects of New York life. The first is the constant hustle and bustle of New York City, and the shifting atmosphere that it embodies. The second is the New York mantra of doing anything possible to expand one's economic opportunities, even building land where once there was none. The third, and final, is New Yorkers' habit of taking things for granted, even when those things are supporting the very ground they stand upon. Without the landfills of Lower Manhattan the personality of New York City would be drastically changed, enough so that the way of think about New York City today might just be ‘water under the bridge’.