The Waterfront as a Symbol of Power

By Heath Hampton

The Skyline of New York City as seen from across the east river, is also essentially a waterfront vista. New York began its life as an urban center entirely because of the magnificent ports that lined its eastern coast.[1] Those ports were part of the informal nexus of symbolic power that formed the social landscape of the city. That is to say that they were visual representations of where money is located and decisions are made, and inform people’s immediate concept of the city. The view of the skyline from East River is an evocative statement of power that has changed throughout history to express the sources of that power.

Waterfronts in cities have long existed as pageants or displays of power. Quite simply, this is because dense cities are only possible near constant sources of water, which in turn creates waterborne trade. The denizens of the city, naturally, are conscious of the image they present to foreign trade. Some waterfronts then, are “shown in order to “sell””, in other words, to improve the city in relation with other port cities. The waterfront façade is the identity of the city (local aspect) and what the city wants to show to other cities (global aspect) simultaneously. The waterfront of a city is presented to its people and others as a zone where aspects of “globalization, understood as a place of exchange and economic exploitation of the image, were present from the beginning of its construction in the fifteenth century.”[2] This is nowhere truer than in New York City. Originally the waterfront was representative of New York’s naval strength and unswerving importance within the context of global trade. As that declined the waterfront became a more strongly industrialized area, especially around the suburbs of Brooklyn. This of course showed New York’s power through its potential for industrial production. These images of New York tend to become fetishized within their times. [3] That is they are used over and over again. 

When the Dodge plant in Chicago was proposed, the company showed its size as compared to the lower half of Manhattan, because, despite its complete lack of relevance, Lower Manhattan was a known and useful symbol to the general public. These images come to represent an idealization of themselves without context, New York’s waterfront and skyline take on an almost ideographic value. They mean something to the global viewer without any knowledge of their history or the actual purposes of the buildings within the skyline or the structures of the waterfront. They are, due precisely to that ignorant awe, equal parts generic, powerful and ubiquitous. [4] 

After the 1940’s there was only the most vestigial remnant of portside, industrial work taking place along Manhattan’s east coast.[5] The area began to fall into disrepair and disuse. This can be looked at as a narrative of New York City’s power balance, as the primary markets and industrial strength shifted over to the west coast with an increasingly romantic, economic, interplay between Jersey City and Manhattan instead of Brooklyn and Manhattan. The romantic aspect of that economic interplay has a lot to do with sight. Many Brooklynese worked in buildings visible on the eastern skyline of Manhattan, furthermore the repeatedly gentrified Brooklyn Heights area owed its existence to the nearness, and thus view, of lower Manhattan.[6] When the primary economic hubs were on the eastern coast of Manhattan the high-income people who worked there came to live within sight of their offices, gentrifying a portion of Brooklyn. When the economic hub moved to the opposite side, those same people moved to the eastern coast of Jersey. With the waterfronts on either side of East River somewhat lacking in prestige, having for centuries been old symbols of power, the city of New York began to fund a project to revitalize them. Battery Park city was first proposed in 1969, but wasn’t built until almost ten years later and has since then been a resounding success. Both in bringing financial strength to the area and in creating relevant symbolic content on the waterfront.

If it can be assumed that the vista of the waterfront is a self-conscientious display of New York’s power and majesty, what does the inclusion of parks create in our imaginary of the city? It shows the power of the leisure class, which now characterizes or controls the American discourse, and thus the dominant cultural discourse of the world. There are high-rise apartment complexes in the skyline and parks on the waterfront, what is emphasized; what comes to represent power de facto is a group of people who do not need to use that space for anything other than leisure. 



[1] “East River Waterfront Study - Department of City Planning.” Accessed November 12, 2014.

[2] Fava, Nadia. “The Waterfront Image and Urban Culture. The Waterfront as the City’s Facade. Barcelona Case.” On the Waterfront, no. 3 (2002): 87–92.

[3] Cohen, Jean-Louis. “Michigan War Studies Review - Book Reviews, Literature Surveys, Original Essays, and Commentary in the Field of Military Studies.” Accessed November 12, 2014.

[4] Acuto, Michele. “High-Rise Dubai Urban Entrepreneurialism and the Technology of Symbolic Power.” Cities 27, no. 4 (August 2010): 272–84. doi:10.1016/j.cities.2010.01.003.

[5] Russell, Francis P. “Battery Park City: An American Dream of Urbanism.” In Design Review, edited by Brenda Case Scheer and Wolfgang F. E. Preiser, 197–209. Springer US, 1994.

[6] Lees, Loretta. “Super-Gentrification: The Case of Brooklyn Heights, New York City.” Urban Studies 40, no. 12 (November 1, 2003): 2487–2509. doi:10.1080/0042098032000136174.