I’ve found that people often forget that Moby-Dick begins in Manhattan, rather than in New Bedford or Nantucket. Here are the second and third paragraphs from the “Loomings” chapter in which Ishmael, the novel’s narrator, introduces himself:
There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs — commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall northward. What do you see? — Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster — tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?
Where are “Corlears Hook” and “Coenties Slip”? They’re downtown by the East River: Corlears Hook is near the Williamsburg Bridge; Coenties Slip is down past South Street Seaport near the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. [Google Maps: Corlears Hook and Coenties Slip.] Both spots are now marked by parks.
Corlears Hook is named after a Dutch family that owned the land in the seventeenth century. The area became home to shipbuilders at the end of the eighteenth century (see John H. Morrison’s History of New York Ship Yards ). Later in the century it became a notoriously bad neighborhood. It was the base of operations for a group of thieves and river pirates called the “Hook Gang.” An article pubished in the New York Times on July 3, 1870 began:
Corlear’s Hook is the Five Points of the thirteenth Ward. In days gone by many daring deeds of villany have been consummated in its malarious slums, and, although it is not now a place where unprotected ladies walk at night assured of safety, the efforts that have been made to reclaim the vicious and depraved have produced a gratifying reformation in the neighborhood.
You can read an account of the area in the early part of the century and a lament for the loss of the halycon days before the Irish immigration in Corlears Hook in 1820, The Wagnerian Cult, and Our Manners (1904) by Rush Hawkins, which begins:
IN the good old days before the unscrupulous grasping foreigners had taken possession of the trades and the retail business of New York, and the Irish had contracted with themselves and their Church for its mis-government and the handing it over, tongue-tied, type-muffled, and bound hand and foot, to the powers of Popery, for jobbery and robbery, it was a pleasant place for human abode. It was Christian without being puritanic; its inhabitants were active in politics without being corrupt, and the laws for the protection of life and property were as honestly administered as elsewhere.
Add Hawkins’s book to the long list of narratives lamenting the fact that New York’s best days are behind her, which seem to pop up in every era from the early nineteenth century on. Hawkins calls the time before immigration “the decent period” in the city’s history.
I happened to be biking by the East River yesterday and passed Corlears Hook Park. Here’s what it looks like today:
Cycling is a great way to get to the Corlears Hook Park. Take Grand Street all the way to the FDR, turn right and follow the bike path. When you’re forced to turn right again, you’re there. The 14A bus also goes right by it.
I’ll pedal down to Coenties Slip one of these days and post some pictures afterward.