Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Regardless of whether a much-publicized liner comes to town, the borough is home to a fleet of old vessels.
An ocean liner—bigger than the Titanic, and so fast that its top speed was classified by the U.S. military—could come to dock in Brooklyn. Turns out it would have a lot of neighbors floating nearby.
Last month, the S.S. United States was staring down the scrapyard, until donors offered more than $600,000 to keep the ship afloat. The New York Times quoted a statement in which one donor declared that scrapping the ship would be “like letting the Statue of Liberty be melted down and turned into pennies.”
The liner, which once catered to Walt Disney and Marilyn Monroe, can no longer power itself. It’s at port in the Delaware River in Philadelphia, where its monthly fees total about $60,000. The boat’s conservancy is hoping to raise $2 million to relocate to Brooklyn, where it’s been offered a spot at the Gowanus Bay Terminal. The organization would then hope to seek up to another $200 million to transform the structure into a mixed-use space including real estate for start-ups and entertainment venues.
It would be perhaps the most ostentatious decommissioned ship moored in New York Harbor, but certainly not the only one. On the Manhattan side, six ships are docked in the South Street Seaport. And a flotilla bobs around off the shore of Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront. Some, such as cruise ships headed out to sea, only dock for a few hours at a time. Others are more permanent fixtures.
Here’s the crew:
The Yankee joined the fleet in 2013. The century-old ferryboat was towed to the Henry Street Pier after losing its slip in Hoboken, the Brooklyn Paper reported. It once served as a boatel—essentially, a floating bed-and-breakfast—and the owner said that she hopes to transform the 150-foot vessel into a museum.
The 77-year old Mary A. Whalen, a former oil tanker, leased a spot on Pier 11 last summer. It will also feature pop-up educational programming hosted by the group PortSide New York.
The Lehigh Valley #79 barge has been docked nearby since 1994. The wooden vessel, built in 1914, was railroad property and carried cargo such as coffee beans and nuts until 1960, when more modern infrastructure rendered it obsolete. It’s now a maritime museum.
“The city was founded because of its link to the water, and because it was such a protected port,” says David Sharps, who runs the museum atop the barge. Even so, the harbor can be a tricky place to dock a ship, largely because of the cost involved. Sharps says that he makes ends meet through a combination of earned income, foundation grants, and government allocations.
It’s worth it, he adds, to see guests climb onto the deck. “People step aboard and they’re transported back to another era,” he says. “They know they’re someplace special.”