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  • New York City’s Oyster BargesArchitecture’s Threshold Role along the Urban Waterfront
  • Michael J. Chiarappa (bio)

Nevertheless, this . . . water-front of New York offers very interesting studies. It is full of striking industries, that show by some astonishing feats, what strength, skill, and endurance men develop under the high pressure of commerce.

—Charles H. Farnham, "A Day on the Docks," Scribner's Monthly (1879)

Sitting on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in Fair Haven, Connecticut, is a two-story building perched on a large submerged scow. In its current state, with its hull buried, it strikes the viewer simply as a commercial building with popular nineteenth-century finishes. Near it, visible at low tide, lie the hulls of two other decaying oyster barges—floating structures once used to process and market oysters along lower Manhattan's waterfront. But upon closer inspection of the beached barge, observers see its canted sides and begin to sense that this structure was designed with a specific purpose. This may be the last of the oyster barges that operated along Manhattan's waterfront during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the city's floating oyster market.

For the few who know what they are seeing, the sight of the oyster barge is intellectually compelling, emotive, and unexpected—collective sentiments calling for preservation and curatorial care. A senior fisheries historian speculates on which oyster firms may have owned the barge during the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. A New Jersey poet, whose work has been inspired by the oyster's capacity to sustain the pocketbooks of modest watermen and the diet of countless Americans, sees it as a symbol of democracy. A historic preservation student is moved to record it in measured drawings. Representatives from the New York Food Museum and the New York City preservation group Place Matters want to restore it and bring it back to the Manhattan waterfront—an opportunity for interpretive rapprochement in a city that so often appears historically and environmentally disconnected from the maritime world that shaped it. And, although not the focus of a recent popular history on New York City's oyster trade, oyster barges grace the book's cover. In the city's public memory, the surviving oyster barge seemed to beckon for its return when a retro-titled restaurant, The Market Clam and Oyster Barge, opened in the atrium at Citicorp Center in 1977. Why the melding of a bold, new architectural statement with a reference to a feature once prominent in the city's popular imagination? By extension, what story does the surviving oyster barge in Fair Haven tell? What might its preservation portend for New York City?1

Viewed as individual and collective units of a working landscape, the logic of the oyster barge along lower Manhattan's waterfront was an animated staging area for the transshipment of oysters from their watery habitat to America's consumer marketplace. Labor patterns on and around the oyster barge—the segmented work and mercantile processes framed by this floating architecture—conformed to the frenetic rhythms associated with waterfronts throughout the world. Clustered in the vicinity of Oliver's Slip, Catherine Slip, Pike Street, Broome Street, and Fulton Fish Market on the East River, and Washington [End Page 84] Market, Spring Street Market, and West Tenth Street Market on the Hudson River, oyster barges provided a work environment so fully suffused with the fast-paced rhythms of America's leading entrepot that observers went beyond describing them as landscape features and instead as a "scene" that, "during the busy months of autumn and winter, is a very lively one."2

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Figure 1.

Oyster barges and the working waterfront. The seamless bridge between the barges and the street is accompanied by other important features of this industry's working landscape—bushel baskets, barrels, shell piles, and horse-drawn wagons. From Garnault Agassiz, The Romance of the Oyster 28 (September 1908), 651.

The distinctive "scene" associated with work at oyster barges—one among many in a landscape so heavily predicated on movement—was largely due to their placement within the dense confines of New York City's waterfront (Figure...


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