Through the Lens of
Photographer Shelley Seccombe moved to Westbeth in Greenwich Village in 1970 and captured the evolution of the Hudson River piers in her book, Lost Waterfront: The Decline and Rebirth of Manhattan’s Western Shore.
Included here is a selection of her work showing the conditions of the west side piers before they became Hudson River Park, beautifully depicting New Yorkers’ interactions and explorations among the ruins.
Hudson River Park pays tribute to this longtime West Village resident, who passed away in January of 2023. This gallery celebrates Seccombe’s artistry and her memory.
Photographs copyright ©1973–2007 by Shelley Seccombe
For well over one hundred years, Manhattan’s Hudson River piers bustled with the maritime commerce that made New York the most important port in the country.
The once glorious pier structures and the piers themselves fell into disuse and neglect after containerized shipping made the Hudson River piers obsolete for shipping.
In time, many of them burned while others collapsed into the river, and by the 1990s, only the remnants were left in some cases.
Yet there was a moment in time—twenty years, perhaps—when the decaying piers became an official playground of sorts for people seeking freedom at the water’s edge.
Many in the LGBTQ+ community used the piers and maritime buildings as cruising spots. Others used the empty spaces to gather, recreate and to create art, even as the deteriorated structures began to collapse into the river.
Rotting pier decks served as stages for music, dance and more.
Some people fished for eels, crabs and old tires.
Some splintering wooden piers became the Jones Beach of Manhattan.
Captured here in Ms. Seccombe’s photos, the piers near Christopher Street and the nearby Meatpacking District became places for gathering and community.
The collapsing structures lent their own eerie beauty to a waterfront that had seen better days.
Between 1972 and 1985, Ms. Seccombe created an archive of the spontaneous, unsanctioned by government uses that characterized the piers in this period.
Her photography is a breathtaking record of a waterfront long since past.
Ms. Seccombe also captured the demise of the elevated West Side Highway, which once ran parallel to the Hudson River waterfront. The raised roadway allowed cars to zip above the crowded piers and neighborhoods below.
In 1973, a truck collapsed through a section of the roadway abutting the Gansevoort Peninsula, causing the highway’s closure.
In the period before the Highway was removed, the elevated roadway became another place where local residents came for informal recreation.
Meanwhile, Shelley Seccombe continued to record and reflect on the transformations happening on the waterfront.
“What drew me to the piers was their photogenic quality; the elegant decaying structures with their peeling paint made an appealing backdrop for the sometimes wacky activities on the docks.”
“I discovered the charms of early morning and late afternoon light; fog, snowstorms, and ice on the river provided wonderful ‘photo-ops.’”
“My subjects were not models, their performances serendipity for the most part. What kept me coming back and haunting the piers for years was the spontaneous appearance of those unwitting actors, and the majesty of their stage.”
“Memory plays tricks, and if it were not for my photographs, much of what I saw then would be lost.
But when I come across an image of Pier 49, I remember vividly the splintering wood beneath my feet, with tons of gray gravel heaped on the scows moored next to the dock.”
With thanks to the Shelley Seccombe Estate, these photographs and more can be found in Lost Waterfront: The Decline and Rebirth of Manhattan’s Western Shore (ISBN 978-0-8232-2845-4).