Oil Tanker Turned Cultural Venue Celebrates 70th Birthday
Oddly enough, it’s easy to forget that New York City is a series of islands with the third largest commercial port in the nation. The city has so many other competing identities. Wall Street, Broadway, baseball teams and fashion shows seem to rule the imagination when we think about the Big Apple – a decidedly non-nautical nickname.
Portside New York, a non-profit founded in 2005, is dedicated to reminding people of New York’s maritime legacy, and its potential maritime future.
On Saturday, Portside threw a birthday party at Red Hook’s Pier 11 for the Mary Whalen, a 70-year-old oil tanker that now serves as headquarters for Portside.
Retired in 1994, the 613-ton, 172-foot long ship spent its career delivering fuel up and down the coast between Maine and Maryland, with frequent deliveries right here in the Gowanus Canal. Now, it’s Portside’s “chief ambassador” between New York’s land-side and maritime communities.
“It used to carry 8,000 gallons of oil, now it carries 8,000 ideas,” said emcee Jonathan Atkin upon introducing Carolina Salguero, director and founder of Portside.
Salguero would like to see a far more “integrated” and “sustainable” working waterfront that would incorporate both recreation and industry.
As part of that plan, Salguero would like to transform the 2,800-square-foot hull of the ship, which is currently divided up into eight cargo tanks, into an exhibiting classroom and performance space.
Portside already uses the Mary Whalen’s deck for cultural programming. The ship made quite a splash in 2007 when the Gowanus-based Vertical Repertory Theater performed the opera “Il Tabarro” aboard the ship.
The ship’s mobility makes it a unique outdoor performance space. Tugboats can move it to many locations throughout the harbor, and just in the last year Salguero has begun working with the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation and Brooklyn Bridge Park to arrange for performances.
Portside is also doing research to create a maritime heritage trail in Red Hook to teach people about the evolving waterfront and waves of immigrants who have worked there, and a community sailing program is being developed for Red Hook’s Valentino Park.
The Mary Whalen is usually anchored at Pier 9 in a free berth, courtesy of American Stevedoring, the shipping container operator who battled the city for lease renewal, and won, this past April. The Bloomberg administration backed off of its plan for a complex of marine-related industry, a conference center, hotel, beer garden, housing and an expanded cruise terminal.
American Stevedoring CEO Sal Catteucci was the recipient on Saturday of a special Historic Ships Award for his hand in rescuing three historic ships, the Mary Whalen, the steamer Lilac and the lightship Nantucket.
Portside is hoping to secure a permanent space ashore where they can base a marine career center and the proposed Flotsam Project, a youth carpentry program using old pier remains to build outdoor furniture. “There is high unemployment at the waterfront so we would like to be a matchmaker in a sense,” says Salguero. “We would also like to breed a future generation of mariners.”
“People think it’s all over, but [maritime industry] stopped shrinking in the early ’80s,” she says.
Last spring, the New York City Economic Development Corporation released the Maritime Support Services Inventory Study, which found that since 1991 the NYC tug fleet has increased 35 percent and the port’s barge fleet has increased more than 20 percent.
“We want the most sustainable waterfront, and one that is a working waterfront,” says Salguero.
By Phoebe Neidl