The Connected City
Water, Water Everywhere
America’s earliest cities grew up next to the rivers and oceans that connected them to each other and to world trade routes. Small colonial outposts expanded into major centers of population, commerce, manufacturing, and culture based on their ties to this natural transportation network. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, railroads, canals, and road systems brought prosperity to landlocked cities. Still, the country’s largest cities remained those along the water. New York City in the 1920s demonstrated the nation’s continued reliance on maritime commerce. Bordering one of the finest natural harbors in the world, the city handled almost half of America’s international trade. People, agricultural products, raw materials, and manufactured goods of all kinds came and went through its giant waterfront railroad terminals, conveyed in thousands of ships dispatched by more than 200 shipping companies. The sea-lanes of New York served the needs of the city and those of the nation as well.
New York Connected
New York in the 1920s had nearly 6 million residents and was a center of manufacturing, commerce, and culture. Immigrants entering through the port and migrants coming by road and rail fed the city’s thriving economy. In 1923 New York produced 1/12th of all manufacturing in the nation.
As part of the great migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities, some 200,000 African Americans moved to New York between 1917 and 1925. In addition to the lure of jobs, many were drawn to the cultural life of Harlem, on the city’s east side.
Almost everyone who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 1920s did so by steamship. Businessmen meeting overseas clients, entertainers on tour, and travelers making leisure trips booked passage on ocean liners of all sizes. They sailed alongside vast numbers of emigrants coming to the United States and immigrants returning abroad. The Leviathan and its crew of 1,100 ferried as many as 3,400 passengers to or from New York City each week. German-built in 1914 but used as an American troopship during World War I, the Leviathan was the largest American merchant ship of its day.
By the 1920s, waterborne traffic in New York Harbor involved hundreds of vessels and tens of thousands of people a day. Their safe passage depended on maintenance of the harbor’s aids to navigation. This was the job of the crew aboard the U.S. Lighthouse Service tender Oak, whose engine room is seen below.
The Oak’s home port was Staten Island. Its 4 officers and 23 crew provided supplies, fuel, mail, and transportation to area lighthouses and lightships. They also positioned, painted, and serviced the harbor’s network of buoys, fog signals, and beacons.
Profile view of the U.S. Lighthouse Service buoy tender Oak, showing the location of the engine room
The schooner R. R. Govin, still operating in 1933, dwarfed by a new skyscraper at 120 Wall Street.Courtesy of South Street Seaport Museum
Tugboat moving flats of railroad freight cars, about 1915Courtesy of Levick Collection, the Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Va.
What Happened to New York?
Aerial view of container-ship facilities at Port Newark/Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, early 1980sCourtesy of South Street Seaport Museum
America has been involved in global trade since colonial times. In the first half of the 19th century, the United States exported raw materials and imported manufactured goods. As the country industrialized, it became a major exporter of factory-produced items, from sewing machines to cars. In recent years, it has again imported manufactured goods, and exported agricultural products and financial and computer-related services. The United States has been a major player in international economy since the 1880s. New York City has been central to the story of America’s international trade. In the 1920s, half of America’s imports and exports moved through the city. But New York’s role as a port began declining in the 1960s as container ships moved to terminals elsewhere in the area, and New York’s transportation problems made it harder to get trucks and trains from the ports out of the city. Ocean liners no longer carried millions of immigrants to New York. Manufacturers moved out of the city, looking for cheaper labor. But New York reinvented itself as a new kind of global city. More than ever, it is a center of international finance, banking, art, culture, and professional services. The new New York is a city tied to the world economy not only by the goods it manufactures, buys, sells, and transports, but also by the ideas, culture, and financial and information services it produces.