Subcultures at South Street Seaport
by Christine Graham
As South Street Seaport was rendered obsolete due to technological advancements and economic factors, it gradually fell into decay. The inactive space was embraced by marginal groups without a place in “normal” society. These groups put the space to use, as a place in which they could allow their unconventional tendencies to flourish.
Sailors and Saloon Culture
Sailors were the first group to embrace the Seaport space in the mid-19th century. This was motivated by necessity, as their work bound them to the sea and their stays in the city were often short. Sailors were calloused by long stretches of time spent away from the civilized world. They were bundles of energy unleashed on the waterfront, with money burning holes in their pockets. They were the rowdy crowd about town. One sign even read “‘Sailors and dogs keep off the grass.’”.1 They romped about in search of sexual gratification and drink to soothe their aching bodies and minds. From the start of the Seaport’s heyday in 1815, the saloon and brothel culture rose to meet these needs. The services continued well into the 20th century, until Prohibition pushed “mainstream” society into “marginal” drinking places and wholesalers. Petty manufacturers and distributors bought up the area in the 1920s. The precedent was established early on in the 19th century for populating the Seaport with anti-social, “marginal” subcultures. This earned the Seaport a “seedy” reputation for embracing “marginals,” until its restoration in the 1960s, when it was rendered a “festival marketplace.” During Prohibition, however, many disregarded this reputation in pursuit of a drink. Their disregard for the “seediness” of the Seaport exacerbated its image as a “seedy” place. Here, even average followers of the mainstream culture could transact vice.
Before the turn of the century, saloons were places in which men could enjoy a range of activities. Men gambled on rat fights in Kit Burns’ Sportsmen’s Hall (known as the “Rat Pit”). This was a 3-floor converted warehouse, complete with an amphitheater for rat fights. Here one could also purchase a girl (which was a gamble, because they often robbed the sailors of their limited funds) and take her to one of the other floors of the warehouse or to a rear cubicle. They could also eat, drink, and be what they felt was merry. Most of this activity took place on Water Street, where some tenements had a saloon, brothel, or dance hall on every floor.2 Other parts of the area were specialized as homes to rampant prostitution. As one anti-vice report noted, “on Water Street between Jones Street and Catherine Slip were ‘very low’ whorehouses, while those on Cherry Street are of ‘a little higher order’” .3
Prostitution on the Waterfront
This subcultural space extended into the Lower East Side neighborhood (South Street Seaport is a district within the Lower East Side; it a neighborhood within a greater neighborhood). When sailors had extra cash and time to venture beyond the Seaport, they would frequent haunts on the Bowery such as nickelodeon theatres, cabaret and burlesque shows, dime-museum freak shows, melodramas, and opium dens. Spaces exclusively devoted to prostitution also existed. These included the “cigar store batteries” on Canal Street, where the cigar store storefront concealed the prostitution within. With playful names such as the Sailors’ Welcome Home, Sailor’s Retreat and the Jolly Tar, the clientele to whom they catered and the “cigar store’s” true purpose were no secret.
One of the Lower East Side’s worst dives was McGurk’s, which was frequented by wandering Seaport regulars. It was nicknamed McGurk’s Suicide Hall because of several suicides committed at the site. A 4-story building on the East side of Houston Street, the seedy dive was a destination spot for sailors. The bouncer had the menacing nickname “Eat ‘Em Up Jack McManus,” and men were commonly robbed by the low-order prostitutes who worked the location. With its singing waiters and small band, the place had a raucous appeal so magnetic that it was said “his business card had reached every seaport in the world.”4
Anti-vice groups actively protested these depraved places. A host of such groups made themselves known at the Seaport. The Society for the Suppression of Vice was established in 1822 and rejuvenated in 1873, which chronicled in detail all the depravity they witnessed during their eradication campaign.5 Comstock was another vocal activist who passionately opposed pornography, alcohol and gambling. He did his part to cleanse society by purchasing and promptly destroying, banning or confiscating pornography of any kind he encountered. Other groups protested prostitution, such as the Committee of Fifteen formed in 1900 on a national crusade to suppress red-light districts. Other groups included the Bureau of Social Hygiene.6
The groups’ cumulative efforts produced an active push to close down saloons in 1887. This led to the Raines Law in 1896, which stipulated that only hotels could serve alcohol with food on Sundays. Many saloons were able to evade this by adding “hotel” to their name and putting out a decrepit free lunch. They could then claim they were serving food. Another option for evasion was pay-off of the corrupt Tammany Hall government through a complex system of “neighborhood mayors.” However, many establishments did lose their nerve in the presence of these obstacles or did not have the necessary connections to stay afloat in a hostile climate.
Over time, other factors also worked against them. Streets like Delancey and Kenmare, which housed these establishments, were opened, cut through, and razed with the opening of the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges in 1903 and 1909, respectively. The Volstead Act of 1919 (The National Prohibition Act) was the nail in the coffin of saloon culture. 63 saloons were shut down. Those which remained became covert drinking establishments for all people during Prohibition. This ousted the original users of the space, as well as the freedom to engage in the “immoral” activities which had made the space advantageous for these users.
A Dangerous Place
This is not to say that the neighborhood became more civilized. As Al Smith, a prominent New York politician in the 1920s, recalled in a New York Times interview about his childhood growing up in a 4-room tenement above a store on the third floor of a warehouse at 174 South Street during the 1880s,
“children of darkness lay in wait for the sailors. Prostitutes flaunted their pitiful profession, gangs fought each other to death, thugs lay passer-by over the head with a piece of lead pipe, men drank knockout drops with their beer and were dragged into back rooms and robbed, and all this was accepted as an unavoidable part of life on the east side of New York.” 7
Space at the Seaport was primarily bought up by wholesalers by the 1920s. As a result, after-hours, homeless could roam free in the space used for business transactions. Given the nature of their use, caring for the buildings and their appearances was superfluous. Many subsequently fell into disrepair, which augmented the Seaport’s seedy effect. The tenements and slums of the Lower East Side extended into the Seaport, occupied by working-class people. They were perceived as “unclean,” not only because they were hygienically unsound, but because of racial intermingling. Gangs such as the Daybreak Boys, with headquarters at James and Water Streets, menaced East River piers around daybreak by robbing ships at anchor.
By the 1890s, street whores addicted to opium and cocaine roamed around in search of work to fund their habit. Homeless boys known as “dock rats” slept on the rotting piers or in old barges. The boys hung around begging, stealing and peddling. Older, more experienced children called “street arabs” were of the higher order. They often became sailors when they were old enough to seek employment. They controlled “guttersnipes,” little boys newer to the neighborhood living off of crumbs and waste they found on the street.8 Homeless little girls prostituted themselves and pickpocketed, posing as “flower girls” selling flowers.9 Newsboys also inhabited the area.
The Longshoremen: Victims of Negative Public Perception
Longshoremen were laborers who worked at the docks, loading and unloading cargo. They tended to reside by the Seaport in Lower East Side tenements. Their numbers dwindled as the advent of containerization eclipsed their vocation. The majority were Irish, though with the influx of immigration, their numbers came to include many Italians and some Eastern Europeans. Because of their inextricable affiliation with the progressively seedier waterfront, longshoremen developed a reputation as drunks, loafers, and brawlers. In actuality, they were mostly good working-class men with families.
There were several types of longshoremen, each of which had a unique character. The “shenangoes” were the lowest rung, comprised of homeless who gravitated to the waterfront. These were the migrant workers or longshoremen who had become alcoholics when the strain of work proved too great. Because they were too inebriated to be of use in the dangerous longshore work, shenangoes could only find work as “banana fiends” or “banana handlers.” They would unload 40-90 pound bunches of bananas from boats. This was not lucrative work. They lived on Coenties Slip, hung out in Jeanette Park, and frequented free-lunch counters and saloons. It was because of these men that longshoremen acquired a negative reputation, but they were not characteristic of the “typical” longshoremen, who was
“A clean-cut man nearly fifty years of age, clean shaven save his upper lip, five feet nine in height, and weighing about 170 pounds, broad in the shoulders, strong of arm, but with a slight stoop; somehow wholesome looking, a man that one would touch without recoil, nonwithstanding the accumulation of cargo dirt; a man who supports his wife and four children and inhabits a four-room tenement; a man who speaks in a high-pitched voice suggestive of much loud shouting, and laughs with a deep reverberating laugh indicating friendliness and good-fellowship; a hearty eater and lover of social drink with his companions; a friendly man throughout, but a quick, keen critic of his fellow-workman; thoroughly efficient in all details of his own work, and surprisingly full of information concerning the matters and the methods of the waterfront – this is a longshoreman, a handler of foreign cargos…”10
The depraved behavior of the “shenangoes,” a minority within the greater longshoremens’ culture, caused all longshoremen to endure negative public perception from waterfront-wary citizens who felt the Seaport an unseemly place. They “became” marginal by association, as they were inaccurately stereotyped by city residents who did not use the Seaport or had never been there. Such judgments were merely based on the Seaport’s reputation as a “seedy” place. While the longshoreman may have had gnarled hands or dirty clothes, he was not drawn to the vice of the waterfront. Rather, he was forced to endure it as a result of their employment.
Taking the Edge Off
Once Prohibition civilized the edgy saloons, sailing culture settled as well. Sailors became men who enjoyed reading, sleeping, and enjoying a mellow afternoon at the Seamen’s Church Institute.11 They were not, as one article explained, the “two-fisted, bull-necked tars of the past” who were “tattooed, shanghaied, drunken and debauched.”12 A tattooed man appeared tough and edgy to an outsider, a man who literally wants to display his exploits on his sleeve. For sailors, moving away from this practice meant moving away from the “tough guy” image. A few tattoo shops prevailed on South Street, including one in which barbering, tailoring, and expert tattooing all took place on one roof. Tattooing as a culture, however, died as the image of the sailor metamorphosed.12 Standards were raised aboard ships just as the economy was hit by the Depression. This made maritime jobs appealing to a higher class of young men and greatly changed the composition of the sailing subculture.13
After the Depression, sailors became more educated, mellow men. They were more likely to be seen “hanging around” by the ship chandler’s shops on South Street than drunkenly stumbling through the streets after drinking at a saloon. The Seamen’s Church Institute offered sailors a library in which to read, boxing matches to watch, and opportunities to participate in creative projects, like writing or painting. Sailors were less interested in seamanship and more interested in class standing and cultivating sophistication. As such men replaced pugnacious, rowdy “tars,” the Seaport and its trade were considerably domesticated.
“Where the ‘Queens’ Hang Out:” Gay Use of the Space and the “Bachelor Subculture”
The “roaring 20s” was an era of infectious rebelliousness, during which homosexuals felt increasingly comfortable in society. Perhaps as a result of hard times in the 30s, society underwent a change of heart. Laws and regulations were passed to suppress drag balls, censor lesbian and gay images in plays and films, and prohibit restaurants, bars and clubs from employing or serving homosexuals. Undercover vigilantes, as well as plainclothes police, would enter gay establishments to arrest or remove gays for abusing the new laws which were meant to contain homosexuality and prohibit its presence in public sphere. Unwelcome in mainstream society, homosexuals turned to the declining Seaport as a refuge.
Outside of its being a refuge, the waterfront also fostered the growth of a gay subculture, because it was a center of transient workers. Military mobilization during World War I and World War II increased. Men, freed from supervision of families and small-town neighborhoods and placed in a single-sex environment, would meet gay men and explore homosexual interests. Many men had the only homosexual experiences of their lives there. Some agents “had noticed fairies fraternizing with sailors for years, but it was at the beginning of the war that they witnessed the spectacle of ‘sex mad’ sailors near the Brooklyn Navy Yard ‘walking arm in arm and on one dark street… a sailor and a man kissing each other … an exhibition of mail [sic] perversion showing itself in the absence of girls.’”14
Interaction of this sort rendered the Seaport an eroticized homosexual space, in which many heterosexual men partook of homosexual acts. Sex with a man was considered “cleaner” than sex with a prostitute. Prostitutes were believed to bear venereal diseases that men could not get from other men. For the homosexuals, the sailor epitomized an erotic, rugged hypermasculinity; thus a relationship of shared convenience emerged between the two subcultures sharing the abandoned space. This overlapping sailor/gay subculture was known as the “bachelor” subculture.
The core institutions of the gay subculture were the saloons frequented by sailors, small social clubs, and large dress balls. At large balls, gays could be open, relax, and enjoy one another’s company in a low-key atmosphere. Men were allowed to rent “back rooms” in the saloons on an hourly basis in which to fornicate. Young male prostitutes, known as “punks,” often rented rooms in these establishments with clients for as little as a dollar. Male-male couples also used rooms at the Seamen’s Church Institute or the Mills Houses, originally meant to house unmarried men, for such purposes.
Men involved in the bachelor subculture were varied. Among them were sailors, merchant marines and other seamen. Also were transient workers who spent time in the city between stints in the countryside as agricultural laborers, lumberjacks, construction workers, and ice cutters; as well as common laborers based in New York who worked on waterfront construction and other manual-labor jobs. Sailors were “unattached and unconstrained by conventional morality.” Other men were lonely, away from their families for long periods of time.15 When women were not available, gays were acceptable partners.
There were unique sexual practices and a unique social order endemic to the “bachelor” subculture. The youngest boys were subordinate to everyone older than they were, and had to perform fellatio or submit to anal intercourse if desired by an older man. A man who fellated another man lost his status and became a “fairy” himself. Seamen’s homosexual behavior was ordinarily excusable and dismissed as a product of their womanless situation. It was not viewed as reflective of a sexual predisposition. Fairies maintained a very certain appearance, with “‘plucked eyebrows, rouged lips, powdered face, and marcelled, blondined hair.’”16
From the turn of the century into the World War II, as it sank further into decline, the Seaport emerged as a “man’s world:” a haven for unfettered homosexual contact.
Coenties Slip becomes an Artists’ Enclave
As South Street’s obsolescence fostered further decline, it eventually became all but deserted. New York’s port facilities moved elsewhere with the rise of steamships in the mid-19th century. The city was no longer involved in maritime trade per se after the rise of containerization in the 1950s. Left were a limited numbers of ship chandlers, warehouses, and bars. The abandoned, neglected space attracted a group of artists known as the “New York School” whose progressive art prefigured Pop Art and Minimalism.17 They were dissatisfied with and bored of the Abstract Expressionism in vogue uptown and wished to express their differing visions in peace.
The space appealed to them because they sought, as artist Lenore Tawney, a resident of the Slip, put it, “‘a barer life, closer to reality, without all the things that clutter and fill our lives.’”18 There was much to inspire the artist here; there were spectacular views of the East River and Brooklyn Bridge. Also was the port’s position at the intersection of land and sea. Taking up residence in abandoned sailmaking lofts, artists of different ages and styles moved into Coenties Slip beginning in the mid-1950s. At $30-$50 a month the rents were within starving artists’ budgets, and the lofts provided large, open spaces conducive to producing art. Fred Mitchell was the first to move to Coenties Slip, renting #31 in 1954; Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Jack Youngerman, Charles Hinman, Lenore Tawney and Ann Wilson soon followed. Swedish seamen helped Mitchell move into his first loft, which Ellsworth Kelly, his close friend, helped him find.19 Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, some of the most influential artists in Pop Art and of the 20th century, resided nearby.
These artists were profoundly influenced by their interactions with the space and with each other. Indiana incorporated objects found in his loft- relics of the old sailmaking days- into his art. Mitchell abstracted interactions and scenes he witnessed in Manhattan. Kelly drew portraits of his friends at the Slip, and began sculpting after encouragement from his friend Agnes Martin over breakfast.20 They lived a Spartan lifestyle, in non-residential buildings without heat, running water or kitchens (Indiana installed his own windows when he moved into his loft); thus, they were heavily reliant on the Seamen’s Institute, then located at Coenties Slip. Their harmonious existence with the space was cut short when legal disputes ousted them from their lofts in the early 60s. By then, though, the New York School had made its mark.
Why the Seaport for subcultures?
What was it about South Street Seaport, succumbing to decline and crumbling slowly into ruined decay? What would draw such different groups, with such different vocations, needs, and character to this decrepit space? There are several explanations. The presence of ruins motivates subcultures to embrace a ruined space. Also, convenience motivates a subculture to inhabit an available empty space.
Ruins as Motivation to Embrace the Space
“Marginal” subcultures may gravitate to the physical structures of ruins, because they psychologically identify with them. They feel run-down, decaying, abandoned and unwanted themselves. This parallel can be drawn in the case of the homosexual subculture. Turned out of mainstream society, this culture sought a safe haven. Embracing the space was a form of “coming out,” creating an environment where they could be differentiated from the rest of the world. Outside their haven, they must remain closeted and behave according to societal norms.21 Discovery and use of the space for closeted homosexuals, then, was a form of “coming out” that enabled novel expression of their sexual identity. For those already “out,” use of the space was liberating, because it was unrestricted. Their use of it was negotiated on their terms. In this space, they could escape from all which confined them in mainstream society.
Identifying oneself as a sexual user of a ruined space psychologically associated to the physical ruins and sexuality itself. One saw oneself reflected in the decay. The ruins themselves “unified a community and [were] its main source of communication validating other forms of discourse.” 22 Knowing that ruins conveyed this specific meaning connected users. Because everyone approached them in a different way, the ruins solidified a community. Ruins emanated death, resignation and defiance, all parallels of homosexual identity.23
Ruins were imperfect, yet permitted to remain in a pristine city like New York. They may have been on the city’s edge, but their presence was undeniable and unavoidable. Gays in society were analogous to ruins in the city, and this drew them there. The meaning and sentiment ascribed to the ruins developed through subsequent use, which fostered psychological association. The structures which had originally drawn gays to the Seaport became monuments to homosexuality itself. They were only meaningful to those affected by the societal context: those who were forced to suppress and express their homosexuality. Ruins paradoxically attracted and symbolized the gay subculture.
A Matter of Convenience
Other subcultures which used the Seaport were not compelled by its ruined state, but its vacant space. It was the most practical place in which to establish themselves. This was true in the case of the New York School artists, who wished to alienate themselves from the rest of the New York art scene. Available was the vacant Coenties Slip. Sailors and longshoremen were bound by their careers to the Seaport and its vicinity. Their negotiation with the space was simple and their conception of it was direct. South Street Seaport became what Daniel Campo calls “vernacular,” “a non-specified environment, a user-created or user-activated environment, or the recreational use of an environment principally designed or used for a non-recreational purpose.”24
The Seaport was a convenient space for subcultures seeking a place to be. It also drew those for whom it was coincidentally the “place to be” due to other factors. This was due to its support of a wide range of uses. Use was interpretive rather than contrived, like in a public park. In the unused condition in which it was discovered by various subcultures, it had a “no rules” vibe. This excited those whose preferences contrasted with society’s rules. Many outsiders thought that life without rules would result in anarchy. Those adopting the empty space, however, had come together for mutual benefit. They intended to uphold this benefit, even in the absence of authority.25 Essentially, artists wanted the Seaport’s “empty” quality. Sailors and longshoremen required little other than its being a place to stay between sailing ventures. It was also a place to get work. They respected the space but did not see it as the symbol homosexuals did.
Between 1870 and 1960, various groups embraced the declining Seaport. As its maritime function was rendered obsolete, the Seaport fell into ruin. In the absence of its maritime function, the Seaport was a blank canvas on which subcultures were welcome to paint. This fostered expression of preexisting subcultures, such those of the sailors, prostitutes and longshoremen. Intermingling and creation of new subcultures also took place, like in the case the “bachelor subculture.” The Seaport provided creativity and inspiration for the New York School, as well as a release and an identity for the homosexual subculture threatened by displacement from its roots in Greenwich Village. For varying reasons, each group became denizens of a Seaport all their own.
1.Hanson W. Baldwin, “Labor Tides Swirl Around the Sailor,” The New York Times, May 10, 1936, page
2.Luc Sante, Low Life: Lures and snares of Old New York (New York : Farrar, Straus Giroux, 2003), 106-107.
3. Luc Sante, Low Life: Lures and snares of Old New York (New York : Farrar, Straus Giroux, 2003), 191.
4.Luc Sante, Low Life: Lures and snares of Old New York (New York : Farrar, Straus Giroux, 2003), 130.
5.Mark Caldwell, New York Night: The mystique and its history (New York: Scribner, 2005), 164.
6.George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: HarperCollins, Inc., 1994), 143.
7.R.L. Duffus, “When Al Smith was an East Side Boy,” The New York Times, July 8, 1928, page 66; http://proquest.umi.com.avoserv.library.fordham.edu/pqdweb?index=177&did
8.“Urchins of the Streets,” The New York Times, December 19, 1880; accessed with ProQuest Historical New York Times 1857-Current File (accessed October 15, 2007).
9.Luc Sante, Low Life: Lures and snares of Old New York (New York : Farrar, Straus Giroux, 2003), 307.
10.Charles P. Barnes. The Longshoremen (Philadelphia: New York Survey Associates, Inc. and The Russell Sage Foundation), 13.
11.Robert M. Coates, “South Street and the Sea,” August 24, 1924, The New York Times,
12.Hanson W. Baldwin, “Labor Tides Swirl Around the Sailor,” The New York Times, May 10, 1936, page SM10; http://proquest.umi.com.avoserv.library.fordham.edu/pqdweb?
13.Hanson W. Baldwin, “Labor Tides Swirl Around the Sailor,” The New York Times, May 10, 1936, page SM10; http://proquest.umi.com.avoserv.library.fordham.edu/pqdweb?
14.Hanson W. Baldwin, “Labor Tides Swirl Around the Sailor,” The New York Times, May 10, 1936, page SM10; http://proquest.umi.com.avoserv.library.fordham.edu/pqdweb?
15.George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: HarperCollins, Inc., 1994), 143.
16.George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: HarperCollins, Inc., 1994), 78.
17.George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: HarperCollins, Inc., 1994), 54.
18.Holland Cotter, “Where City History Was Made, a 50’s Group Made History,” January 5, 1993, http://query .nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE7DC153CF936A35752C0 A9656595… (accessed October 18, 2007).
19.Holland Cotter, “Where City History Was Made, a 50’s Group Made History,” January 5, 1993, http://query .nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE7DC153CF936A35752C0 A9656595… (accessed October 18, 2007).
20.D. Dominick Lombardi Bronxville, “When the Sun Revolved Around Manhattan,” October 17, 1999, http://proquest.umi.com.avoserv.library.fordham.edu/pqdweb?index=
21.Whitney Museum of American Art, “Nine artists / Coenties Slip” (New York: Whitney Museum, 1974).
22.Sember, Robert “In the Shadow of the Object: Sexual Memory in the AIDS Epidemic,” Space And Culture 6 (2003) 215, http://sac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/6/3/214 (accesed October 30, 2007).
23.Sember, Robert “In the Shadow of the Object: Sexual Memory in the AIDS Epidemic,” Space And Culture 6 (2003) 221, http://sac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/6/3/214 (accesed October 30, 2007).
24.Sember, Robert “In the Shadow of the Object: Sexual Memory in the AIDS Epidemic,” Space And Culture 6 (2003) 223, http://sac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/6/3/214 (accesed October 30, 2007).
25. Daniel Campo, “On the waterfront: Vernacular recreation at Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal,” Ph.D. diss. (University of Pennsylvania, 2004), In ProQuest Digital Dissertations [database online]; available from http://www.proquest.com/ (publication number AAT 3125796; accessed November 5, 2007).
26.Campo, Daniel "On the waterfront: Vernacular recreation at Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal". Ph.D. diss. (University of Pennsylvania, 2004), 44, In ProQuest Digital Dissertations [database online]; available from http://www.proquest.com/ (publication number AAT 3125796; accessed November 5, 2007).
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