The shore below the Brooklyn Bridge was once a scene of shipping. Watching the freighters arrive and depart, the longshoremen going about their work, was as much an attraction of the Heights Promenade for over a quarter century as was the greater view of harbor and skyline. Long before the Promenade, ships had been coming to dock below Brooklyn Heights.
A chance remark last week by the artist and photographer Ann Walker Gaffney put a bug in my head. She was talking about the desperate effort to save the pre-World War II tanker Mary A. Whalen — the subject of an urgent public session at Long Island College Hospital this past Monday. The vessel will have to give up its berth at the Red Hook Container Terminal by April 30, and a hope that it could be moved to nearby Atlantic Basin has been deferred by the city’s Economic Development Corporation.
So what to do? The thought suggested by the conversation with Ms. Gaffney was that Brooklyn Bridge Park might prove the right home for the ship. After all, the pier platforms are still there, and having the Mary A. Whalen docked at Pier 2 or 3, or the north side of Pier 5, would provide a link to that waterfront’s historic past.
At 171 feet in length the Mary A. Whalen would fit easily alongside one of the pier platforms. Built in 1938, long before our insatiable demand for oil led to tankers more than six times as long, the ship is comparable in size to the smaller of the freighters that used to dock along there. (It was the development of very large containerships that led to the Heights piers being closed to cargo traffic by 1984.) Not only would this vintage tanker be a visual reminder of a maritime history stretching well back into the 19th century, but it would be an attraction for park visitors — a place for displays of seafaring history, a source of instruction for schoolchildren, and a site for special programs and performances.
PortSide New York, the voluntary organization that has had hand of the Mary A. Whalen in recent times, has used it for just such purposes. The ship itself represents a story of change and adaptation, from making coastal oil deliveries as far as Maine from 1938 to 1954, then, as tanker size grew, making deliveries to fuel terminals in our narrower waterways like the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek, and at the end mostly being used to fuel ships “bunkering” at dockside or at anchor.
But perhaps the most interesting latter-day use of the Mary A. Whalen was as a floating setting for the widely praised performances of the Puccini opera Il Tabarro by soprano Judith Barnes and her Vertical Players Repertory in 2007.
Originally conceived as taking place on a Seine barge traveling through Paris, the story was described by a New York Times writer as a “romantic thriller” about the philandering wife of a longshoreman. Actual longshoremen provided by American Stevedoring, which has made a free berth available to the tanker, played extras in the production. They had to learn how to sling lightweight prop bags around as if they actually contained heavy loads.
So there it is, a suggestion to Brooklyn Bridge Park and the city to move the Mary A. Whalen to one of the park’s piers and to berth it there. There are financial considerations as to its feasibility. Should there be admission charges for visiting the ship, and would they cover the cost of the ship’s maintenance? Should PortSide New York continue jurisdiction over it? Would the Coast Guard have any problem with the arrangement? There may be unsuspected other problems that complicate the matter. But a solution for the Mary A. Whalen needs to be found quickly, and the idea of berthing it at Brooklyn Bridge Park seems at least worth exploring.
— Henrik Krogius, Editor
Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News