To someone approaching the age of 90, memories from youth are particularly precious, especially when they are clear and vivid, like the recollections of Marcel Proust, literature's preeminent explorer of his own memory, about a cookie he ate as a child, I remember, as a small boy, being taken on a walking tour of the New York city waterfront and seeing something that astonished and delighted me: a number of small harbors, inlets from the East River, rectangular in shape and about the size of a city block, in which rusty freighters and even a few sailing ships were anchored. Men trudged off them and into nearby warehouses. carrying on their backs bags of coffee beans, sacks of spices, and bunches of green bananas. Pungent smells of spices and roasting coffee permeated the air. I was about 9 years old, so this would have been in the early 1920's.
I learned that these inlets were called slips, and, although they have long since been filled in, they gave their names to the streets or squares that replaced them--familiar New York names like Old Slip, Peck's Slip, Catharine Slip, Market Slip.
After a long absence from New York I recently returned and settled in lower Manhattan. One day, walking on the cobblestones that pave the open square of Peck's Slip, I noticed on the north side of the square a line of sturdy stanchions, such as are used for tying ships' hawsers. A man in a cafe facing the square told me that at one time it had been all water out front: there had once been a harbor where now was solid land. This confirmed my own childhood memory.
The earliest slips go back to the days of Dutch New Amsterdam. The East River waterfront was swampy, and the area around what is now Front, Water and South Streets was covered by high tides. The Dutch, inveterate land-builders, filled in these swampy areas, leaving a few arms of the river reaching in to the land to shelter ships being unloaded. Slip-building continued after the Dutch: a sign on the Jasper Ward house, at the corner of Peck's Slip and South Street, says that the property was still under water in 1800, and the house was built in 1807. This appears to date the construction --or possibly an extension--of Peck's Slip, which is described as "a broad and commodious pier" in Mr. Ward's advertisements for his business in the New York Evening Post.
In early maps the East River's shore was punctuated by a series of gaps, like the missing baby teeth in a 7-year-old's smile. (1) A guidebook to the city published in 1825 lists 12 slips on the East River (2):
(Another source lists 13 slips, including Catharine, George, and Charlotte Slips, at the bottoms of streets with the same names, but excluding Market and Pike Slips.) (3)
To make room for these small harbors, the streets widen out as they come down to South Street, as do Wall Street and Broad Street, or whole squares were left open, as at Peck's Slip. The widest slips were Whitehall Slip and Peck's Slip.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, ocean shipping tied up at the East River in these slips; on the Hudson side with its rocky shore and strong winds and waves, there were only five principal basins or docks from Cedar Street to Bank Street. (3). An account of the time reported that in 1838 the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic, the Great Western, sailed up the East River and docked at Peck's Slip, where a cheering crowd greeted it. (4)
The slips were limited in size, while ships were getting larger. As New York's port grew, many piers and wharves were built out into the rivers, and these soon accommodated the bulk of the shipping traffic, but the slips continued to be used. for smaller vessels. Coffee House Slip, at the foot of Wall Street was a terminal for a ferry to Brooklyn. Coenties Slip was a favorite docking place for barges that came through the Erie Canal and down the Hudson. (The name, a contraction of "Conraet's and Antje's"--Conraet Ten Eyck and his wife Antje lived there in Dutch days (5)--is a sweet souvenir of the time when our town was a village.)
But the days of the slips were numbered. The Map Room of the main New York Public Library has a map dated 1857, showing only one water-filled indentation in the East River shoreline, Coenties Slip, reaching back about 250 feet from South Street to Front Street. This is confirmed by a report of the commissioners responsible for wharves and docks dated 1868 (6), which showed Coenties Slip to be the only one remaining. A map dated 1898 showed a straight shoreline; all the slips had been filled in by that time
So some time between 1825 and 1857 all but one of the slips had been filled in, and the last one disappeared before the end of the century. My vivid recollection as a nine-year old in the 1920's was an illusion, but it did reflect an earlier reality. Possibly I had seen a drawing of the scene and remembered it as if I had really seen it. Perhaps I had actually smelled the vividly-recalled odors of spices and roasting coffee while walking there in the 1920's, and they became coupled in my mind with the visual memory of a picture from an earlier era. These are the tricks memory plays on us. (Marcel Proust got a lot of mileage from that cookie, but, with due respect to a great author, I wouldn't bet on it.)