Greenpoint, October, 2015

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Moby Dick or the Confidence Man?

Whale Oil Row
A New Yorker's first thought: Look at all those parking spaces, must be Staten Island. Close, it's New London, Connecticut: Huntington Street, locally referred to as Whale Oil Row. These four Greek Revival houses were built between 1835 and 1845 for ship owners and merchants who got rich from the lucrative whale oil industry. Somehow New London has decided to hold onto the houses despite its penchant for eminent domain evictions, about which, more to follow.

Whale Square
I was hopeful that I'd discover traces of New York City's own whaling history when I spotted "Whale Square" on a map at the water end of 53rd Street in Sunset Park. Alas, not that whale, not that oil, and not all that old. Whale Square is named for the Whale Oil Company, a fuel distributor that built an office there in 1948. The company was later bought by Standard Oil. There are some great industrial history sites to be seen on the Sunset Park waterfront, as this excellent blog reveals, but Whale Square is not one of them.

Back to New London. As many of you will remember, in the early years of this century, the city of New London claimed by eminent domain properties on the Thames River waterfront comprising the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. The rationale: construction of a mixed residential, office, and retail complex. New London argued that it was in the city's economic interest to evict the working class families living there, many for several generations, and allow private developers to build the complex. Some of the property owners held out, and the case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In 2005, in Kelo v. City of New London, the Court ruled 5-4 that "the city's disposition of petitioners' property qualifies as a 'public use' within the meaning of the Takings Clause." This was a real precedent setter, since eminent domain had never before been used to take private property for private development purposes.

Fort Trumbull neighborhood today (from an Amtrak train)
After people were relocated and houses razed, the economy collapsed and plans for redevelopment languished. Now, after 10 years of controversy, Riverbank Construction of New York has been given the go-ahead to break ground. According to owner Robert Stillman, the village will be constructed in the "Greek Revival style." Tasteful.

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