Mapping the Waterfront

Sectional Aerial Map of the City of New York, No. 28, Coney Island, Gravesend, Brooklyn, 1951. Aero Service Corp. NYC Municipal Archives.

This notebook focusing on the East River waterfront near what is now Alphabet City, was created by an employee of the Department of Docks. Department of Ports and Trade Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Most people have seen surveyors at work—marking boundaries, determining distances, angles and positions. It’s the kind of essential data necessary for all types of construction projects, and is an ongoing endeavor for all cities. The Municipal Archives holds a variety of records from government agencies responsible for surveying what now are the five boroughs, ranging from Brooklyn maps documenting 19th century road placement to aerial photographic maps from the 20th century.  One notable collection of maps and notebooks depicts waterfront development.

Used by an employee of the Department of Docks and Ferries, this 1902-1903 surveyor’s notebook contains hand-sketched maps of Brooklyn, largely focused on the waterfront. Department of Ports and Trade Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

City archivists recently re-appraised notebooks that had been accessioned from the Department of Ports and Terminals some years ago. The notebooks originated with earlier incarnations of the agency. The Department of Docks, established in 1870, had exclusive control of all the wharf property belonging to the City and the regulations of privately-owned wharf property. The name of the agency, and its duties, changed several times through the years: Department of Docks and Ferries, 1898-1919; Department of Docks, 1919-1942; Department of Marine and Aviation, 1942-1969; Department of Ports and Terminals, 1968-1985; Department of Ports, International Trade and Commerce, 1985-1986; and Department of Ports and Trade, 1986-1991. Most of its original duties in turn became part of the Economic Development Corporation in 1991. These agencies had responsibility for the City’s extensive waterfront infrastructure—piers, wharves, slips, basins, marginal streets, docks, and bulkheads as well as all land under water.

The notebooks illustrate one of the wonderful ways archival materials can be used to trace historical narratives. A researcher can start with the notebooks, then move to the 2,500-item waterfront survey map series to see how the information from the notebooks was plotted into maps. The survey maps are all digitized and available via the Municipal Archives online gallery). The pages and maps pictured here depict Seagate, a private community in Brooklyn, adjacent to Coney Island. Incorporated in 1899 and originally known as Norton’s Point, Seagate quickly filled with summer homes for New York’s wealthy elites like the Morgans and the Vanderbilts. At the time this survey was conducted, Seagate was still a resort community, filled with large mansions.

4315 Atlantic Avenue, at Beach 43rd St, Seagate, Brooklyn, ca. 1940. Department of Finance, 1940 Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The surveyors who filled these notebooks would have contributed to maps like those seen below. Titles like “Transitman,” “Chainman,” “Rodman,” and “Leveller” refer to the particular tools used by the surveyors who were responsible for recording bulkhead lines, pier outlines and property boundaries, which were then plotted onto official maps.

This small map was drawn on April 17, 1903 and is contained in the first notebook pictured above. The names of the survey team are visible in the top right corner. It depicts a section of Seagate right along Surf Avenue. Department of Ports and Trade Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Waterfront Survey Map #1023, Brooklyn Map 58, Coney Island/Seagate, Nov. 1899, updated through the 1960s. Department of Ports and Trade Collection, NYC Municipal Archives

Waterfront Survey Map #2068, Brooklyn Red Survey Map 82, Coney Island/Seagate, Oct. 1900, updated through the 1960s. Department of Ports and Trade Collection, NYC Municipal Archives

Surveyor book 1903. The notes mention this survey was done for an improvement to shift the steps further east and building a new platform in front of the Royal Arcanum Outing Club house, “built about 4 years ago, but is not located on Dept maps.”

Waterfront Survey Map #2032 - Brooklyn Red Survey Map 46, Bensonhurst/Gravesend Bay, August, 1899, updated through the 1960s.. Department of Ports and Trade Collection, NYC Municipal Archives

In the first years of the 20th century, the City began professionally planning urban development. Manhattan Borough President George McAneny and former U.S. Congressman Edward M. Bassett led the effort to establish a planning agency in New York. They are both, in turn, referred to as “The Father of American Zoning.” In 1913, McAneny and Bassett succeeded in getting the Board of Estimate to appoint a Committee on City Planning. In 1916, the City adopted the Country’s first citywide zoning code: the 1916 Zoning Resolution. Based on planning theory, it reflected local and City-wide goals. Originating in Europe, city planning arrived in the United States as a response to industrialization and its effects on city dwellers. Growing populations, new industry and increased construction demanded that City government maintain teams of surveyors to keep track of New York’s changing landscape. The maps and notebooks seen here are the archival traces those efforts left behind.

West 35th Street, Seagate, Brooklyn, Recreation Pier, August 25, 1914. Department of Docks and Ferries Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.