In my research about the history of economic development, I regularly have the opportunity to explore historical sources like maps and archival records. While researching the forgotten rowing clubs of Harlem, I learned that history is just as important as vision to the future of a place. This series highlights two specific examples of how historical research can contribute to debates in urban planning, as well as how present-day challenges can provide new perspectives on historical work.
It’s easy to forget that Manhattan is an island—according to the Waterfront Alliance’s interactive Harbor Scorecard, there’s only one place to board or launch a boat for every 4 miles of New York City coastline. In Harlem, where there are a total of 2 waterfront access sites, residents are cut off from waterways by the Henry Hudson Parkway to the West and the Harlem River Drive to the East. Harlem River Community Rowing is actually in the Bronx—and is being asked to leave its current location to make room for a baseball academy.
A deep-dive into the New York Public Library’s Sanborn fire insurance map collection, however, reveals a very different recreational landscape at the turn of the century, when boathouses clustered along the Hudson and Harlem Rivers in Upper Manhattan. Collectively known as “Scullers Row,” boat clubs like the Knickerbocker Canoe Club and the Dauntless Rowing Club were integral to the history of rowing in New York.
Sanborn maps, originally designed to systematically map risk in an era where fire posed the biggest threat to cities, provide a wealth of information about the historic built environment, including lot size, building footprint, and building material and use.
The index for the Sanborn map of Hamilton Heights and Harlem in 1909, an area stretching from 145th Street to 175th Street between the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, lists no fewer than 8 boat clubs, alongside entries like the Fischer Bros. Cabinet Fact’y and Crystal Hygeia Ice Co that attest to the waterfront’s significance as a place of both industrial and recreational activity.
Key and Inset, Insurance Maps of the City of New York. Borough of Manhattan, Atlas 126, Volume 11, Part 2. Published by Sanborn Map Co., 11 Broadway, New York. 1909. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
The map below draws on historical data from Sanborn maps to show the locations of the boat clubs in 1909 superimposed onto present-day Manhattan, along with snippets on their history (click on the red markers to see the historical information I’ve added):
The demise of Scullers Row in the mid twentieth century can be traced back to a number of factors, including municipal development projects such as highways that blocked off major portions of waterfront. As Katharine McCormick has detailed, Robert Moses waged a personal campaign against the boat clubs, which he viewed as enclaves of privilege that stood in the way of inclusive public spaces. Moses went as far as to claim that three Scullers Row clubs would be replaced by tennis courts for Harlem residents (remarkably, they were—you can still play tennis at the Frederick Johnson Courts). This enthusiasm for public works played well to 1930s progressives, but was also politically expedient—the Waverly Boat Club’s three-story clubhouse, for instance, stood directly in the path of the proposed Riverside Drive.
Still, Moses’s critique had teeth—as the Sanborn atlas shows, the clubs’ locations, far from the nearest developed residential areas, meant that they were social meeting places only for those who could afford the trip uptown. And the rapidly changing demographics of Harlem, which welcomed Jewish and Italian immigrants in the late nineteenth century and African Americans in the 1910s and 20s, were not reflected in boat club memberships that remained overwhelmingly white and “old immigrant” in ethnic composition.
But the boat clubs’ historical presence in Harlem remains an important reminder of the vibrant, accessible waterfront that once was—and that can be fostered again. Reclaimed spaces like the West Harlem Piers Park and Sherman Creek Park are examples of recently completed renewal initiatives that provide Upper Manhattan residents with access to green space and boating facilities. Educational and community programming is key to ensuring that these sites don’t function as exclusive spaces, like the private boat clubs of Scullers Row once were, but are used by all community members. And while the boat clubs of the late nineteenth century were built on the fringes of what was then relatively undeveloped land, waterfront parks today are often marooned by busy highways that pose a danger to pedestrians seeking access. Updated walkway and crosswalk infrastructure could serve to connect waterfront parks to the communities they serve, integrating them into the urban fabric.
Reconstructing the turn-of-the-century waterfront opens up new possibilities for reimagining the waterfront of today.
Divya Subramanian is a PhD candidate in history at Columbia University studying international and global history, with research interests including the history of development, urban and environmental history, and the history of economic thought. This series was supported by the AHA-Mellon History in Action pilot program housed at Columbia.