A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape

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Not so very long ago, the clipper ship sailing before the wind was the 747 and the Federal Express of transport. People and goods traveling from New York to San Francisco would pay a premium fare and go 10,000 miles out of their way, sailing all the way around South America, rather than travel over land. And they got there faster, powered only by the wind!

Shipping today has a very different complexion. It’s not the fastest way to get anywhere. The passenger liners that once plied the Atlantic are either gone entirely or relegated to the cruise industry, making voyages to nowhere, like glorified amusement-park rides. And many of the waterfront neighborhoods where sailors and stevedores used to prowl have been transformed into fancy real estate. New York has its South Street Seaport and Baltimore has its Inner Harbor, but in neither of those places will you find a freighter or a tanker unloading its cargo. When those areas were working ports, few outsiders ventured into them; now tourists come to celebrate what’s no longer there.

Yet the shipping industry has not sunk. Parts of it are thriving. The ports of New York and Baltimore handle far more cargo today than they ever did when merchant ships tied up at the finger wharves of Manhattan and spice boats anchored in the Inner Harbor. It’s just that shipping, like so many other heavy industries, has fled from the high costs and constrictions of the central city for wide-open spaces elsewhere on the waterfront. In the New York area, for example, the biggest port facilities are across the Hudson River in Newark and Elizabeth, New Jersey—places where sightseers seldom go (if they can help it).

The new marine terminals would be alien terrain to a seaman stepping out of the pages of Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad. All the nautical kitsch has been left behind at the gentrified downtown harborfront. Near the working port, you won’t find restaurants decorated with antique buoys and fishing nets and lobster pots. A modern port is a vast and depopulated paved-over plain, as big as the parking lot of a megamall and almost as desolate. But there’s a lot going on there for the aficionado of the industrial landscape.


As noted in earlier chapters, the machinery of every industry has its own distinctive technological style. No one would mistake a lightweight aluminum aircraft part from the sort of massive steel casting found on a railroad locomotive. Hardware for shipboard use is more like that of the locomotive—but even larger and heavier. Bolts and rivets are as thick as sausages. Light switches are mounted inside explosion-proof steel casings, and electrical outlets have screw-on brass caps. Watertight doors look like they could protect a bank vault. And perhaps most characteristic of all, everything in sight is slathered with paint; indeed, on an older ship there’s not a sharp corner anywhere because every edge has been rounded over by years of painting and repainting.

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