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From Landfill to Luxury: The Real Estate Development that Transformed Battery Park City from an Artists’ Escape into an Upper-Class Enclave

I grew up in a small neighborhood of Lower Manhattan called Battery Park City. In this essay, I explain the journey this small patch of land underwent, changing from a hub of counterculture into a litter of strollers over the course of a few years.

From Landfill to Luxury: The Real Estate Development that Transformed Battery Park City from an Artists’ Escape into an Upper-Class Enclave

Very rarely in New York City—a city known for its valuable and scarce real estate—does an opportunity arise to build an entire neighborhood from nothing.  Most often, real estate developers are tasked with renovating or reimagining buildings in neighborhoods that have been active for centuries; this made the job of planning and building Battery Park City a unique problem for which there was no precedent.  The Battery, a 25-acre landfill near the southern tip of Manhattan, bordered some of the wealthiest and most opulent neighborhoods in Manhattan, namely TriBeCa and the Financial District.  Instinctually, real estate developers and investors began plans to create a similar environment in the Battery. But, when these projects were stalled, artists from all over the city claimed the empty landfill as their own, fostering a community unlike anything else in New York and creating art in protest of the city’s inequality.  The most famous of these artists were Agnes Denes and the members of the Creative Time organization, who epitomized the spirit of protest and freedom that was found in the Battery.  When development eventually did start, these artists lost their irreplaceable haven, and Battery Park City grew to look more and more like the neighborhoods surrounding it.  Developments like Gateway Plaza and the World Financial Center attracted wealthy renters and visiting tourists, constricting the free, anti-capitalist energy that made the neighborhood exceptional.  By liberating and empowering a community of lower-class artists like Agnes Denes and members of the Creative Time organization, Battery Park City opposed and held accountable the classism occurring throughout the rest of lower Manhattan; yet, when the area’s developers implemented luxury real estate and shopping attractions such as Gateway Plaza and the World Financial Center, the Battery was transformed into merely another neighborhood for wealthy white collar workers and tourists, mirroring the same classism it opposed and displacing the poor artists.

In its inception, Battery Park City was designed for the city to develop from scratch into a high-rise residential paradise, motivated by a desire to reinvigorate a debilitated area of lower Manhattan.  Before this area existed, the space it now occupies was part of the Hudson River, home only to a few run-down loading docks built on the water; the area was hardly used and highly undesirable.   However, when the development of the nearby World Trade Center began, urban planners had the idea to reclaim land from the Hudson by dumping the unearthed landfill from the nearby construction site into the water across the West Side Highway.  Immediately, the potential for this new land was clear, and the real estate industry pounced: “A master plan was created by architect Wallace K. Harrison, calling for a mix of residential, commercial and public space, making for an entirely new community in Manhattan.”  Harrison hoped this atmosphere would attract wealthy renters and tourists alike, creating a maximally profitable environment.  Never before had an opportunity arisen to plan an entire New York neighborhood at once; the potential for financial gain and grandeur was unmatched.  

Unfortunately for the developers, this same grandiosity led the project to be abandoned, for it had far too little support for such an intricate task.  Despite such ambitious planning, many New Yorkers shared the sentiment that “the original proposal was so exuberant that it could only fail.”  Such an intense project required enthusiasm from the rest of the city in order to be successful, but even the elite real estate industry was disgusted: as an anonymous architect told New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger, “The early drawings were appalling — it looked like they were floating Co-Op City down the Hudson.”  This backlash brought the project to a standstill, preventing those in favor of the development from making any progress.  Where a metropolis was meant to stand there was only barren landfill, left unused while the city stalled.  

Despite the stalling of these plans, the Battery did not remain vacant for long: the lack of real estate action introduced an opportunity for the lower Manhattan artist community to take control of the neighborhood and transform it into a necessary haven.  Lilly Tuttle, an assistant curator at the Museum of the City of New York, notes, “In the beginning there was a beach there, a vast tract of unused land that was used to unwind.”  The downtown New Yorkers claimed what was rightfully theirs, appropriating the many acres of land as a public space for recreation.  Most commonly, the space was used as a relaxing beach, just far enough from the noise and stress of the neighboring Financial District.  David Vanden-Eynden and Chris Calori, two graphic designers who frequently used the sandy landfill to sunbathe, raved, “There was nothing there yet and there were spectacular views of the towers and across the river.”  Evidently, the Battery served as a serene escape for those who could not otherwise get away from the high intensity of Manhattan without leaving the island.  

Beyond these casual activities, the Creative Time organization’s “Art on the Beach” campaign became a staple of the neighborhood from 1978 to 1985, allowing lower-class artists to express their frustrations with New York’s elite in a way that could entertain and inspire the other occupants of Battery Park.  Standing in opposition to the rigid spirit of the surrounding office buildings, “Art on the Beach encouraged artists to experiment, collaborate, and test new ideas.”  Naturally, this quickly gained the attention of the nearby visual artists in TriBeCa and SoHo, many of whom flocked to contribute pieces of their own.  Among the first installations of this series was a collaboration between artist Erika Rothenberg, architect Laurie Hawkinson, and performance artist John Malpede: together, they sculpted a giant red megaphone, planted on the Battery sand and pointing like a gun at the Twin Towers across the highway.  To accompany the piece, they “included a statement inviting ‘all those who feel silenced by the electronic media to shout their opinions into the wind,’” a call to action that directly embodied the spirit of the Battery.   These artists knew that “the rising economy threatened to erase the types of waterfront experiences that [they] celebrated,” and so they voiced their opinions boldly and clearly while they still had the platform to do so.  

The most impactful example of this self-expression on the Battery was Agnes Denes’ 1982 installation entitled “Wheatfield — A Confrontation”; the piece forced the Financial District elite to confront the poverty around them which they fought so hard to ignore.  The concept for the piece was simple: Denes, along with dedicated volunteers, planted a two acre wheat field in the unkind and hardly fertile land of the Battery.  But, her vision for the installation ran far deeper than simply planting crops: “Its placement, ‘one block from Wall Street, with traffic going through a block away, facing the Statue of Liberty,’ Denes says, ‘was a meaningful attack’ on the divide between rich and poor, between the pastoral and the technocratic, and how people embrace progress. The magic of the piece, then as now, was the setting.” Denes recognized that she had a platform to be heard, squarely in the middle of downtown Manhattan, and acted upon that power to communicate a stern message to her oppressors.  The statement could only have worked inside the territory of her enemy, and the Battery Park landfill was the only place in the city where impoverished artists could have a place in the middle of an elite space.  During these years, the landfill truly represented a vital antithesis to the unkind, classist capitalism that was growing on the other side of the West Side Highway.  

But, as unique and necessary as the barren landfill was, the greedy developers could not be abated forever: Gateway Plaza, the first apartment building complex built on the Battery, became the catalyst for a complete transformation that the neighborhood would undergo in the coming years.  After finally gaining enough support from the city, the buildings opened to residents in 1981, and its developers were rewarded for being the pioneers of the landfill: they “got a discount on the ground lease in exchange for creating affordable housing and received Mitchell Lama financing,” which made the construction and maintenance of the complex very inexpensive.  Unfortunately, the landlords did not hold up their end of the bargain, which was to create affordable housing: immediately, they charged very high prices for apartment rentals, and thereby limiting the renters to upper-class New Yorkers that could afford to pay thousands of dollars per month.  Beyond this, the “rents were never part of a formal stabilization program and started rising right away… galloping out of control with 15 to 25 percent increases.”  This only exacerbated the exclusivity of the complex further, driving out tenants year by year as the prices went up.  What was designed as affordable housing—to be occupied by people much like the artists who took advantage of the abandoned landfill—spiraled into just another example of the classism that occurred across the highway.  With this, the precedent was set for the rest of the housing to be built in Battery Park City, and the abandoned paradise began to transform.  By the end of the decade, Battery Park City—at that point anything that suggested “beach” or “landfill” had been paved over—was littered with dozens of similar high-rise apartment buildings.  

In the center of all these buildings was the World Financial Center, Battery Park City’s strategy for filling the new apartments: its combination of upscale office space and shopping attractions inspired a migration of white collar workers and tourists to the neighborhood.  The compound of buildings that comprised the World Financial Center contained “7 million square feet of office space”, countless upscale shops and restaurants, and a glass enclosure of towering palm trees known as “The Winter Garden”.  Corporations and banks quickly infested the office space, while tourists visiting the Twin Towers stopped at the glorified shopping mall for lunch and gawked at the surreal palm trees.  Considering all these revenue streams, it did not take long for developers to get their return on investment: “The Battery Park City Authority, the public benefit corporation that was the driving force behind the entire development… generates more than $100 million a year in profit—altogether more than $1 billion, so far.”  As for the apartment buildings, those were naturally filled by the wealthy employees of the corporations housed in the World Financial Center, generating unimaginable profits for the developers of those projects as well.  Clearly, this was a far cry from the anti-capitalist spirit that the Battery carried just a few years prior.

By this point, the artists who once roamed the landfill were long displaced, and while they found new homes and communities in various other corners of New York City, there was no other neighborhood as liberating as the Battery Park landfill.  As might be expected, these artists could no longer afford to stay in Battery Park, or anywhere in lower Manhattan for that matter.  Fortunately, though, when the artists moved, the culture followed: “In 1987, Art on the Beach moved to Hunters Point, Queens, for two more seasons.  This site, donated by the Port Authority, was six acres of land comprising of a mix of lush grass and sandy plains with a view of the Manhattan skyline across the East River.”  But, the festival’s Queens home was tiny and cramped compared to the Battery’s 25 acres, and they eventually lost this site as well; it became clear that no location could replace the landfill on the Hudson.  Never again would New York have such a tabula rasa, waiting eagerly to be settled by those in desperate need of a home and a voice.  

In summation, the greed of New York’s elite developers corrupted the freedom that Battery Park gave the underserved artists.  While it remained untapped, Battery Park City was the most necessary neighborhood in lower Manhattan, providing a home for those who otherwise would not have one anywhere near.  This served as a reality check for the rest of the city; the landfill stood in sharp contrast to the surrounding skyscrapers and forced New York’s upper class to confront how they had alienated the impoverished population.  Beyond this, the site inspired free thought and the creation of unbounded art, two ideas most central to the culture of New York City.  If the city wishes to maintain the culture that makes it exceptional, it must cease to destroy and gentrify these hubs of artistic freedom; there is much less culture in a corporate office building than in a neighborhood of free-thinking, unrestrained, and empowered New Yorkers.  For, if New York City loses these spaces and becomes solely ruled by money, it will lose all that makes it attractive and inspiring to migrants and tourists, thereby damaging the same economy that motivated the gentrification to begin with.  Although it may seem that New York is run by money and business, the city’s heartbeat is the spirit of the people, and if this spirit dies out, the city will no longer be New York.

Works Cited

Blauner, Peter.  “O Pioneers: Life in the Newest Neighborhood”.  New York Magazine.  June 16th, 1986.  

Brown, Gene.  Battery Park City: The Early Years.  Xlibris Corporation.  2005.

Council of the City of New York, The.  “ARTIST RENDERING OF RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT OF BATTERY PARK CITY”.  Wagner & LaGuardia Archives.  1980.  

Frederick, Pam.  “Gateway tenants battling to keep rents ‘affordable’”.  Tribeca Citizen.  September 3rd, 2019.  

Gastil, Raymond.  Beyond the Edge: New York's New Waterfront.  Princeton Architectural Press.  2002.

Giles, Jeff.  “It’s a Beach if We Say So: Lost Scenes From Downtown’s Hipster Landfill”.  The New York Times.  June 17th, 2019.  

Gordon, David L. A.  Battery Park City: Politics and Planning on the New York Waterfront.  Taylor & Francis, 1997.

Jacobs, Karrie.  “The Woman Who Harvested a Wheat Field Off Wall Street”.  The New York Times.  June 14th, 2018.

Koch, Edward.  “FISCAL AFFAIRS”.  Wagner & LaGuardia Archives.  June 19th, 2013.

Koch, Edward.  “LIBERTY MEDALS IN BATTERY PARK”.  Wagner & LaGuardia Archives.  1986.

Lewis, Daniel R.  “Manhattan is Built on Landfills”.  City University of New York Journalism.

Pasternak, Anne.  Creative Time: The Book.  Princeton Architectural Press.  September 17th, 2008.

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