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Urban Exploration Before it had a Name PhOTOGRAPHS AND STORIES

That’s me, 32 years old taking a picture of myself on the old Ford pier in Edgewater, N.J. It was in October of 1974

America was changing. We were buying cars and TV sets from former enemies in Japan and Germany. The plants that once built them here had closed, so had the industries that supported them. Once mighty railroads had faltered, merged, and failed anyway. The year began with an Arab oil embargo that demonstrated just how dependent we were on them. We waited in long lines for gasoline while independent truckers blocked highways in spectacular protests. The economy was dropping into a deep recession.

In 1974, domestic industries and the middle class had rolled out of New York on an interstate highway system that was not even 20 years old. The city itself was on the verge of bankruptcy. In and around the great Northeast cities, 1974 was a year between eras. The new one had not yet taken shape. All around were remnants of the old. In the fall of 1974 I began exploring and photographing those remnants. Today we call that urban exploring. If it had a name then, it was simply “trespassing.”

Forgive me for beginning with an earlier picture. This was Colden Street in Newburgh, N.Y, in 1970 waiting for the bulldozers. Urban renewal from the 1950s into the 1970s turned out to be a very bad idea. Newburgh, where it failed miserably, became a prime example. This was the earliest shot I took of abandonment - no trespassing necessary.

North Bergen Barge Colony

Bill Casey, October 1974

For 50 years Bill Casey ran a boat repair service at the foot of 79th St. in North Bergen across the Hudson River from Harlem. He started the business in 1920 and chose this spot because he didn’t need a dry dock. He would float a boat onto the mud at high tide and work on it at low tide.

Long before his time, he told me, Erie Canal freight barges were towed here for the winter with the families that worked them. Kids attended local schools and dad found work in the factories nearby. Some of those Erie Canal barges never left, he said, pointing to what he claimed were their remains, corroded planks in the mud nearest the shore.

During the 1960s, some barges were used as dwellings, Bill said. Some residents were old time independent barge owners. The rest were what Bill called hippies. The two groups did not get along, he said. When the last of the old time barge owners died, the hippies had the barges to themselves.

The North Bergen politicians did not like the barge people, especially the hippies. They used town services but paid no taxes. The mayor owned an apartment tower up the hill from the barges, and he wanted them gone. In fact, barge residents had begun to leave on their own as maintenance became burdensome, Bill said. Then in 1971 a fire swept across the community, destroying all the habitable barges. Two of them belonged to Bill. He lost everything stored on them, including a lifetime of tools and two violins he had crafted himself. Bill built fine wood instruments on the side. For the First time in 100 years, Bill said, there was no one living on the water at the foot of 79th St,

In 1974, three years after the fire, only about 20 barges remained. But Bill still came every day from his house up the hill in Guttenberg to sit by the water and wait for someone to talk to. His wife of 50 years had died the previous year.

I don’t know if Bill was there on a bitterly cold Friday in January of 1975, but someone was, and they set a fire, maybe to keep warm. That fire took hold and spread quickly in a strong westerly wind. By evening the last remaining barges were involved. I saw the fire from Manhattan that Friday night. By the next morning, everything was gone, burned to the waterline.

Barge Colony Between the Fires

North Bergen barges before the second fire.

World War II and a few years after were good times for commercial barges, many of which were privately owned. Barges were towed up the Hudson to Canada with coal and returned with newsprint and lumber. Bill said most of the material used to build New York City had arrived by barge - Vermont marble for the Brooklyn Bridge, for example.

The railroads were major customers for the barge owners. The rail companies used barges to transport freight from railheads in New Jersey to Manhattan and the other boroughs. The railroads owned some barges too. Those tended to feature rails so freight cars could roll on on one side of the Hudson and off on the other. Typically each barge could carry a dozen freight cars.

At some point, the railroads began building big steel barges for greater efficiency. They stopped hiring independents. Even as this was happening, the freight business was slowly transitioning to trucks. The old life along the river began to die. The railroads started auctioning off their barges. Buyers in the market at the time weren’t interested in steel barges or the river freight business.

There had always been residents on the barges, old time river people who once earned a living with the barges. The people buying the classic wooden barges were different. Bill said most were artists or writers -- his hippies. All loved the lore of the river and the views of Manhattan. They bought barges to live and work on.

The hippie resident phase only lasted a decade or so. When it died, the long-time barge community at the foot of 79th St. died with it.

Jersey Central Railroad Terminal

Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal in Jersey City with Downtown Manhattan, October of 1974

The World Trade Center towering here over the abandoned terminal had been open for business less than two years that October. Only two months earlier, in August, French aerial daredevil Philippe Petite staged his dramatic, unauthorized high-wire walk between the towers. Ironically, Petite's stunt helped the Trade Center it the community acceptance it had been struggling to generate without success. In a darker irony, the Twin Towers would fall in 2001 while the decrepit Jersey Central Terminal would be restored as part of Liberty State Park, where it serves as museum and administration office.

Many private sector railroads collapsed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Jersey Central succumbed in 1967. Officially, it was called the Central Railroad of New Jersey. Its terminal at the foot of Johnston Avenue in Jersey City was directly across the Hudson from Manhattan’s financial district. The Jersey Central served a large commuter population. But the Jersey Central linked with many other railroads, the Baltimore & Ohio for one, and so offered service to virtually all points west. Its proximity to Ellis Island meant that many immigrants passed through during the first half of the 20th century.

This picture was taken from a control tower overlooking what had once been a web of tracks that served the terminal and nearby freight yards. By the fall of 1974, all the rails had been removed for salvage . The control tower itself was gone within a year as the slow development of what is now Liberty State Park began.

When the terminal shut down in 1967 there was virtually no transition. One day it was operating, the next day it was not. Things were simply left as they were. In the Jersey Central offices, that meant file cabinets, coffee cups, unopened correspondence, rubber stamps, and typewriters. The inevitable scrappers took that stuff as well as copper and anything else they could sell.

Another, different group descended on these buildings -- railroad buffs. They stripped the walls and desks of anything that would eventually become memorabilia – pictures, paperweights, and posters. By 1974, the place had been picked clean.

Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal in Jersey City

Dave Caroff was a N.J. State Park Ranger from South Jersey who had volunteered to guard what was soon to become Liberty State Park. He and a small dog lived in a shack on the former rail yard, now a eerie moonscape of torn up tracks, mounds of dirt, and at least one old box car on cinder blocks. He worked alone and was pretty much on call even when not officially on duty. Dave volunteered for the job, he explained, to find some peace away from his quarrelsome family. That job was to protect 1,200 acres of newly acquired state land that included the old station.

Despite Dave’s best efforts, one thief stole decorative copper he estimated was worth $13,000. At the time of the theft in 1972, scrap copper was worth 38 cents a pound. A year later the price of copper climbed to nearly $1 a pound, and on the night of July 22, 1973, a group of daredevils made off with the copper cupola.

When he did encounter thieves, all Dave could do was phone the Jersey City Police; he had to return to his shack to do that. He couldn't even to that when the scrappers turned out to be off-duty Jersey City officers. They waved hello as they came and went.

The copper was already gone from the cupola when I first came to the old terminal. Ranger Dave must have been somewhere else when I finally climbed the old steel ladder up through the roof and into the cupola. There were no walls to block the 360 degree view. To the northeast was downtown Manhattan and the original World Trade Center.

I’m not sure how it happened, but while shooting pictures with my Pentax, I heard the unmistakable sound of keys as they answered the call of gravity, hitting the metal ladder rungs as they fell.

I had found my way up following the light from the open cupola. There was no such light source down below, and I didn’t have a flashlight. The keys had to be found by Braille on the splintery wood floor 30 feet down. It took time and sapped the fun from the day.

Of course, the terminal was restored and is now part of Liberty State Park. .

This shot was taken from the same control tower vantage point as the the previous one, this time with a telephoto lens and a rare roll of color film.

Even then, seven years abandoned, it was a walk-in. There was no fencing. Nothing was boarded up. Ranger Dave, who you'll meet below, provided security of a sort, but that was minimal. That’s the way many abandoned buildings were then. So few people tried to get in, I suppose, that that it just wasn’t worth expensive security.

Ranger Dave and the Cupola

Dave Caroff

Dave Caroff was a N.J. State Park Ranger from South Jersey who had volunteered to guard what was soon to become Liberty State Park. He and a small dog lived in a shack on the former rail yard, now a eerie moonscape of torn up tracks, mounds of dirt, and at least one old box car on cinder blocks. He worked alone and was pretty much on call even when not officially on duty. Dave volunteered for the job, he explained, to find some peace away from his quarrelsome family. That job was to protect 1,200 acres of newly acquired state land that included the old station.

Despite Dave’s best efforts, one thief stole decorative copper he estimated was worth $13,000. At the time of the theft in 1972, scrap copper was worth 38 cents a pound. A year later the price of copper climbed to nearly $1 a pound, and on the night of July 22, 1973, a group of daredevils made off with the copper cupola.

When he did encounter thieves, all Dave could do was phone the Jersey City Police; he had to return to his shack to do that. He couldn't even to that when the scrappers turned out to be off-duty Jersey City officers. They waved hello as they came and went.

The copper was already gone from the cupola when I first came to the old terminal. Ranger Dave must have been somewhere else when I finally climbed the old steel ladder up through the roof and into the cupola. There were no walls to block the 360 degree view. To the northeast was downtown Manhattan and the original World Trade Center.

I’m not sure how it happened, but while shooting pictures with my Pentax, I heard the unmistakable sound of keys as they answered the call of gravity, hitting the metal ladder rungs as they fell.

I had found my way up following the light from the open cupola. There was no such light source down below, and I didn’t have a flashlight. The keys had to be found by Braille on the splintery wood floor 30 feet down. It took time and sapped the fun from the day.

Of course, the terminal was restored and is now part of Liberty State Park. .

Naporano Iron and Steel

New York City subway cars waiting to be scrapped

These retired New York City subway cars were stacked at Naporano Iron and Metal in the Ironbound section of Newark waiting to be disassembled or crushed for scrap. I spied them one day while driving across the Routes 1 & 9 viaduct (built in the 1920s to carry traffic from the new Holland Tunnel).

Naporano’s wasn’t your everyday junk yard. They didn’t buy stolen copper pipes from junkies or old cars. They dealt with big stuff you couldn’t steal. So the yard was unsecured on weekends.

Coincidentally, in October of 1974, the Naporano family settled a law suit brought by Anthony Naporano, brother of the boss, Andrew Naporano Sr. Seems Andrew’s son, Andrew Jr., had wacked Uncle Anthony in the face with a wrench and broken his nose.

Andrew Jr. headed the company when it was sold in 1998. Three years later he became a consultant on disposing of the metal debris from the destroyed World Trade Center.

Andrew Jr. is quoted in conspiracy theory stories that claim the metal was processed quickly so that no in-depth analysis could be performed. Andrew didn’t say that, but in a report to the Port Authority, he noted that a large amount of metal that should have been processed was not accounted for.

The scrap yard now known as Sims Metal Management remains at the foot of Rome St where as of 2015 they still process retired N.Y.C. subway cars.

Mike Staniland

Mike lived next door to us in Bogota N.J. and wanted to go on a photography adventure, so in October of 1974 I brought him along to Naparano’s.

Naporano’s was located at the dead end of Rome Street where a parked car would look suspicious. So on a Sunday morning in the fall of 1974, I parked among other cars on Wilson Avenue and we walked three blocks along the railroad tracks into Naporano’s yard on the lookout for junkyard dogs.

There were no dogs, but there was an old man living in the pile of New York City subway cars. Mike was standing in front of those cars in his faded Beatles shirt, still on the lookout for dogs. He loved the Beatles and six years later would stand watch outside the Dakota in mourning for John Lennon.

Mike liked his drugs too and always wanted me to try coke. Then 32, I promised him I would when I turned 40, which seemed impossibly far off. But sure enough, on my birthday in 1982 Mike showed up at the door with his white powder. I begged off, but at a cost. Mike bet me a pizza -- our dinner that night -- that I would not walk into Aldo's Pizzeria and wait for the pie dressed in my pajamas and an outrageous horned hat.

There was no eye contact from anyone in the pizzeria except from Aldo who was not happy. A couple of years later, Mike went into business selling we were never sure exactly what from his bedroom that overlooked the driveway that separated our houses. But he went out of business after someone got into his room, presumably from the outside and made off with his cash and stash. At least that's what I remember.

I also remember the day the waterbed in his bedroom sprung a leak and Mike herded the mattress down the stairs and out the door in a slithering blob that sprayed water whenever the leak turned out or upward. Perhaps it was a sign. Mike would become a mattress salesman and the subject of a True Facts Reporter, a regular piece I wrote for National Lampoon at the time.

I called it the Adventures of Mattress Man. In it Mike -- recorded, transcribed and lightly tweaked -- tore the lid off the tacky business of mattress retailing. The art department chose to represent Mike as a bald, sly-looking middle-aged guy with a cigar. Mattress Man may have been the high point for the relatively short-lived True Facts Reporter Feature (though I have a special fondness for Mall Waitress, which was contributed by my daughter Berne). Mike got a kick out of Mattress Man, reading it out loud on our front steps, laughing after each line.

I lost contact with him after that, but heard that he died in 2013. Don't know any more than that, except that I never did try the white powder. Still scares the shit out of me.

Junk yard dogs were on our mind that Sunday morning, at Naporano’s. I didn't expect to find someone living there. But that’s what Leonard Wilson was doing.

He was in his stocking feet in a railroad car next to the stacked subway cars. His belongings were piled on one seat and he had clearly been sleeping on another. He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him. Leonard said he had been living in the subway cars since the summer when his rooming house north of McCarter Highway burned down. It was safer here, he said; he didn’t get robbed all the time.

Leonard said the Naporano guys let him stay and he paid his way by pulling copper wiring from the cars. Somehow I doubt that, but it hardly matters.

Created By
John Bendel
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