When our NYC Ferry docks at Red Hook you get to witness a parade of boats as you pull into Atlantic Basin. One of them, closest to our landing, stands above the rest, a red-hulled, retired oil tanker – the MARY A. WHALEN. The ship is actually home to PortSide NewYork, a maritime non-profit which hosts events, runs volunteer programs, and is the source of a digital museum, Red Hook Water Stories.
I sat down with Carolina Salguero, Founder and President of PortSide NewYork, to talk about the future of the organization and some of their upcoming events. The MARY A. WHALEN is the last of its kind, a historic ship built in 1938 by the famous (and local) Ira S. Bushey & Sons shipbuilders. “She has a long Red Hook history. That is to say, she’s nationally significant and from here,” explains Salguero. MARY was built just before World War II and operated as a coastal oil tanker for years. She was even involved in a landmark Supreme Court Case, U.S. vs. Reliable Transfer, the decision of which had a huge impact on maritime law. She’s on the National Registry of Historic Places and this month, MARY is celebrating her 80th birthday!
To kick things off, PortSide hosted their monthly Second Sundays TankerTime this past Sunday May 13th. The deck of the ship was open for people to bring a picnic dinner or drinks from 5pm – midnight. These are monthly reoccurrences with music starting around 9pm from a group of French musicians playing Mediterranean music on board. It’s the perfect setting to watch the sun set from a hammock or learn a new sea chanty.
You can disembark the vessel for a historical talk ashore at the Red Hook Library on Tuesday May 15th. Talk to a Historian will be an evening event where older mariners will be available to take questions and discuss maritime history with the audience. Salguero looks at this event as “a celebration of Red Hook heritage, which really was not being celebrated a lot.” What was once a mighty industrial waterfront in Red Hook, has fallen economically as shipping jobs have moved and changed over the years. “There’s a living present,” says Salguero, “Our goal is to connect the maritime history with the contemporary maritime present and the future that we’re trying to shape.”
MARY A. WHALEN’s 80th birthday celebration will take place on Sunday May 20th. The full ship will be available for TankerTours from 1 – 6pm (These only happen a few times a year, since PortSide’s offices are located inside the ship). In the morning, artists will have free reign onboard as many have been invited to create artwork inspired by the ship. Artwork will be displayed on the fence outside the tanker afterwards for the public to enjoy.
“Red Hook, you might say, is the Plymouth Rock for Puerto Ricans in New York City,” Salguero explains. More ships from Puerto Rico docked here in the late 1800’s. On Friday May 25th, Puerto Rican Red Hook WaterStories will invite neighbors to come and tell their family’s stories – how they arrived, their history in relation to the waterfront, and Hurricane Sandy. The hope is that this will preserve some of the untold stories via Red Hook WaterStories and create a living legacy for those who are involved.
Following that, on Saturday May 26th is a special day where residents from public housing in Red Hook are invited to come aboard and celebrate everything the waterfront has to offer. A majority of the population in Red Hook lives in public housing, which was originally built as housing for dock workers in the shipyards in 1938. A day-long festival will take place with TankerTours, a children’s book reading, a talk about African American Mariners, and balloon animals. Cora Dance will perform and afterwards the deck of the MARY A. WHALEN will be open for TankerTime until 9pm.
And to top the whole month off, PortSide will be launching Red Hook WaterStories 2.0 – an updated version of their digital museum with new content and layout. They’re also working with local schools on an African American Maritime History challenge for 5th and 6th graders. How Salguero even finds time to eat lunch in the galley is impressive.
The biggest challenge for PortSide NewYork is space. The organization is working towards getting permanent building space. “We want to have dock space so we can have visiting vessels, but we need building space so we can have year-round programming,” says Salguero. While the MARY A. WHALEN’s 90 foot long deck is beautiful, it’s really only viable for programming during the summer months. They are going to be putting out a community outreach survey to get feedback about what kind of maritime programming the local community and the wider PortSide NewYork audience would like to see.
You can attend any (or all) of these events by taking NYC Ferry’s South Brooklyn route to Red Hook and walking 1 minute around the corner to the MARY A. WHALEN.