Westbeth Photographer Shelley Seccombe Documents the Greenwich Village Waterfront Since 1970

Westbeth Photographer Shelley Seccombe Documents the Greenwich Village Waterfront Since 1970

When the Westbeth complex was converted to the first subsidized housing for artists in the United States fifty years ago, the great photographer Shelley Seccombe was one of the first tenants to move in. Over the course of her career, Seccombe has documented the people and landscape of the surrounding neighborhood, marking the events that have defined it and the changes that have reshaped it across five decades, since 1970. The photos she has generously shared with Village Preservation are just a small portion of her work, providing an invaluable portrait of Village history, waterfront history, Westbeth history, and so much more.

Skateboarders in the courtyard at Westbeth, c. 1977.

Seccombe’s focus on photography was in many ways inspired by her move to Westbeth. When she first arrived, the entrance to the building was on West Street, facing the waterfront. Coming in and out of this entrance defined her daily attention to, and documentation of, the since-demolished West Side Miller Elevated Highway and the piers just beyond it. Seccombe remembers:

In 1970 I moved with my husband and daughter to the West Village. We were among the first tenants in Westbeth, a conversion of the Bell Labs building on the Hudson River for artists housing/studio space. My husband is a sculptor; at that time I was teaching music, the career path for which I had prepared. Photography was nowhere on my resume.

One day in 1971, I came home from commuting to work on the upper East Side to find the neighborhood full of smoke, Pier 50 in flames. Leaning out a neighbor’s window on Bethune Street, I aimed my camera at fire engines on the West Side Highway and took several shots. Thus began my long series documenting the deterioration of the piers and the construction of Hudson River Park. The big empty pier (#49) provided a perfect view of the activities of the tugboats moving barges of trap rock down to the World Trade Center area and upstate as far as Albany.

Pier 50 in flames, c. 1971. Taken from a window in Westbeth facing Bethune Street.

 

Sunset watchers on Pier 49, c. 1974.

 

People gathered on Pier 49 to view “Operation Sail,” 1976.

 

Collapse of Pier 51, 1978. The foundation had been weakened by barges pushed by tugboats.

 

“Flagman,” who was a fixture on the piers, on Pier 49, c. 1977-1978.

 

Dance concert with pink clouds, looking north, c. 1978. Pier 51 is visible in the background.

 

Police car and dog on West Side Highway (now demolished), looking south toward the Twin Towers, c. 1979. The highway was closed to traffic, perhaps because this was a film shoot.

 

Black smoke rising, c. 1980. The West Side Highway (now demolished) is visible to the left, and the World Trade Center is visible beyond the smoke.

 

Man with chicken and dove on waterfront across from Westbeth, June 1980.

Seccombe remembers that the man in a beret rode his bicycle to the waterfront with a cage carrying the chicken and the dove. Upon his arrival, he let the two birds out to enjoy the grass. The photo was taken on West Street between Bank Street and Bethune Street. At the time, a walkway was being developed along the waterfront.

 

Pier 58, looking east toward the Empire State Building, February 1982.

In 2007, Seccombe’s book Lost Waterfront: The Decline and Rebirth of Manhattan’s Western Shore was published by Fordham University Press and Friends of Hudson River Park. Her work has been exhibited throughout New York including at the South Street Seaport Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. For more on Seccombe and her photographs, go to www.shelleyseccombe.com and www.newyorkwaterfrontphotos.com.

As we celebrate a half-century of Westbeth, here are some great additional resources from Village Preservation that allow you to explore, appreciate, and celebrate the special history, architecture, and culture of Westbeth:

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13 comments on “Westbeth Photographer Shelley Seccombe Documents the Greenwich Village Waterfront Since 1970
  1. Louisa Winchell Albert Butzel says:

    Shelley is a brilliant photographer, and the selection in the blog only the tip of the iceberg in terms of her portfolio and genius. Still, the piece is a wonderful recognition of her existence and work. The Village is fortunate indeed to have such a talented recorder of an important part of its history — one that is too often forgotten or ignored in the gentrification that has made the Village close to unrecognizable compared to the campy, trampy collection of coffee houses, restaurant, bath houses and shipping piers that was once its insignia. Congatulations to Shelley and to Louis Winchell.

  2. Louisa Winchell Matthew Washington says:

    Shelley is a special person with amazing talent. We’re all so fortunate that she has willing shared her pictures with us that tell the most incredible stories. Thank you Shelley!

  3. Louisa Winchell Louisa Winchell says:

    I completely agree – we are so lucky and grateful to have the opportunity to showcase Shelley’s incredible photos. Many thanks for your comments!

  4. Louisa Winchell Ellen Alexander Conley says:

    Secomb’s photos transform lives and history into art. Many of the pictures portray a time and place that exist no longer. If we can’t relive it, we want to remember it. Thank you for the opportunity to do just that.

  5. Louisa Winchell Louisa Winchell says:

    It’s true – Seccombe’s photos are a wonderful archive of and for the neighborhood. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  6. Louisa Winchell Judy Lawne says:

    I respect and admire Shelley’s dedication to a landmark area. It’s a New York
    that can be seen through her images many of us remember and so glad they’ve
    Been captured for eternity by Shelley’s creative eye..
    Thank you SHELLEY,
    Judy LAWNE

  7. Louisa Winchell Terry Stoller says:

    Thanks for the well-deserved recognition of Shelley Seccombe. You might want to check out an oral history interview with Shelley at: https://westbeth.org/wordpress/profiles-in-art/shelley-seccombe-photographer/

  8. Louisa Winchell Louisa Winchell says:

    Thank you for the message, and for sharing Shelley Seccombe’s oral history. This is a great resource and portrait of Seccombe. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it!

  9. Louisa Winchell Barbara Prete says:

    Shelley’s eye is clear; her works are a magical and beautiful record of our history as a community and as a city.

    • Louisa Winchell Louisa Winchell says:

      Thank you for your comment! Our community is very fortunate to have Seccombe’s art and photographic record.

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