The teens who found splendor on the gritty East Side docks of the 1940s

The smokestacks and storage tanks of the East River waterfront of the 1930s or 1940s should be an unappealing place to meet friends. But painter Joseph Lambert Cain has captured a group of teenagers gathered on a pier here to sunbathe, talk, and pair off.

For these teens, perhaps from the Lower East Side or the Gas House District in the East 20s, the waterfront is an idyllic location—away from the critical eyes of adults and into the warm embrace of the working class city they likely grew up in.

Cain titled his painting “New York Harbor.” I’m not sure of the date, but my guess is about 1940. The riverfront industry surrounds them, but the modern city of skyscrapers is within sight and reach.

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14 Responses to “The teens who found splendor on the gritty East Side docks of the 1940s”

  1. Will Says:

    May dad used to do just this. Got swimming in the east river when he was a kid in the ’20’s and ’30’s.

  2. Richard Kenyon Says:

    In this painting, all the subjects wear a bathing suit, very modest. I recall a circleLine tour in the late ’40s going through Hell Gate where the swimmers were skinny dipping, unashamedly in broad daylight, (no pun intended) waving cheekily to the tourists.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    The Circle Line ran in the late 1940s? Now that sounds like the topic of an interesting future post!

  4. Kathleen Treat Says:

    My Father was in the Merchant Marines then and sometimes shipped out via the Hudson River. I would like to see 1930s photos of that area.

  5. Kathleen Treat Says:

    Any more of his paintings you could show?

  6. Mary Lou Haddock Says:

    My dad got typhoid fever from swimming in the Hudson River

  7. Erwin Schaub Says:

    Hello, you know I reckon that’s the East River Power Station at the end of 14th St. Still there today, exc with 4 stacks snow that were built to accommodate units 5,6 and 7 that were added in the 50’s. The area did have gas holders, although I am quite sure they were north of the plant. However there may have been some south as well as is depicted. Erwin Schaub

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I think you’re right; 14th Street would have been on the border of the gas house district and the dry dock district, with industry and ships similar to the ones in the painting. So these might be East Village kids.

      • Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

        But the term ‘East Village’ did come about till the mid 1960s and was used by real estate firms trying to rent apartments on the Lower East Side, which eventually became the East Village, the horrors!

  8. Richard Kenyon Says:

    Must have been in the ’40s, as I was ten when we took this tour and I’m 84 now.

  9. countrypaul Says:

    Not the healthiest swimming area in NYC! Cool painting, though.

  10. Roosevelt Island Historical Society » Wednesday, March 16, 2022 – FROM A DOWN A THE HEELS NEIGHBORHOOD TO SUPER HIGH RISES Says:

    […] The teens who found splendor on the gritty East Side docks of the 1940s […]

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