Old Blue Eyes Recalls an Economic Giant Now In Hiding

In October 1974 Frank Sinatra performed a concert at Madison Square Garden called “The Main Event”, so named because as a child he wanted to be a boxer. Containerization in shipping had been a fact of life since 1956. Nevertheless, the announcer— well-known sportscaster Howard Cosell—introduced the crooner by saying: “From the shipping, transportation, financial, celebrity capital of the world…”

I heard that introduction played again recently and wondered if now, some 44 years later, anyone would make such a reference. Because of the need for container movements, except for some passenger vessels, the maritime industry has left New York for land-rich New Jersey. And unless you live along the Brooklyn coast, the sight of ships that move world commerce is unfamiliar.

This lack of familiarity concerns an industry that supports 279,200 total jobs in the region, according to recent statistics. That same study show that this industry generates $11.6 billion in personal income and $37.1 billion in business income.

As a maritime journalist in my past life, I was surprised that as late as 1974 New York City was still referred to as a shipping capital. The cargo ships had left the metropolitan area long before.

The same is true in Los Angeles where, unless you live in San Pedro, you can be completely unaware that you are in America’s busiest port.

Next door, the Port of Long Beach has container cranes visible from its downtown area but they still are not the presence that would make residents and visitors aware of the significance of the industry in the country’s second busiest harbor. But real estate is a fact of life in this industry. The shore becomes almost as important as the sea.

Seafarers that man these containerships find themselves in port for only a few hours, rather than the days they had for shopping and whatever, as their vessels turn around quickly and are back at sea in a matter of hours. What was once 20 percent of the time at sea and 80 percent in port is now completely reversed.

One of the joys of visiting the port of Hamburg, Germany, is that the Elbe River runs right through the center of that beautiful city and every ship that calls there, one of Europe’s busiest harbors, is visible to all who live, work and visit.

None of this is new to those of us who labor in this industry, just an observation while listening to “Siriusly Sinatra” while driving to Port Elizabeth—in New Jersey.