Port Morris - The Bronx
The Adventures of Joey Treasures on the Ivory Coast
Port Morris is a mostly industrial neighborhood in the Southwest corner of the Bronx. Situated between the East River and the Bruckner Expressway, the neighborhood borders Mott Haven and Hunt’s Point.
The area’s name originated from the port built on the waterfront by railroad executive Gouverneur Morris Jr. in 1852. Morris Sr., one of the Founding Fathers who wrote the Preamble to the Constitution, died from injuries sustained during an ill-advised attempt to clear his urinary tract with a piece of whalebone.
Beginning in the late 1800s, piano manufacturers started building factories in the Bronx. By 1919, the borough was home to 63 piano factories employing more than 5,000 people. 43 of those factories, including the Estey Piano & Organ Company, the Doll Piano Factory, and Kroeger Pianos, were in the Port Morris area, earning it the title of Piano Capital of the United States. Eventually, the widespread availability of the phonograph spelled the end of the industry, as flipping a record was easier than learning how to play the piano.
THE MACABRE SUITE
In 2006, Barbara Corcoran, real estate guru and Shark Tank investor, called the South Bronx one of the hottest real estate markets in the country. Her predictions have largely come true, beginning with the conversions of former piano factories into pricey residential lofts. New developments with names like the Crescendo, The Staccato, and the Legato have sought to capitalize on Port Morris’ ivory-tickling roots.
Like Crotona Park, Port Morris suffered greatly during the 70s and 80s. The recession, rampant fires, and general disinvestment disproportionately impacted the South Bronx. In an effort to disassociate their new luxury developments from this chapter of Bronx history, developers began referring to Port Morris as the “Piano District.”
In order to celebrate this clever rebranding, the developers threw a rave called the “Macabre Suite,” complete with flaming oil cans and stacks of crumpled, bullet-ridden cars. The logic of holding an event with a “Bronx is Burning” theme when the goal is to “reinvent” the neighborhood seems flawed. Locals, community activists, and really anyone with half a brain decried the party and the neighborhood’s rebranding as an affront to the South Bronx and its residents. Thankfully, the Piano District name has been dropped, though the equally cringeworthy SoBro moniker remains in heavy rotation.
On November 23rd,1780, the HMS Hussar, a 28-gun frigate from the British Royal Navy, transferred 53 captured soldiers to the prison ships in Wallabout Bay off of Fort Greene. The ship set a course to Long Island Sound, via Hell Gate, a notoriously treacherous tidal strait at the confluence of the Harlem and East Rivers. Currents drove the ship onto Pot Rock “rising like a rhinoceros horn from a depth of thirty feet to within eight feet of the surface” and the boat sank in 90 feet of water between Port Morris and North Brother Island.
Dozens of boats lay at the bottom of the East River, but the Hussar was special. It was purportedly laden with nearly one million dollars worth of gold coins worth over half a billion dollars today.
The British Navy, Thomas Jefferson, and submarine inventor Simon Lake all launched expeditions to salvage the Hussar. None succeeded.
In 1987, salvage expert and treasure hunter Barry L. Clifford, employing the same sonar equipment used to explore the Titanic, felt confident he could find the ship. His seasoned crew of two-dozen divers and archaeologists spent the next three winters searching in essentially pitch-black water. Clifford found several wrecks as well as abandoned cars, washing machines, and a dead body, but no treasure.
He abandoned the project.
Clifford’s failures didn't deter Bronx resident Joe Governali, who lists actor, chef, comedian, and diamond dealer on his resumé, from taking up the challenge.
Joe, or Joey Treasures as he prefers, was convinced he had found the exact spot where the HMS Hussar had gone down. The discovery of a map showing the location of the wreck in the Rare Book Room of the New York Public Library convinced Joey that he was tantalizingly close to recovering the booty.
The map was noteworthy, he said, because “it showed the wreck to be a place that nobody had looked.”
Nor will anyone be finding the map anytime soon. “It was misfiled,” he added with a smile.1
Many experts think that the Hussar was actually not carrying gold when it went down, though the Royal Navy’s interest to recover the ship would seem to indicate the opposite. Regardless of her cargo, the consensus is that the hundreds of thousands of pounds of explosives used to clear rocks out of Hell Gate in the late 1800s completely buried the Hussar.
Despite only having found one iron nail and a 10-pint pitcher which may or may not have been from the Hussar, Joey Treasures remains undeterred and swears he’ll “never give up” in his search.2
This sizzle reel pitching a show based on Joey’s search efforts shows off some of the acting chops that landed him a small role in Die Hard 3.
What a series this could’ve been.
In 2021, Joey was sued by an investor who says he was duped out of $100,000 with coins claimed to be from the Hussar but actually purchased on eBay.
QUE SERRA SERRA
While there may not have been any chests of gold in Port Morris, there once was a barely hidden treasure worth millions stored in an empty lot. A giant Richard Serra sculpture, one of his Cor-Ten steel ellipses, was kept outside for years beside a corrugated tin shed surrounded only by a low chain link fence. An open secret, it was a destination for those wanting to see a Serra outside of the confines of a gallery or museum. In 2006, taking a page from the developer’s handbook, artists snuck into the lot and repurposed the sculpture, sticking magnets all over the rusted steel faces.
The Neighborhoods is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
This week’s field recording:
I found this image via the New York Historical Society by a photographer I had never head of, George Ehler Stonebridge. Described as an amateur photographer, his archive of glass plate negatives captures the Bronx 100 years before SoBro was even a thing. In addition to taking pictures, Stonebridge “wrote poetry and prose about his love of the Bronx, his children, and in honor of military victories.” More of his work can be seen here.
In 2006 a 38 ton Richard Serra sculpture went missing from the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. It has never been recovered.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s “cli-fi” novel, New York 2140, is about a perpetually flooded New York City where Manhattan is now known as Super Venice. Frederick J. Lancaster was ahead of his time. One of the novel’s subplots concerns efforts to recover the gold from the Hussar.
Vanderbilt, Tom. “Ship of Dreams.” The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2002, www.nytimes.com/2002/02/17/nyregion/ship-of-dreams.html. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023.
Boniello, Kathianne . “NYC Shipwreck Hunter Scammed Investor out of $100K: Lawsuit.” NY POST, 10 Apr. 2021, nypost.com/2021/04/10/nyc-shipwreck-hunter-scammed-investor-out-of-100k-lawsuit/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023.