The 1930's Federal Writers Project WPA Guide to New York City , which I love, has a great description of the Hudson waterfront during the time the High Line was built. From the chapter "West Street and North (Hudson) River Waterfront":
"The broad highway, West Street and its continuations, which skirts the North River from Battery Place to Fifty-ninth Street, is, during the day, a surging mass of back-firing, horn-blowing, gear-grinding trucks and taxis. All other water-front sounds are submerged in the cacophony of the daily avalanche of freight and passengers in transit. Ships and shipping are not visible along much of West Street. South of Twenty-third Street, the river is walled by an almost unbroken line of bulkhead sheds and dock structures. North of Twenty-third Street, an occasional open spot in the bulkhead permits a glimpse of the Hudson and the Jersey Shore beyond."
More  on the Museum of the City of New York site.
Opposite the piers, along the entire length of the highway, nearly every block houses its quota of cheap lunchrooms, tawdry saloons and waterfront haberdasheries catering to the thousands of polyglot seamen who haunt the "front." Men "on the beach" (out of employment) usually make their headquarters in barrooms, which are frequented mainly by employees of lines leasing piers in their vicinity.
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