When I first moved to New York, back in the mid-nineties, I used to run from my Lower East Side apartment down along the East River Park to the South Street Seaport almost every Saturday morning. My best friend lived on Grand Street. We’d jog to Pier 17, buy a bottle of water and then walk across the cobblestone streets to a terrible Mexican restaurant for a breakfast consisting of several margaritas and stale tortilla chips. The streets had a lingering smell from the old Fulton Fish market which was open during the week — you could still see the hosed down fish guts and slime on the tarmac from Friday. On the weekends it was mostly tourists and a few residents, but to us a secret reprieve from our own neighborhood and an epic view of Brooklyn across the East River. This is when I fell in love with a goofy little neighborhood at the bottom of Manhattan.
But today the Seaport is not well; it’s lost its anchor and is adrift. Almost straight out of a seafaring novel, the tide washed in and took its soul out to sea when Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc. The South Street Seaport Museum galleries have been shut since April 6th, its electrical system down. Businesses and several residents have not returned due to the damage. And although some were able to clean up and start again, the storm left this New York neighborhood in a feeble state.
The Seaport as we know it today is landfill from the early 19th century, but further inland holds some of the oldest history in America. That’s what I came to discover several years ago while combing through research for my public art project on historical pirates. The tip of Manhattan was full of sailors, pirates, merchants and food stalls, but most of all — an international center for commerce. It became one of the most popular ports in the world.
The Seaport declined in the 20th century when the ports were moved to the West Side (and have since moved further out to Red Hook and New Jersey). During the 1960s neighbors finally realized it was worth preserving not only for New York, but for American history. It was then the South Street Seaport Museum was formed to document the cultural heritage of New Amsterdam and downtown Manhattan throughout the ages, while displaying 19th- and 20th-century ships and smaller vessels at the pier.
The neighborhood was landmarked in 1977, yet about half of it was sold* to the Rouse Company who developed a mall on Pier 17 and leased much of the storefronts. Many New Yorkers were not convinced of the mall and chain stores, thinking it suburban and a tourist trap.
The Howard Hughes Corporation (a spin off from General Growth, who bought the retail properties from Rouse) now owns the mall lease and much of the retail spaces (some spaces still empty from the storm). They maintain most locations from Beekman to Fulton Street, and from Water Street to the end of the pier. Other buildings in that perimeter are run by the South Street Seaport Museum. The former Fulton Fish buildings (the Tin Building and New Market Building) on South Street/Pier 17 are under the City’s Economic Development Corporation.
While doing Seaport research and knocking on the museum and General Growth doors in 2009, I noticed different perspectives between the two main Seaport entities when it came to territory and managing space. General Growth (who gave my project the green light) was busy promoting the commercial element of the Seaport, while the museum struggled to provide outreach and attract the occasional tourist. The chain stores never helped the image of the mall, and the sleepy museum was perceived as tired and outdated. It was a bad time for everyone, given the recession.
Then General Growth ruffled feathers by submitting plans for a new mall and a hotel/condo building designed by SHoP architects, dwarfing the entire neighborhood. This was a problem, because back in 2006, a group called “Seaport Speaks” was formed to discuss future planning of the Seaport. It included neighbors, businesses, architects, historians, the museum and developers. They built a document called The Charrette Report, a guideline for 21st-century development in this unique, historical neighborhood. “People are drawn to what is real, not artificial.” General Growth’s proposed tower did not coincide with the guidelines of that report.
The redevelopment was never realized. The Landmarks Preservation Commission opposed the plans and the building was not erected due to the mortgage crisis. The idea was put on hold, and SHoP went back to the drawing board.
All was quiet, until a year later, when the Seaport museum began to struggle, and in February 2011, furloughed all the employees and shut their doors. Mayor Bloomberg intervened and appointed the Museum of the City of New York to take over with a $2 million grant from the LMDC, and the doors reopened in January 2012.
What emerged was impressive. The City Museum opened up the top floors and let the light in. They hired smart designers from the Cooper Joseph Studio who rummaged through the museum’s collection and created contemporary interior displays. And curators from the City Museum connected the old and the new to reengage the public. I breathed a long sigh of relief, crossing my fingers things were going to be okay.
It didn’t last. Hurricane Sandy destroyed the museum’s electrical system a year later. Massive damage was done to their antique letterpress shop, Bowne & Co. (although it has since reopened). Even though the museum galleries opened for a few months, the collection was not safe in warm weather once spring arrived. In April 2013, the galleries were shut again. FEMA should help the museum eventually, but will they cover the whole $22 million?
Meanwhile, over the last several years, a small outdoor market began to occupy the old Fulton Fish market parking lot each month. It grew from a modest size with a cult following, to a weekly market with a dedicated audience of home cooks, local families and passersby. The soulful presence of the New Amsterdam Market began to attract New Yorkers to the neighborhood. It catered to a chunk of downtown and parts of south/west Brooklyn. The stalls were attractive and the merchants unique, offering items like oyster ice cream, local duck roulade and Finnish bread. The market had annual events and fundraisers in the hope of permanently locating itself inside the original Tin and New Market buildings, restoring them to their former glory.
But hold on! SHoP and Howard Hughes had been working hard and released their approved plans for the new mall in March. It’s wall-to-wall glass, with more retail space and completely redesigned. The roof will have green space, free to the public*. Revitalized. Sparkly. Retail. The current mall was in need of a facelift, and the new design is much better than the last one. But there was an elephant in the room… a letter of intent to develop the Tin and New Market buildings was discovered, and Howard Hughes has until June 30th to submit their plans for a new condo/hotel building in the same footprint. The development none of the neighbors want, dwarfing the district and blocking any remaining river views. The New Amsterdam Market said they would not pursue 10,000 square feet of market space in the newly developed area, saying they are interested in 50,000 for their purposes (just over the size of a football field).
So here’s the upshot: neighbors will have a redeveloped mall with brand new shops and restaurants, a 10,000-sq.-foot market (TBD) and quite possibly a luxury hotel and fancy condos, if plans go ahead. Early last week, Howard Hughes released new rebranding as STH/ST/SEAPRT/NYC and launched their summer program called SEE/CHANGE (understandably trying to attract people back to the Seaport post-Sandy). Also, Smorgasburg has set up shop until October, which has become popular. But the museum, the cultural touchstone and steward of the area, is currently closed and needs $22 million to reopen. Who is helping the museum get back on track? What vision does The Howard Hughes Corporation have for redevelopment in a landmark district so important to American history? Will the EDC, LMDC, CB1, Landmarks Preservation Commission, or Mayor Bloomberg step in to sort this out? Where will the New Amsterdam Market relocate if they leave?
The South Street Seaport is not complete without the museum. Mayor Bloomberg and the Howard Hughes Corporation have a responsibility to the neighborhood: they must assure the community that the museum will reopen for good. The City Museum has shown great faith and worked tirelessly in its first year of management, only to be a victim of the storm. The New Amsterdam Market is the grassroots organization helping to draw a wider audience of New Yorkers to the Seaport. There should not be one master plan or vision, but a balance between all entities; respecting its heritage while bringing it into the 21st century. Working together and pooling resources, the Seaport could be a genuine place of pride for New York again. But none of that seems to be happening.
UPDATE: As of July, the South Street Seaport museum will no longer be run by the Museum of the City of New York. Devastating news.
And as of June 26th, more museum details from ArtFCity.
CORRECTIONS: * The Rouse Corporation was given a 99 year lease on most of the property run in the Seaport, besides the mall and Fulton Market (now occupied by the “Bodies” exhibit).
* The green roof on the new Pier 17 mall will be accessible to the public only when other events are not taking place (weddings, concerts, etc.)