Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Preserving South Street Seaport

Preserving South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District

James M. Lindgren
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 384
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Preserving South Street Seaport
    Book Description:

    Preserving South Street Seaporttells the fascinating story, from the 1960s to the present, of the South Street Seaport District of Lower Manhattan. Home to the original Fulton Fish Market and then the South Street Seaport Museum, it is one of the last neighborhoods of late 18th- and early 19th-century New York City not to be destroyed by urban development. In 1988, South Street Seaport became the city's #1 destination for visitors. Featuring over 40 archival and contemporary black-and-white photographs, this is the first history of a remarkable historic district and maritime museum. Lindgren skillfully tells the complex story of this unique cobblestoned neighborhood. Comprised of deteriorating, 4-5 story buildings in what was known as the Fulton Fish Market, the neighborhood was earmarked for the erection of the World Trade Center until New Jersey forced its placement one mile westward. After Penn Station's demolition had angered many New York citizens, preservationists mobilized in 1966 to save this last piece of Manhattan's old port and recreate its fabled 19th-century Street of Ships. The South Street Seaport and the World Trade Center became the yin and yang of Lower Manhattan's rebirth. In an unprecedented move, City Hall designated the museum as developer of the twelve-block urban renewal district.However, the Seaport Museum,whose membership became the largest of any history museum in the city, was never adequately funded, and it suffered with the real estate collapse of 1972. The city, bankers, and state bought the museum's fifty buildings and leased them back at terms that crippled the museum financially. That led to the controversial construction of the Rouse Company's New Fulton Market (1983) and Pier 17 mall (1985). Lindgren chronicles these years of struggle, as the defenders of the people-oriented museum and historic district tried to save the original streets and buildings and the largest fleet of historic ships in the country from the schemes of developers, bankers, politicians, and even museum administrators.Though the Seaport Museum's finances were always tenuous, the neighborhood and the museum were improving until the tragedy of 9/11. But the prolonged recovery brought on dysfunctional museum managers and indifference, if not hostility, from City Hall. Superstorm Sandy then dealt a crushing blow. Today, the future of this pioneering museum, designated by Congress as America's National Maritime Museum, is in doubt, as its waterfront district is eyed by powerful commercial developers. WhilePreserving South Street Seaportreveals the pitfalls of privatizing urban renewal, developing museum-corporate partnerships, and introducing a professional regimen over a people's movement, it also tells the story of how a seedy, decrepit piece of waterfront became a wonderful venue for all New Yorkers and visitors from around the world to enjoy. This book will appeal to a wide audience of readers in the history and practice of museums, historic preservation, urban history and urban development, and contemporary New York City.This book is supported by a grant from Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-2557-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction: “Salvation on the East River”: How a Clever Editor Saw Jehovah’s Light
    (pp. 1-6)

    In the midst of Lower Manhattan’s corporate high-rises, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the archaic Fulton Fish Market, South Street Seaport Museum regularly hosted concerts on Pier 16 to attract New Yorkers to its urban renewal district. One July evening in 1971, a folk singer drew a mixed audience who sat on blankets and newspapers at the East River dock. Mellowing in a warm summer breeze, they listened in the shadow ofWavertree, the world’s largest iron-hulled square-rigger, while an old-time schooner “swayed in time, like a silent metronome.” As the audience joined in a chorus, aNew York Timeseditor...

  6. 1 “Eloquent Reminders of Sailing and Shipbuilding”: How the Seaport and World Trade Center (Re)made Fulton Street
    (pp. 7-33)

    In 1966, as Penn Station’s debris was hauled to a landfill, historic preservation seemed to be going against the grain of Gotham’s advance. As the city expanded, it rebuilt itself every generation. Perhaps that “creative destruction” could be attributed to capitalism, as Karl Marx and Joseph Schumpeter claimed.Harper’s Magazinelamented in 1856, “New York [Manhattan] is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities…. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years altogether. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely...

  7. 2 “The Kind of Civilized Vision That New Yorkers Are Not Supposed to Have”: How Historic Preservation Shaped Lower Manhattan’s Development
    (pp. 34-53)

    The two megaprojects developing at opposite ends of Fulton Street, the only street in Lower Manhattan then running uninterrupted from river to river, dramatically reshaped Manhattan after 1966. The World Trade Center and South Street Seaport were the yin and yang of 1960s development. Conceived separately but adopted by the nation’s most powerful family, each complemented the other. Port Authority director Austin Tobin characterized the twin towers as a “vertical port,” while the Seaport depicted how the World Trade Center “will carry out the mission started at South Street.” Said Robert Fitch, there would have been “No South Street Seaport....

  8. 3 “Ships, the Heart of the Story”: How Tall Ships Became Big News
    (pp. 54-78)

    By the mid-1960s, fewer commercial ships were navigating the waters off Manhattan. Once omnipresent, their sights and sounds—broad sails, plumes of smoke, fog horns, passenger decks, churning tugs—had given way to transatlantic jets, tractor trailers, commuter bridges, container ships, and the ascent of rival ports near and far. Recognizing the change, Seaporters worried that the city and nation were less sea minded, that another character-making frontier had been closed, and that the present generation would forget from whence it came. While ships from their target date of 1851 had largely passed from the scene, they hoped to save...

  9. 4 “Look at Our Waterfront! Just Look”: How Earth Day Boomed the Seaport
    (pp. 79-96)

    The tempest of the Sixties and Seventies set the Seaport’s context as racial tensions flared, construction workers beat antiwar protestors, countercultures blossomed, minorities and women spoke out, pollution became visible, and cultural alienation, political corruption, and physical degradation were palpable. Crises were everywhere. Movements flourished in behalf of civil and equal rights, the environment, peace, and youth. As the city’s old liberal coalition broke apart, it polarized. If the Seaport proclaimed itself asthe people, the question now was, which people? While Rockefeller dedicatedAmbrose, Lindsay lunched aboardWavertree, and Galbraith spoke at a fundraiser, Pete Seeger sang at the...

  10. 5 “A Million People Came Away Better Human Beings”: How the Past Mended the Present
    (pp. 97-124)

    As the Pioneer program made national news, the Seaport drew New Yorkers to the district, taught them their history, and linked the city’s past and present. Even before the twin towers topped off at 110 stories in 1971, the two ends of Fulton Street were symbiotically joined. As the Seaport swelled, its captains made sky-high predictions that its membership would reach one hundred thousand, thereby rivaling the National Trust, and would berth two dozen ships at six piers. Ordained by Lindsay, blessed by the Rockefellers, and featured as Lower Manhattan’s tourist draw, it was visited by a million people in...

  11. 6 “Shopping Is the Chief Cultural Activity in the United States”: How the Seaport Sold Its Soul
    (pp. 125-148)

    Bonham’s and Buford’s tenures had been unmitigated disasters. Shepley blamed the crisis on the Seaport’s original design and convinced the board to turn the gritty area into a slick shopping mall, euphemistically calling it a festival marketplace. When Phase I opened in 1983 with whatNewsweekcalled “all the fanfare of a NASA space shot,” the developer, James Rouse Company of Columbia, Maryland, featured the New Fulton Market, along with the restored lower floors of Schermerhorn Row and the Museum Block. Phase II’s shopping pavilion on Pier 17 followed in 1985. Phase III was projected to rehabilitate the remaining urban...

  12. 7 “They Tore Down Paradise, and Put Up a Shopping Mall”: How Speculators and Rouseketeers Created a Bubble
    (pp. 149-178)

    As the Rouse Company plans became public in 1979, Huxtable washed her hands of the Seaport. “What surely will be lost,” she knew, “is the spirit and identity of the area as it has existed over centuries.” She was even more dismayed that a shopping center was “at the end” of historic preservation’s rainbow. An editor ofProgressive Architecturedismissed such criticism as “sheer snobbery.”Timemagazine’s critic Wolf Von Eckardt used a false dichotomy, claiming, as did Hightower, “The alternatives are Colonial Williamsburg or continued decay.” Ironically Hightower had recently praised Huxtable as “distinguished and constantly incisive.” But he...

  13. 8 “The Museum Was Intellectually and Financially Bankrupt”: How the Seaport Fared after the Bubble Burst
    (pp. 179-200)

    Upon arriving as president in 1985, Peter Neill realized that the Seaport “was intellectually and financially bankrupt.” Museum reformers did rein in the SSSC, whose development-minded trustees, said Lowery, were “either gone or thoroughly dispirited.” Still, Lowery pursued his Phase III plans for a hotel, a marina, and high-rises but was limited by Manhattan’s real estate swings, the LPC, and the fish market. As part of a national shift away from hiring curators or historians to administer museums, Peter Aron, as chairman of the SSSM search, was looking for a person well versed in museum management who could develop educational...

  14. 9 “It’s Tough When You Have a Museum in a Mall”: How the Seaport (Almost) Succeeded
    (pp. 201-232)

    As conceived, the Seaport was pure Sixties. Its district—a “museum without walls”—offered an open-ended, personal experience; its decentralized exhibit spaces accorded with the era’s notion of self-discovery and disdain for conventional institutions. Small was beautiful. Personal was political. The museum, said the founders, “lives best if it is broken into manageable bits that can be encountered and entered into casually. Thus, we avoid putting the past away in a separate room, and we also avoid the sense of overwhelming collections that generate awe but little relevance to life today.” Whitney North Seymour Jr. had wanted a building with...

  15. 10 “A Ship Is a Hole in the Water into Which You Pour Money”: How Maritime Preservation (Almost) Won
    (pp. 233-258)

    In 1983, Jakob Isbrandtsen and the two Arons voiced their frustrations at a board meeting about the fast-deteriorating ships. Not only had John Hightower joked to theTimes, “You know the saying—‘a ship is a hole in the water into which you pour money,’ ” but Chris Lowery had put what little money the Seaport had into landside programs to improve “the Museum’s image,” which had been damaged by the Rouse deal. As a result, Peter Aron successfully presented a resolution that stated, “Before any other uplands projects are funded the priority … should be given [to] the ships.”...

  16. 11 “Sometimes You Just Can’t Get a Break”: How 9/11 Torpedoed the Seaport
    (pp. 259-286)

    In 2001, the Seaport hoped to put wind in its sails with its biggest gift ever. The agenda for the Port Authority board meeting on September 12 at the World Trade Center included an initial $5 million for rehabilitating Schermerhorn Row and exhibiting “World Port New York” (WPNY). The Port Authority had a modest display on the harbor in the North Tower’s observatory, which drew two million visitors annually, but the Row offered better logistics. Expected to open in 2003, WPNY would add “tens of thousands” to the ten million people annually visiting Lower Manhattan. “Tourism is the lifeblood of...

  17. Conclusion: “Nobody Knows That We’re Here”: What Happened to That Promised Salvation on the East River?
    (pp. 287-298)

    From the Seaport’s inception, it has been shaped by diverse New Yorkers who dreamed of saving an urban renewal district, returning tall ships to South Street, preserving Gotham’s fabled history, and anchoring what they regarded as a rootless city. Their ad hoc, poorly funded, idealistic campaign confronted the city’s power brokers. Those politicians, bureaucrats, developers, and corporate barons were driven by other dreams—modernizing the city, introducing business efficiencies, wielding power, and winning fame and fortune. The clash between these two goals defined the Seaport’s development. But, whether in the 1960s or half a century later, this was hardly a...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 299-356)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 357-369)
    (pp. 370-370)