The Depths of the Decline:
How Much of a Decline Did the Seaport Really Experience?
by Brooke Burdge
The word “decline” can spark a variety of negative connotations in one’s mind. This single word has the power to conjure images of utter destitution, filth, grime, despair, and even complete failure. For these reasons, one must be particularly careful when associating this powerful word with the narrative of the South Street Seaport. From the approximate years of 1870 through 1960, this area at the southern tip of Manhattan underwent what many refer to as a period of decline. Although a wide range of negative forces did take hold on the area, including polluted streets, overcrowded schools, dirty drinking water, gambling, prostitution, and erratic police protection and public transportation, not all of the activities during this time period had such a negative influence. There is no doubt that the South Street Seaport suffered through a period of decline. However, one must be able to sift through all the negativity surrounding the seaport in the approximate years of 1870 to 1960 and pull out the positive aspects of the decline period, however far and few they may be.
If a place is not adequately maintained, businesses will relocate and the area will likely suffer a decline.1 This was seen in action at the seaport. For example, many fires occurred in the South Street area. When little-to-no repairs were made, the scorched buildings became ruins.1 Plans for improving streets, water systems, and sewage treatment procedures were often limited or entirely obsolete.2 Due to tight budgets and inflation, repairs were postponed indefinitely.2 Commercial centers moved further uptown, centralizing around the midtown area of Manhattan.3 The area was now mainly host to a growing and visible gay subculture, prostitution, and rowdy sexual encounters in local saloons.4 The neighborhood of South Street rapidly declined in importance.3
However, the seaport was not left entirely bereft of its significance. As one must remember, the word “decline” does not necessarily translate to complete and utter despair. An article from The New York Times, published on August 24th, 1924 stated that New York was still profiting greatly from its ports and the active shipping industry.5 The article states that from the approximate years of 1914 through 1924, 57 percent of imported products into the United States passed through the New York harbor and 27 percent of the nation’s exported products left through the harbor.5 The commerce of the New York seaport in this period was six times greater than that of any other port in the United States.5 In 1923, ships collectively carried approximately 27,600,000 tons into the South Street Seaport.5 These impressive figures are certainly not indicative of an absolute decline.
Another positive aspect of the so-called decline period of the South Street Seaport is the art that was created here during the mid-1900s. Coenties Slip was once a docking place for ships with deep water projecting inward toward Front Street.6 Once it was filled in the 1880s, it became home to ship chandlers, warehouses, and bars.6 Many lofts were left abandoned when residents and businesses moved upward and out of the seaport area in the early 1900s.6 These loft areas, with their low rent prices and abundant space, appealed to the creative community.6 Artists, painters, sculptors, writers, filmmakers, actors, and actresses were drawn to these abandoned spaces.6 The first artist to move in was Fred Mitchell. Mitchell moved into 31 Coenties Slip in 1954.6 This same address was home to artist Robert Indiana in 1956.6 Indiana incorporated wooden beams, iron wheels, and other materials that he found in the loft into his art.6 Much of his art depicts the directions of streets in the lower parts of Manhattan.6 The Slip area inspired those with creative minds to see the beauty hidden within the despair of the seaport area at the time.
The word “decline” will surely continue to elicit images in one’s mind of dirt, grime, and poverty. While it remains true that many of these images accurately depict life at the seaport during the approximate years of 1870 through 1960, some good did exist within the negativity of this period of decline. The New York Harbor was still a prominent gate of transport and commerce for the nation. Additionally, the abandoned lofts of the area were sources of inspiration for many creative types. Although South Street Seaport appeared to be drowning in the depths of decline, many riches actually floated to the forefront in these years.
1. “Ruin Has Overtaken Old Fulton Market,” The New York Times, 22 Oct 1916, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2004), 17.
2. Choate, Pat and Susan Walter. America in Ruins: Beyond the Public Works Pork Barrel. Washington, D.C.: The City Council of State Planning Agencies, 1981.
3. Turner, Mark W. Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of New York and London. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2003.
4. Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: HarperCollins, Inc., 1994.
5. “South Street and the Sea,” The New York Times, 24 Aug 1924, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2004), SM44.
6. Nine artistis/Coenties Slip. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974.
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