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Visit the streets of South Street Seaport today, and you will find a bustling square of retail. If you had done the same 100 years ago, however, you would have found quite the opposite. As a matter of fact, at certain times between the years of 1870 and 1960, much of the port life would have seemed abandoned. You may not have found it quite worth the trip. Thankfully, however, we are here to bring the trip to you. We have divided it for you into ten different decades to explore at your leisure, so your legs won’t tire. What really became of South Street Seaport after the booming business and beauty of its heyday? Here you can find both details and discussion. Discover the truth behind the decline of South Street Seaport!

The Beginnings (1870-1879)

“The Manhattan side of the East River in the summer of 1875 was controlled chaos: Teamsters pulling wagons piled high with cotton, lumber, coffee, tea, molasses and spices, carpenters hammering together barrels almost as fast as they could be filled and loaded onto swift clipper-ships. Here broad-beamed whalers like those, celebrated in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick docked, as did side-wheel steamers, barbingers of the Age of Steam Whitman celebrated in his poems.”1

As the Industrial Revolution spread across America, New York City was blossoming financially- but leaving its seaport behind. The ports entered a period of decline. The streets around them were filthy, though crowded. There is much evidence which supports that maritime activity decreased in this time period across the United States in general. In 1865, the US Navy reduced the number of ships on its register from 530 to 117, consequently reducing the number of officers it needed to hire from 51,000 to 12,128. Maritime trade experienced a similar statistical diminution, as American ships carried less of the nation’s foreign trade: 33% of trade was carried by ship in 1865, steadily declining over the 1870s to reach only 16% in 1881. On the other hand, global maritime trade increased. While this provided business for ports, it diminished job availability for American sailors, who were not often hired on foreign ships. After the shift to steam travel, coal workers were also turned away from the ships.

Internal trade increased in the 1870s, shifting maritime emphasis to the middle of the country. The lumber trade moved from the East Coast to Michigan. Iron mining and railroads moved to cities like Cleveland and Philadelphia. Domestic industry demanded more labor than existed in the workforce, causing the surplus workforce to disappear. This surplus had provided the bulk of American sailors.

Zooming in on South Street Seaport, we can see that some of the area’s most prosperous buildings were experiencing their own decline. The 1860 façade of the Fulton Market was deteriorating. It began to sell wholesale to businesses, rather than individuals. Meanwhile, the trend in transportation was shifting from the Canal Network to the railroad, popularly headquartered in Pennsylvania.  

Reform in Vain (1880-1889)

In the early 1880s, a system of wires, tubes, and conductors was found capable of supplying electricity to all city streets, including South Street. Unfortunately, however, electricity did not catalyze a reversal for the declining port. The 1870s had seen the rise of the railroad; the following decade only proved that rail travel would be an enduring American power. In the late nineteenth century, freight rates began to decline, providing further incentive for railroad shipping.

Alternatively, the coastal fronts of America were gasping for a fresh breath of air, one which the government attempted to provide. In the previous decade, Congress had passed the Shipping Commissioner’s Act, creating regional offices for a U.S. Commission of Navigation. These offices were designed to act as conduits for employment. The act required seamen to sign articles that specified the pay and conditions of their service in the presence of a federal commissioner. It also required that each seamen be paid in person. In 1884, an additional law was enacted to strengthen the first. The Dingley Act outlawed pay advancements of any kind in an attempt to abolish the tradition of “crimping” among the sailors. These small attempts to better the conditions of sailors, along with the development of the Coast Seaman’s Union in 1885, did not go very far. The boardinghouse owners and shippers persuaded Congress to amend the The Dingley Act law in 1886, allowing advances to be paid, though only for debts. The qualification “only for debts,” however, quickly transformed into a loophole. By declaring the crimping fee a debt, any owner or shipper could easily circumvent the Dingley Act regulation. Although the development of these unions and laws feigned reform, strikes on the parts of American sailors were easily suppressed by the use of “scabs,” imported Scottish laborers and Italian immigrants. As a result, not much changed for the sailors of major American cities, including those at South Street Seaport.

Policies and Ports (1890-1899)

By the 1890s, steam had supplanted the sail. By 1894, the composition of the merchant fleet had decreased to 46% sail. South Street Seaport did not have the space to accommodate large steamboats, further contributing to the diminishment of South Street’s commerce. Following the decline in business trailed a decline in reputation. In 1897, the Lower East Side could claim 237 saloons, dives, and blind pigs- illegal dives with innocent fronts. Places with nicknames such as “McGuirk’s Suicide Hall” could be 4 story establishments where the main customers were sailors and prostitutes. Singing waiters, small bands, men, and women gathered at these places- but in no wholesome environment. Thievery and prostitution are just a few of the seedy activities that transpired.

Once again, the government tried to interrupt the port’s deterioration. In 1892, the National Seaman’s Union attempted to increase maritime professionalism and regulation, but its effectiveness is debatable. Other legislation, including the 1896 the Raines Hotel Law, was equally fruitless. The Hotel Law made it illegal to sell alcohol on Sundays, except with hotel meals. Saloons began to refer to themselves as “hotels.” They would leave sub par food on the bar, so that they could claim customers were eating.

Concurrently, across the island and the Hudson, Jersey City began to develop a harbor. In 1885, the process began with a $300,000 grant for a new railroad and $1,000 payment to the State Controller to begin development of 20 acres of land. This would detract from the prosperity of the Seaport.

Draining the Port (1900-1909)

The arrival of the 20th century brought change to South Street Seaport - but not of the sort that could regenerate the waning fate of the port. New developments in the city began to further detract from the business of South Street Seaport. Ever-increasing ship arrivals were directed elsewhere. For example, the opening of Ellis Island ensured that all immigrants would pass through a specific location to enter America- but a location that meant never having to pass through Manhattan at all. This immigration center had already opened in 1892, but it continued to draw business from the Seaport into the 20th century. In 1907, Chelsea Piers also emerged as a foil for the Seaport. This site of 800-foot long finger piers was designed with transatlantic luxury liners in mind. South Street Seaport would not become the destination for the luxury hotels of the high seas; it did not offer any room in its piers for the massive sea vessels.

The age of the combustion engine was on the horizon; in 1903, ice trucks pushed horse-drawn wagons out of the picture. Meanwhile, the desirability of water-transportation fell, due to several tragedies off-land. Working class excursions had been popular for decades. Since the 1870s, many ships had been built specifically for this purpose. At the turn of the century, however, not all were considered safe. Deadly nautical disasters repelled potential voyagers. The General Slocum is counted among these as one of the worst. This excursion vehicle caught fire in the waters of Hell Gate, causing 1,021 picknickers to lose their lives and Little Germany to lose much of its character.

Naturally, the Seaport remained open for maritime trade. Destiny, nevertheless, did not have trade prosperity for the Seaport in mind when it enhanced the economic life of Manhattan. Trade flourished elsewhere- across America, even just across the island on the Hudson- but in South Street Seaport, it fared about as well as the marine life fared in the polluted New York Harbor. This decline in trade coincided with a few key events which denoted pivotal changes in transportation around the city. In 1903, the Williamsburg Bridge was built. In 1908, the Manhattan Bridge opened, as well. If you suspect that these structures rerouted trade throughout Manhattan, your suspicions will only be confirmed when you move onto the next decade. The changes were only just beginning.

A Dry Decline (1910-1919)

It was in these years that America sailed into rough seas, whirling into the vortex that was World War I. Although some American economies received a boost from new demand, South Street Seaport did not mirror this prosperity. When fighting began in late 1914, the bulk of the ocean’s carriers were withdrawn from service on the Atlantic. Although the American International Corporation was founded to encourage use of American-built ships in export and import, New York’s sole concern was profitable global enterprise and not the welfare of seaports at home. The welfare of its sailors was even less of a concern. Seamen unions won strikes in 1918 and 1919, but the victories were balanced by the red scare. This mounting fear of communism chose the sailors as one of its many targets, due to their riotous and radical nature. At the fringe of society, sailors were easily agitated and expected to espouse violent causes. Society did not look to protect potential communists.

It was at this point that trucks began to dominate delivery to the major markets of South Street, such as the noteworthy Fulton Fish Market, a market very much in decay at this point. The dominance of truck-transportation was further stimulated by the difficulties of canal boats arriving at South Street in winter to find a frozen canal. These years also marked the end for the Seaport’s overnight passenger services. Ship trips to popular resorts such as Saratoga, a major race track and casino site, and the Catskills, completed their final runs.

The situation at South Street began to look truly bleak. Many major trading companies abandoned this port for alternatives, and with this began an integration of new types of communities into the area. If you had lived in South Street Seaport at the time, you would have begun to sense a variety of new characters in the area. Behind the nautical façade of the seaport lived a massive subculture, one which didn’t necessarily derive its life from the sea.

All over America, an age-old activity made the transition to subculture with the 1919 Volstead Act. Prohibition began and 63 saloons closed, drowning much of the remaining life of South Street Seaport. Ironically enough, however, often drinking became less exclusive with its illegality. Since alcohol was illegal, it was acceptable if everyone broke the law, including women.

Life in the Interim (1920-1929)

After World War II, focus shifted back to the homefront. From the smaller changes, such as the last race on New York City waters of America’s Cup, to the larger, such as the takeover of coal shipment by the railroads, the city was clearly in flux. As the decision for the movement for America’s Cup reflected, Manhattan’s waters were now full of debris, traffic, and less friendly winds. On land, the gay subculture of Manhattan slowly became more visible during the Prohibition years of the early 20s. Hostility and anxiety towards this new sight began to develop.

A decrease in shipping demand followed America’s decision not to scrap much of the enormous fleet remaining after the war- a fleet which was certainly not based in South Street. The demand for South Street’s port was further diminished by an act on a scale of much less grandeur: the invention of frozen fish filets. Fresh fish became much more readily available at this time, decreasing the demand of freshly imported fish to port cities such as New York. In the interwar years, powerboats, wireless radios, and airplanes were available to redirect sea traffic to the markets where demand was highest, a bid which South Street most often lost. It was no longer the most lucrative port to bring fish and imports.

Despite the hard evidence that South Street Seaport’s maritime activities decreased, the decline of the port at this period is still somewhat debatable. How much of a decline was this period in actuality? A New York Times article written in 1924, “South Street and the Sea” by Robert M. Coates, describes the lower East side port exuberantly. Coates depicted the port as having enjoyed commerce 6 times greater than any other American port, reflected by the abundance of ships which could be seen from every location in Manhattan: office buildings, the ends of every downtown cross-street, even some of the busiest streets. He describes the sailors joyfully raising hell, the shops brightly painted, and the diversity of goods waiting to be sold at port. Although Coates admits that since the late 1800s the focus of New York has shifted from its ports, he actually posits that “It is only at South Street that the last flare of what was New York’s rocketing glory as a seaport remains.”

Early Attempts at Repair (1930-1939)

In the 1930s, South Street self-examined to find its streets dirty and disreputable. In 1935, a conference was called to discuss the decline in port activity and possible ways to ameliorate the situation. This began a movement for renovation, which culminated in the new Fulton Market building of 1939. Three shiny white buildings were designed to replace the old collapsed building, which had been falling into the river since 1936. The Seaport was still in use for barges, fishing, schooners, and freighters, especially for trade involving the West Indies and Puerto Rico. It was not ready to forfeit its old position at the forefront of maritime trade for Manhattan. The street size was augmented to accommodate trucks more easily. Privately, the Seamen’s Church Institute actively worked to improve the sailor’s business and leisure. The maritime labor even formed the Seafarer’s International Union in 1937.

Unfortunately much of the seaport activity was sustained by racketeers. In 1933, mob names such as Lanza, Kiselik, Guma, and Palermo monopolized the interstate fish trade. Independent dealers floundered in the market; the mob fixed prices high for retailers and low for providers. Of course, they ran their business with assault, resulting in car damages, dumped fish, bribery, and terrorism. Lanza was especially influential, prospering despite the many attempts at indictments and license confiscations described in the New York Times.

While the mob appeared to be riding the seaport waves victoriously, overfishing and pollution were actually catalyzing a loss of business for the port. Inflation and strikes, especially after an increase in wages and the longshoremen’s strike of 1934, left ship owners reluctant to hire seamen. This left thousands of seamen unemployed, despite the assistance of seamen-supporters such as the Seamen’s Church Institute.

Daily Life by the Docks (1940-1949)

During World War II, a great deal changed for South Street Seaport, just as a great deal changed for America. American ships flew foreign flags to avoid labor costs, taxation, and insurance in the United States. The American merchant fleet diminished, causing many seamen to lose their jobs. The maritime unions worsened the effect, by being extra cautious about loosening their restrictions, guarding against crew reductions and raising the cost of sailing American. As a result, even more companies wanted to fly the foreign flags.

In the years after the war, the condition of the maritime trade did not undergo any revival. Instead, technological innovation, such as that of containerization, caused trade to shift its medium from sea to freight and slightly later, to air.

Much evidence exists which allows us to envision life on the Lower East Side during this time period. We know that the gay world, though already existent, became more extensive in the 40s and 50s. We know that the fish market bustled in the mornings as dealers called out codes to one another and completed their sales. Furthermore, the photographs of Rebecca Lepkoff, particularly those taken between 1937 and 1959 paint a clear picture of the everyday street life. Her pictures show us sidewalks and stoops strewn with life, as places to talk and play together. She provides us with clear evidence that in the 1940s, coal barges still docked at South Street, and the fish market still held activity. Between 12 and 9 am, men unloaded International Harvester Machinery and other crates. The Lower East Side boasted cigar stores, push carts, and candy men which lined the streets. Her pictures also portray the transitive atmosphere of the Lower East Side; for example, her pictures capture demolition making way for housing projects and makeshift signs brightening vacant lots. Lepkoff shows us that life existed at the Seaport despite that the ports of Manhattan were not alive as they once were.

Looking Forward (1950-1960)

The 1950s is considered the last decade of decline in South Street Seaport. After these years, much consideration would be put into the rejuvenation of the area. As it turns out, South Street Seaport was popular in the news these years. The Fulton Fish Market was a central figure of discussion in this period. The market building was demolished again in 1951, when Architect Harry Silverman expanded the market to accommodate wholesale fish.

In the early 1950s, the New York Times investigated the decline of the seaport in terms of import statistics. 26 million salt-water fish were imported into New York in 1942; this number became 14 million by 1952. The fish were instead being taken to New England; some was then trucked back to New York. At this point, the shift in transportation had been solidified; trains and trucks were the dominant vehicles. As the fishing business declined, the workers associated with it began to depart from the city, including sailors and marketmen. Certain salesman began to control the market, forcing boats to sell their catches to particular companies at particular prices. As skippers and salesmen began to complain, the industry only worsened. In the late 1950s, the New York Times reported that racketeers had begun to use new tactics which made them much more difficult to detect. Racketeer Lanza controlled the Fulton Fish Market even while on parole, through family and friends.

By 1958, discussion of a new downtown Manhattan was already taking place. A cleanup was planned for south of Chambers Street, including the waterfront, with additional housing to ameliorate residents’ daily commutes to work. A discussion commenced concerning the relocation of the Fulton Fish Market, pushing the Market to leave beginning in 1958. The discussion, however, was not nearly over. Move on to learn more about the change on the horizon, by clicking on the Restoration of South Street Seaport!

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