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More than Just Retail Space: The Cultural Program at South Street

by Lauren Evangelista

Among the things considered quintessentially New York culture, street performance reigns supreme. The tradition of street performing is alive in South Street; yet, there have been increasingly more options of activity and culture for the public over the years, spreading the interest from the mere shopping and waterfront view to more organized forms of entertainment. Whether the spontaneous artist or an organization provides entertainment, South Street’s reputation today includes its status as a venue for various activities.


Brief History of Street Performing

One of the most popular forms of public cultural entertainment at South Street is mere street performance, a practice that has been ingrained in the human race for a surprisingly long time. According to Ted Killmer, a renowned street performance producer, busking, the more formal term for “street performing,” had been a tradition since the days of “ancient religious pageantry,” and that busking is not far removed from circuses and other “ethnic parades.”i In New York, busking continued to thrive and survive until the Depression era, when people busked a means for income; the mayor of New York quickly banned it “on the grounds of safety issues.”ii Until the removal of the ban in the 1970s, busking was an underground mode of performance, stopped only by citizens’ polite requests to the police to remove the buskers.iii Busking has since become an integral part of the New York culture and tradition.


Buskers Today

Busking revolutionized once the ban was lifted on this novel form of performance. Some renowned stars today were originally buskers, discovered luckily to further launch their careers; such stars include Robin Williams, Jason Alexander, and the company of the show “Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk.”iv Despite the negative connotations sometimes associated with busking, buskers are successful artists who love what they do and perform for their own, and art’s, sake.

Some of the appeal of street performing is the mere freedom of its medium; one busker remarked that freedom is so available that one cannot be “fired” from their jobs.v The freedom at one’s disposal through busking also allows for “an energy that you get no place else” in that one can freely add unique nuances and outlandishness to their acts.vi Though numerous passersby show little to no respect for this form of art, there is indeed much artistic integrity present in busking.

As of late, New York began supporting street performers, showing an appreciation for this underappreciated art. The most notable support is the MTA’s program, “Music Under New York,” which may perhaps make subways the most renowned venue for street performing next to South Street itself.vii Gina Haggenbottom, one of the sponsors of the program, notes that the intention of the program is to create “a more pleasant environment for the public” during their commutes.viii South Street Seaport also has a program that supports buskers: all the performers one may find by Pier 17 carry with them a box provided by Pier 17 itself, who gives the permit for their performance. Indeed, the open space, the “high visibility, low background noise” with exception of the FDR Driveix, and the walking traffic available at South Street have made it the top busking spot in Manhattan.x


Buskers’ Views

The busker point of view highlights much about this style of work and even the New York attitude. Their interpretation of what busking brings to the public is heartwarming and hopeful; one noted busker finds solace in touching both homeless and middle-class audiences simultaneously.xi Busking allows one to create opportunities, an idea that could be considered quintessentially “New York.”xii In fact, Tad Emptage, the head of the acrobatic group Aerial Duo (link to Aerial Duo site), considers street performing a novel part of the city experience and something that prompts people to stop and “be human” for a minute.xiii These positive attitudes about the effect of buskers’ work reveal the power behind a simple act that has become increasingly associated with the New York experience.


A Former Entertainment Resource Revived

While busking resurged in the 1970s, South Street had another option for culture and entertainment in the late 1970s and early 1980s— the SPACE Gallery. Originally part of the Fulton Fish Market, it was reworked to become a community theater, and the use of this space has transformed throughout the years for other types of cultural and entertainment venues. It changed from theater to comedy club to just a mere community meeting space. The SPACE Gallery has been most recently used as an art gallery, generally sponsored by the South Street Seaport Museum. Though buskers are considerably more novel, this mainstay served its community well by providing entertainment for the past 30 years.xiv


New Cultural Revolution at South Street

Street performing and art galleries, however, are not the only forms of culture and entertainment available in South Street. In 2006, Spiegeltent arrived at South Street, perpetuating “an emerging downtown trend” of cabaret and burlesque entertainment.xv This trend of cabaret and burlesque theater sometimes referred to as the “Weimar aesthetic”xvi was not settled in South Street arbitrarily. Gantner and Mollison of Spiegelworld note that the “louche glamour” of South Street was only part of their reason for selecting the area for their venue; in fact, “[I]t was a matter of hard practicalities: finding a Manhattan site with enough space, infrastructure and distance from neighboring residential buildings.”xvii The notion of utilizing open space for cultural and civic gatherings is by no means a unique concept; the ancient Greeks and Romans knew, in their formations of the agoras and forums respectively, that open space was conducive to community gatherings. To find this space in such an urbanized and commercialized site for this type of entertainment is a difficult undertaking; consequently, South Street is now becoming the solution for open performance space.

The effects of the Spiegeltent’s arrival at South Street are duly noted. It now draws “the hip set” to the area,xviii increasing the walking traffic and the awareness of South Street’s presence in New York. The content itself “feels like a throwback to an earlier New York,” contributing further cultural integrity to the Spiegeltent acts and the cultural distinctiveness of South Street as a whole.xix Spiegeltent has become a new home for the so-called “displaced” peoples of the city, namely performance artists, drag shows, and musicians.xx The shows even offer entertaining political and social commentary; the Reverend Billy act frequently makes jokes about Victoria’s Secret’s location at South Street in order to highlight corporate destruction of “neighborhood identity and self-sovereignty.”xxi Spiegeltent’s offerings to the public at South Street provide such an extraordinary form of entertainment that it almost seems fitting for it to be made available at such a unique location since South Street was such a novel place throughout its history.


Extra Options for Cultural Programs

What one may not be aware of are other organized cultural events that occur frequently in South Street. The South Street Seaport Museum, among others, plans a variety of educational and entertaining events. There are maritime education programs available on the schooner Pioneer from spring to fall, book signings, walking tours, workshops for older crafts, wine tastings, artist exhibits, and even Jazz concerts. The Seaport Museum also sponsored two musical revues that commemorated the 100th year of the Tin Building. South Street has not been at a loss for cultural diversions since programs, planned and improvised, frequently occur at South Street.xxii


Conclusions

Perhaps the most common remark about South Street Seaport is the emptiness of its commercialization. Yet, South Street clearly offers more than retail stores and the dreadful New York prices. Mike Jackson, a bassist in the Weimar acts, notes: “No one moved here from their hometown, U.S.A., to go to the Disney store.”xxiii With the wide variety of cultural goings-on in South Street, visitors— residents and tourists alike— certainly do not get a taste of the Disney store. The cultural programs at South Street Seaport give the area more substance than what it is normally associated with it. The cultural programs enhance the desirability of South Street as a New York site to visit.


Endnotes:

i Horwitz, Simi. “The Real Buskers’ Alley.” Back Stage 39.23 (05 June 1998): 26. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text . EBSCO. Fordham University Libraries, New York, NY. 30 October 2007. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ibh&AN=208309&site=ehost-live.

ii,, ix "Busking." Wikipedia. 2007. 30 Oct 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/busking>.

iii

iv, v, vi, vii, viii, x, xi, xii Horwitz.

v

vi

vii

ix

x

xi

xii

xiii Aerial Duo. Personal interview. 16 Oct 2007

xiv Putnam, Jack. Personal interview. 10 Nov 2007

xv , xvi, xviii, xxii Melena Ryzik. "Life Is a Weimar Dream, Old Chum, and Downtown Loves a Nouveau Cabaret. " New York Times  [New York, N.Y.] 17  Jul 2007, Late Edition (East Coast):  E.1.  National Newspapers (27). ProQuest.  Fordham University Libraries, New York, NY.  16 Oct. 2007 <http://www.proquest.com/>

xvi

xvii Joy Goodwin. "Willkommen! Life Is a Spiegeltent, Old Chum. " New York Times  [New York, N.Y.] 17  Jun 2007, Late Edition (East Coast): 2.7.  National Newspapers (27). ProQuest.  Fordham University Libraries, New York, NY.  16 Oct. 2007 <http://www.proquest.com/>

xviii Wilson, Michael. “South Street Seaport Fights for Its Salty Spirit.” The New York Times. July 28, 2006. 9 Oct. 2007

xix

xx, XX George Hunka. "A Sermon on Corporations, Neighborhoods and Loss :[Review]. " Rev. of: title_of_work_reviewed_in_italics, clarifying_information. New York Times  [New York, N.Y.] 22  Aug. 2006, Late Edition (East Coast):  E.3.  National Newspapers (27). ProQuest.  Fordham University Libraries, New York, NY.  16 Oct. 2007 <http://www.proquest.com/>

xxi

xxii South Street Seaport Museum. Broadside. South Street Seaport Museum: New York, NY.Sep-Dec 2007.

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