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The Debate Over South Street

by Lauren Evangelista and Jessica Mazzola

No Satisfaction for Waterfront and Tourist Studies

Of the formal opinions made on the development of South Street Seaport, most have reflected pessimism and disappointment. The most prominent proponent of these negative viewpoints is M. Christine Boyer, who only objects because of a hope to rekindle appreciation for New York’s maritime past . Her essays about South Street Seaport highlight the anomalous nature of the Seaport’s festival marketplacein comparison with the rest of New York’s cityscape, noting: “no unified image of the city emerges” from most waterfront renovations.i Even with the adherence to the codes and regulations mandated by the development team and the state of New York to preserving a historical context at South Street, Boyer expresses dissatisfaction with the results due to their illusory projections of New York.ii Instead of restoring the sense of maritime history, Boyer believes that the attempts of South Street “to historicize is to estrange, to make different, so that a gap continually widens between then and now, between an authentic and a simulated experience.”iii The Seaport represents, to Boyer, an unresolved mixture of commerce and history whose “aim is theatrical” instead of educative.iv Recreating a historical environment has been an utter failure according to Boyer, and it, along with other “scenic enclaves” of New York, “reduces the city to a map of tourist attractions” that further perpetuate certain illusions of New York’s history and culture.v

In conjunction with Boyer’s sentiments about the artificial nature of historic preservation, tourist studies reflect a conflict with connecting to the authenticity of a given place. The proliferation of tourism has, indeed, turned travel into “an ordinary experience, taken for granted as a routine part of life.”vi Studies even reflect that “[T]he viewing of a harbor or a walk through downtown is insufficient as a tourist experience.”vii Thus, it was a concern for South Street’s developers to “try to anticipate the tourist’s desire for the extraordinary.”viii The difficulty in achieving the extraordinary is finding the balance between “carnival-like diversion” and an authentic reflection of the area’s culture.ix The juxtaposition of maritime education programs and major retailers, the most notorious being the Pier 17 mall complex, instead pushes forth one over the other. The museum and historic district often fight with the mall for the proper association of the name “South Street.” The former owner of a maritime knick-knack store Captain Hook’s, Joe Hill, remarked, “People come here for a seaport and what do they get? A shopping mall, just like they have at home.”x With the mall seemingly reigning supreme, this “suburban-style” observation of South Street by waterfront enthusiasts like Philip Lopate seems understandable and unavoidable.xi The “historical and cultural identity” of historic tourist sites like South Street become “completely irrelevant” in these viewpoints.xii What, then, is left to appreciate about the waterfront with all the distraction of historical falsities and commercialization?

Historical Appreciation and Enjoyment

Although it often seems that the prevailing critiques of South Street Seaport are negative, the sometimes muted voices of supporters also make valid arguments as to why the restoration of the Seaport was carried out in a proper and fitting fashion. One argument urges critics to take into consideration the state of the Seaport as opposed to what it had become during the Decline Period, in order to appreciate the work done during the Restoration. One time marine historian for the South Street Seaport pointed out that it would not have been possible to “…freeze the buildings in a decaying state; they had to be stabilized and restored.”xiii In 1983 after the opening of the complex, critics who argued the area lacked genuineness and substance were answered by supporters like Time Magazine writer Wolf Von Eckardt, who asked, “Would it have been more authentic to leave the special place to rats and rapists? Are the historic values better served if they are bulldozed for parking lots or office towers? What is wrong with turning a once rowdy commercial area into a less rowdy commercial area?”xiv He and others adhering to this school of thought have suggested that replacing the decaying area with anything that made it safe and able to be utilized by both the local and visiting public was a positive improvement.

Many opponents often turn to original proponent of South Street’s restoration, Peter Stanford, for support. Although he is now very vocal about his thoughts that his original vision was never met, and that what now exists in South Street Seaport is “…international airport-style junk,”xv proponents have pointed out that what Stanford originally wanted might really have been impossible, and what exists now is a workable solution. Longtime South Street Seaport Museum employee and Museum Historian Jack Putnam stated that what Peter Stanford wanted, to entirely recreate the exact atmosphere of the 19th Century, could not happen in the middle of New York City. He argues that this city, with the most expensive real estate in the world, could not house a Williamsburg-like attraction. He says that what exists in the museum and architecture of the area is evocative of the 19th Century, which creates a historical atmosphere that is effective without the inconveniences of things like outdated businesses for which there is no longer a market. Putnam argues that although the retail market is a compromise from Stanford’s original vision, he sees nothing wrong in it. It is money-making and attractive to visitors. He thinks that the mall pulling people in to the Seaport district, where they might wander into the museum and learn about the history makes the mall a positive and useful section of the South Street Seaport Historic District.xvi

Some supporters have gone even further than Mr. Putnam, claiming that the commercial and retail aspects of the Seaport are not only a good way to lure tourists into the area, but a fitting and entirely appropriate addition, representative of the Seaport’s history, that rightly belongs there. Peter Neill, President of the South Street Seaport Museum from 1985 through 2004, pointed out that “Historically, the Seaport is all about the union of culture and commerce.”xvii and that the restored area is nothing different. He, and others sharing his viewpoints, feel that it is only suitable that commercial developments fill an area that gained historical significance as a thriving commercial port. They claim that what built New York up into the thriving world capital that it is today is the commerce found in places like South Street Seaport, and it is right to continue the tradition in this way.


i Boyer, M. Christine. "Cities for Sale: Merchandising History at South Street Seaport." Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. Ed. Michael Sorkin. (United States: The Noonday Press, 1992) 182.

iiBoyer 184.

iii Boyer 199.

iv Boyer 184.

v Boyer 192.

vi Judd, Dennis R., and Susan S. Fainstein. The Tourist City. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) 1.

vii Judd 14.

viii Judd 9.

ix Judd 7.

x Stamler, Bernard. "Rough Sailing for South Street Seaport." The New York Times 29 Mar 1998: Gale. Fordham University Libraries. 15 Sept 2007 <>.

xi Phillip Lopate. "Fish Tale: Falling For a Live One. " New York Times  [New York, N.Y.] 5  Jan. 2001, Late Edition (East Coast): E.37.  National Newspapers (27). ProQuest.  Fordham University Libraries, New York, NY. 16 Oct. 2007 <>

xii Judd 262.

xiii Carmody, Deirdre. “Rejuvinated Seaport is Due to Open July 28.” The New York Times. 15 July 1983.

xiv Von Eckardt, Wolf. “South Street Seaport Opens.” Time Magazine. 8 August 1983.

xv Stamler, Bernard. “Rough Sailing for South Street Seaport.” The New York Times. 29 March 1998.

xvi Interview with Jack Putnam, South Street Seaport Museum Historian.

xvii Stamler, Bernard. “Rough Sailing for South Street Seaport.” The New York Times. 29 March 1998.

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