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RESTORATION

South Street: The Neighborhood

by Lauren Evangelista

The fact that South Street is heralded primarily as a tourist spot overshadows an important element of this region— its locality. What visitors often neglect is the residential quality of the area, dwarfed only by the mall complex at Pier 17 and the other major retailers that greet passersby at the Fulton and Pearl Street intersection. The neighborhood novelties were somewhat sacrificed once decline and redevelopment hit the area, primarily because of financial difficulties and competition with the neighboring Financial District. Urban historians and writers alike have made criticisms about the effects of the South Street redevelopment on the neighborhood; yet, local businesses thrive and residents perpetuate an unprecedented local aura for the South Street neighborhood, re-establishing its sense of place.

Criticisms Creep In

At the onset of the development from 1967-1972, the so-called authenticity of the South Street neighborhood remained intact, even in its unattractiveness. As plans for development were enacted, original opinions of the area were positive and in full accordance with the path of development. In 1972, just as plans were finally agreed upon and underway, journalist Gene Gleason remarked that “one can discover a surprisingly strong echo of South Street as it was 100 years ago” even in the midst of the towering skyscrapers of the Financial District.i However, such high opinions quickly diminished and more negative views about the nature of the South Street redevelopment surfaced.

Since the establishments of festival marketplaces akin to South Street— namely Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Boston’s Faneuil Hall— studies about waterfront development condemned both the final product and its effects on both residents and tourists. Much of the exterior redesign of the buildings depended on recapturing a rustic, historic look; according to waterfront enthusiast M. Christine Boyer, this transforms the aesthetic of the neighborhood into a “reiteration and recycling of already-known symbolic codes and historic forms to the point of cliché.”ii Studies on the tourist and urban design discuss how such appearances affect visual perception of an area, and the refurbishment of the South Street buildings constructs “a particular reframing of urban reality.”iii In this reframing of reality, even those neighborhood businesses find themselves changing for the supposed greater good of the South Street redevelopment, for “[E]very street vendor, outdoor decoration, advertisement, sign, and retail space must conform to the Seaport’s overall theme.”iv The infection of the transformation into the established local life appeared to compromise an important element that developers and historians have grown increasingly concerned about as of late- the authenticity of the neighborhood. Part of the novelty of tourism has been the “immersion in the daily, ordinary, authentic life of a culture or place that is not their own.”v Was it not the intention to recapture a novel experience and boast of a unique part of New York culture at South Street?

The direction of criticisms generally pointed toward a single idea: in spite of the advantages of larger, mixed walking traffic, South Street has become instead “a dreamscape far removed from the city that surrounds” residents and tourists alike.vi Pier 17’s presence has become one of the main associations with South Street, detracting from the local and cultural novelties South Street has to offer. Waterfront enthusiasts have criticized the presence of the mall for destroying the local integrity of South Street, prompting the belief that “the seaport is a neighborhood fighting to stay a neighborhood.”vii Of course, it is the resident community that believes otherwise, and they had and still do persevere amidst the rebranded South Street environment.


Establishments Long Past

In spite of the supposed decline of South Street’s prominence, certain local staples maintained their businesses and reputations. These local establishments were cherished as testaments to South Street’s history because they all related directly to its maritime past. The most notable institutions were Sweet’s and Sloppy Louie’s; other neighborhood favorites were The Sketch Pad, Jack’s Retail Fish Store, the Square Rigger, and the still surviving Carmine’s Bar and Grill.viii These novelty restaurants, however, only outlasted inevitable change for so long; Sloppy Louie’s and novelty gift shop Captain Hook’s, the two establishments most commonly associated with South Street, closed down by 1998.ix Indeed, these establishments “have kept alive neighborhoods that otherwise had been abandoned, attracting people who otherwise probably would not be there.”x The loss of these restaurants has caused distress among local residents, aside from those who have been critiquing the area’s redevelopment.

In addition, other businesses that had once thrived for the sake of maritime commerce— printing, packaging, and warehousing— had only lasted through to the 1980’s; once containerization officially moved shipping away from South Street and New York ports, the presence of these industries became superfluous.xi The loss of these industries further diminished the rustic quality of the South Street neighborhood.

The last most notable loss in the old South Street neighborhood was the artistic (link to Naima Rauam essay) community that moved into the cheap and empty spaces of the quiet, creepy 1970’s South Street neighborhood. They created, aside from the Fulton Fish Market workers and regulars, a creative community for the area. As the redevelopment of South Street went underway, increase of property value and the diminishing of the Fulton Fish Market pushed the established community into a new direction— away from South Street.xii What, then, can be said of the neighborhood if novelty maritime restaurants, businesses adjoined with maritime commerce, and a social commune are no longer present?

Efforts outside of the main development plan of 1967 and 1972-73 have been made to preserve this maritime and neighborhood identity of which South Street prides itself, mainly to curb these recent losses. Yet, what seems to be overlooked is that times change, and there could be room for a new type of preservation that restores South Street’s local identity. The locality was not destroyed; the neighborhood thrives and, just as South Street had, it revamped itself.


A New Direction for a New Neighborhood

What the South Street neighborhood is today can definitely be greatly contrasted with what it was historically. There are only so many traditionally maritime vendors, and only so many “original” seafood restaurants available. These changes have been perceived negatively, as mentioned earlier, because people believe South Street’s historical identity is lost. Yet, could South Street have been preserved in the exact manner it was years ago? The change in the neighborhood flavor is merely, then, a reflection of the modern era— a new type of locality that fights for a homey feel amidst the hustle and bustle of the Financial District. To those who live in the area, the cultural importance is apparent and appreciated; though this identity is not made explicit, the locale of South Street feels strongly about the rustic environment it perpetuates outside the commercial traffic.

While obviously the longstanding local institutions have erased with them the historic maritime past, those institutions that do thrive in the area take pride in their lesser known identities, believing that their existence has become the new locality. Front Street north of the Fulton Market building is, in fact, a goldmine of local businesses that one can equate to a Main Street business district in any small town or neighborhood. As described by Megan Cariola, manager of the Stonehouse California Olive Oil store, this particular section of the district preserves a neighborhood comfort to the area, even as it attracts business and tourist clientele. Part of the appeal for Cariola’s store’s location is its place in a niche of the overall South Street area. According to Cariola, the novelty of this row of local businesses may be found in its separateness from quintessential business areas throughout Manhattan. Cariola enjoys the fact that this area is not like Park Avenue or the slue of Trump Buildings; South Street’s local neighborhood adds variety to the New York identity.xiii

Aside from the breath of air the local businesses provide amidst the “New York” environment, the sense of community has a strong, influential effect amongst the residents. Tami Kurtz, an associate head for the Seamen’s Church Institute, has noted “a true neighborhood feel for this area,” a neighborhood consisting of a 10 block radius. This “true neighborhood” was made evident in special neighborhood events, one of which was planned by Kurtz herself. South Street held a special trick-or-treating Halloween event for the neighborhood children, the number of which is surprisingly staggering. In comparison to her living experiences in the Upper East and West Side, Kurtz enjoys the sense of community that exists in South Street; just as typical “small towns” go, she had described that people could walk the streets and share friendly waves and exchanges with neighbors.xiv There is nothing for the residents to fight for; they certainly have established their neighborhood.

Perhaps the most poignant feature of the neighborhood is the record of its residents. Indeed, there are residents in the South Street neighborhood who have been living there for 25 years and counting.xv In those past 25 years, the changes that have created the current identity of South Street had occurred. These people could have left if these criticisms of the neighborhood’s integrity were as strong and effecting as critics believed; yet, their continued presence in South Street reflects their high opinion of the neighborhood. It is these residents who preserve the neighborhood. It is these residents who hold onto South Street’s cultural identity. The perseverance of these particular residents shows that South Street’s neighborhood remained intact in spite of the ongoing changes.


But Wait… Where is the Maritime Past?

One of the main struggles in the overall redevelopment plan is the maintenance of the maritime past of the South Street neighborhood and the connection to the waterfront. Indeed, that was Peter Stanford’s original intent in conceiving the project to save South Street in 1967— recreate the 19th century in the modern world.xvi In essence, it would have transformed the neighborhood into more of a museum village, or an area that serves a purpose of conveying pure history, akin to Williamsburg and Plymouth Plantation. The hopes of recreating the 19th century atmosphere, which was the period when South Street thrived in its maritime prime, would have been enhanced by re-creating the industries that once existed in those times, like rope-making.xvii The idea was simple, the execution, complex: South Street cannot achieve such goals because it does not have the luxury of absolutely open space, like Plymouth Plantation, and these ideas were and are “environmentally and legislatively not doable.”xviii Infrastructure revisal would have had to occur on already well-established architecture, which would have probably been twice as costly as the restoration plan in itself. As Jack Putnam, a South Street Seaport Museum historian described, this dream of Peter Stanford’s was “unsafe, dirty, dangerous, dull, and difficult.” Putnam believes that the nature of development since the realization that this idea for recapturing the 19th century was unrealistic was a happy compromise that allows passersby, residential or otherwise, to get “a taste of what the district was like years ago without the inconvenience.”

Jack Putnam has suggested that the constant of change needed to be accepted by the redevelopment planners in order to execute the restoration successfully. With the trendier local retailers and the tourist traps of the Pier 17 complex, the question of the presence of a maritime connection looms. Must there be a blatant and overly explicit maritime connection to convey that South Street was integral to New York’s past as a waterfront city? Is maritime connection merely an abstract concept to the residents of the area? Is the neighborhood responsible for the upkeep of the maritime activities and identity of South Street? Considering Jack Putnam and Tami Kurtz’s views, a neighborhood for South Street could and should be much more than a museum village. It is clear that the longstanding residents chose to live and stay at South Street because they connect to the water; this is an elementary but somewhat obvious speculation. It is clear that Tami Kurtz, who lives and works in the neighborhood, understands the maritime history and desires to have this maritime identity more pronounced. Yes, the neighborhood has evolved into a standard, but special, neighborhood, and yes, an overt connection to the maritime history has been lost, but the awareness is there, and the Museum and residents perpetuate that idea in their own right.


Conclusions

What historians have generally associated with South Street is a nautical identity, relating directly to its past. Though that particular identity is arguably lost due to the developments for the restoration, a unique identity still thrives that marks South Street’s distinction from any urban or suburban familiarities. Just as the South Street area as a whole rebranded and revamped itself, so, too, did its neighborhood. The atmosphere evolved into something that integrates local comfort and the bustle of commerce, peaceably flowing with the rest of the cityscape.

Endnotes:

i Gleason, Gene. “South Street Ain’t What She Used to Be … Yet: The Restoration of South Street.” New York Times (1857-Current File). [New York, NY] 16 Jul 1972. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2004). ProQuest. Fordham University Libraries, New York, NY. 9 Oct. 2007

ii 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.) 188

iii Boyer 187.

iv Boyer 202.

v Judd, Dennis R., and Susan S. Fainstein. The Tourist City. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.) 7.

vi Judd 49.

vii Wilson, Michael. “Waterfront Revival.” The New York Times. 28 Jul 2006: ProQuest. Fordham University Libraries. 15 Sept 2007

viii GENE GLEASON. "South Street Ain't What She Used to Be . . . Yet :The Restoration of South Street. " New York Times (1857-Current File)  [New York, N.Y.] 16  Jul 1972. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004). ProQuest. Fordham University Libraries, New York, NY. 9 Oct. 2007 http://www.proquest.com/

ix Stamler, Bernard. "Rough Sailing for South Street Seaport." The New York Times 29 Mar 1998: Gale. Fordham University Libraries. 15 Sept 2007 <http://find.galegroup.com/itx/printdoc.do?contentSet=IAC-Documents&docType=IAC&is>.

x DePALMA, ANTHONY. "Where Restaurants Lead, Crowds May Follow. " New York Times  [New York, N.Y.] 1  Mar. 1989, Late Edition (East Coast): C.1.  National Newspapers (27). ProQuest.  Fordham University Libraries, New York, NY.  16 Oct. 2007 <http://www.proquest.com/>

xi Putnam, Jack. Personal interview. 10 Nov 2007.

xii Putnam.

xiii Cariola, Megan Joan. Personal interview. 30 Oct. 2007.

xiv Kurtz, Tami. Personal interview. 30 Oct. 2007.

xv Kurtz.

xvi Putnam.

xvii Putnam.

xviii Putnam.

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