The City, through the Economic Development Corporation has for two decades been selling off its birthplace, the South Street Seaport, piece by piece. This great Historic District and its cultural center and interpreter, the South Street Seaport Museum, has been treated by the EDC as a checking account: whenever the City needed revenue, or the Museum did, EDC sold off or leased out another block or two of the Historic District’s properties. By having the Museum governed by the revenue-driven EDC rather than the Department of Cultural Affairs, the City is risking the entire institution, ships, upland buildings, and all.
The City Club is drawing a line in the pavement and declaring that the Museum and the historic district should be treated like other cultural institutions—as a valuable gem for all the people, deserving of City support—rather than as a source of salable property whenever EDC needs revenue.
Anyone who has been to the South Street Seaport Seaport in the last decade or so will find it difficult to believe that this failed market and the historical public space was once wildly successful. [visitor numbers??? I understand they were higher than the Statue or than Rock Center???? anyone know?]The streets were always crowded with tourists and office workers, and drew many thousands of New Yorkers as well. Pier 17 was a thriving destination, and the museum attracted a steady stream of visitors (#s?). How could this great port city NOT have a museum dedicated to the harbor?
This handsome spot on Manhattan’s waterfront was where New York began: South Street was where cotton, gold, oysters and other seafood, and human beings were brought to trade. The first world trade center was here, including the buildings that still survive. Wall Street began here because this port was where the money was. In the 1700s and 1800s it was shipowners, traders, and merchants who needed cash, credit and, especially, insurance, and these needs gave birth to NYC’s financial industry. The financial firms in turn gave birth to and nurtured the printing industry, which also began here. Bowne Printers, part of the Seaport Museum on Water Street, is the oldest, ongest surviving business enterprise in the U. S. They were of course financial and business printers but you can today get your stationary and business cards custom made there, and of course your wedding invitations and birth announcements.
The Seaport District and especially the Museum were for many years a major tourist attraction and an economic engine, but that is not why it was designated. It was protected because it was historically significant. The Museum was created in large part to preserve and interpet the history of the District, and the District’s properties and attractions were to be preserved and developed to support and nourish the Museum. It was an ambitious plan, but it has never gotten the public support that we might expect a City-created museum to deserve. Instead, the City has block by block sold off or traded to developers more and more of the historic properties. Now the buildings on Water Street and Schermerhorn Row are left, and the ships at the Piers, but even this remnant is repeatedly threatened by some scheme (usually from the City’s Economic Development Corporation) to parcel the last few properties in a trade for one or another hsihg-rise developer (the Howard Hughes Corporation being only the latest).
It is remarkable to think that the City has seen now better use for these spaces than to sell them. Indeed the land is worth cash, but so is Central Park—is there really no other value to our public spaces, our public treasures?
New York is blessed in that developers want to build here; the real estate is valuable and profitable. That is a sign of economic health, certainly compared to other American cities. But that is not the only value, and as our city has shown in the past, large-scale development is not the only path to prosperity. And the huge popularity among our schools for the district, the ships and the stories they tell of New York’s past and of the sea demonstrates the kind of value New Yorkers find here that goes beyond simple dollars per square foot.
The citizens of our city have a right to their historic places. The city has an obligation to to protect and preserve such places. By turning over public assets like the South Street Seaport waterfront to private development, the city turns its back on the citizens who love their city.
The City Club has made clear that the city needs a major readjustment in its priorities. Just as the City changed course in the 1970s to protect historic neighborhoods instead of wholesale demolition, so must City Hall now embrace a new, or rather old, approach to achieving the livable city. And of all the places we need to protect and nurture back to the lively vibrancy it once had, the Seaport and the Seaport Museum stand first.
Jeffrey Kroessler, for the City Club