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Preserving South Street Seaport

The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District

James M. Lindgren

Publication Year: 2014

Preserving South Street Seaport tells the fascinating story, from the 1960s to the present, of the South Street Seaport District of Lower Manhattan. Home to the original Fulton Fish Market and then the South Street Seaport Museum, it is one of the last neighborhoods of late 18th- and early 19th-century New York City not to be destroyed by urban development. In 1988, South Street Seaport became the city's #1 destination for visitors. Featuring over 40 archival and contemporary black-and-white photographs, this is the first history of a remarkable historic district and maritime museum.    Lindgren skillfully tells the complex story of this unique cobblestoned neighborhood.  Comprised of deteriorating, 4-5 story buildings in what was known as the Fulton Fish Market, the neighborhood was earmarked for the erection of the World Trade Center until New Jersey forced its placement one mile westward. After Penn Station’s demolition had angered many New York citizens, preservationists mobilized in 1966 to save this last piece of Manhattan’s old port and recreate its fabled 19th-century “Street of Ships.� The South Street Seaport and the World Trade Center became the yin and yang of Lower Manhattan’s rebirth. In an unprecedented move, City Hall designated the museum as developer of the twelve-block urban renewal district.   However, the Seaport Museum,whose membership became the largest of any history museum in the city, was never adequately funded, and it suffered with the real estate collapse of 1972. The city, bankers, and state bought the museum’s fifty buildings and leased them back at terms that crippled the museum financially. That led to the controversial construction of the Rouse Company's New Fulton Market (1983) and Pier 17 mall (1985). Lindgren chronicles these years of struggle, as the defenders of the people-oriented museum and historic district tried to save the original streets and buildings and the largest fleet of historic ships in the country from the schemes of developers, bankers, politicians, and even museum administrators.  Though the Seaport Museum’s finances were always tenuous, the neighborhood and the museum were improving until the tragedy of 9/11. But the prolonged recovery brought on dysfunctional museum managers and indifference, if not hostility, from City Hall. Superstorm Sandy then dealt a crushing blow. Today, the future of this pioneering museum, designated by Congress as America’s National Maritime Museum, is in doubt, as its waterfront district is eyed by powerful commercial developers.  While Preserving South Street Seaport reveals the pitfalls of privatizing urban renewal, developing museum-corporate partnerships, and introducing a professional regimen over a people’s movement, it also tells the story of how a seedy, decrepit piece of waterfront became a wonderful venue for all New Yorkers and visitors from around the world to enjoy.  This book will appeal to a wide audience of readers in the history and practice of museums, historic preservation, urban history and urban development, and contemporary New York City. 
This book is supported by a grant from Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund. 

Published by: NYU Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xii

Preserving South Street Seaport is part of a larger history that began in a 1981 doctoral seminar at the College of William and Mary under William Appleman Williams. Setting a framework for South Street Seaport,* that larger study examines the origins and development of the nation’s leading maritime museums — in Salem, MA; New Bedford, MA; Mystic, CT; Newport News, VA; San Francisco, CA; and New York, NY...


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pp. xiii-xiv

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Introduction: “Salvation on the East River”: How a Clever Editor Saw Jehovah’s Light

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pp. 1-6

In the midst of Lower Manhattan’s corporate high-rises, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the archaic Fulton Fish Market, South Street Seaport Museum regularly hosted concerts on Pier 16 to attract New Yorkers to its urban renewal district. One July evening in 1971, a folk singer drew a mixed audience who sat on blankets and newspapers at the East River dock. Mellowing in a warm summer breeze, they listened in the shadow of Wavertree, the world’s largest iron-hulled square-rigger, while an old-time schooner “swayed in time, like a silent metronome.”...

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1. “Eloquent Reminders of Sailing and Shipbuilding”: How the Seaport and World Trade Center (Re)made Fulton Street

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pp. 7-33

In 1966, as Penn Station’s debris was hauled to a landfill, historic preservation seemed to be going against the grain of Gotham’s advance. As the city expanded, it rebuilt itself every generation. Perhaps that “creative destruction” could be attributed to capitalism, as Karl Marx and Joseph Schumpeter claimed. Harper’s Magazine lamented in 1856, “New York [Manhattan] is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities. . . . Why should it be loved as a city?...

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2. “The Kind of Civilized Vision That New Yorkers Are Not Supposed to Have”: How Historic Preservation Shaped Lower Manhattan’s Development

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pp. 34-53

The two megaprojects developing at opposite ends of Fulton Street, the only street in Lower Manhattan then running uninterrupted from river to river, dramatically reshaped Manhattan after 1966. The World Trade Center and South Street Seaport were the yin and yang of 1960s development. Conceived separately but adopted by the nation’s most powerful family, each complemented the other...

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3. “Ships, the Heart of the Story”: How Tall Ships Became Big News

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pp. 54-78

By the mid-1960s, fewer commercial ships were navigating the waters off Manhattan. Once omnipresent, their sights and sounds — broad sails, plumes of smoke, fog horns, passenger decks, churning tugs — had given way to transatlantic jets, tractor trailers, commuter bridges, container ships, and the ascent of rival ports near and far. Recognizing the change, Seaporters worried that the city and nation were less sea minded, that another character-making frontier had been closed, and that the present generation would forget from whence it came...

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4. “Look at Our Waterfront! Just Look”: How Earth Day Boomed the Seaport

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pp. 79-96

The tempest of the Sixties and Seventies set the Seaport’s context as racial tensions flared, construction workers beat antiwar protestors, countercultures blossomed, minorities and women spoke out, pollution became visible, and cultural alienation, political corruption, and physical degradation were palpable. Crises were everywhere. Movements flourished in behalf of civil and equal rights, the environment, peace, and youth...

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5. “A Million People Came Away Better Human Beings”: How the Past Mended the Present

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pp. 97-124

As the Pioneer program made national news, the Seaport drew New Yorkers to the district, taught them their history, and linked the city’s past and present. Even before the twin towers topped off at 110 stories in 1971, the two ends of Fulton Street were symbiotically joined. As the Seaport swelled, its captains made sky-high predictions that its membership would reach one hundred thousand, thereby rivaling the National Trust, and would berth two dozen ships at six piers...

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6. “Shopping Is the Chief Cultural Activity in the United States”: How the Seaport Sold Its Soul

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pp. 125-148

Bonham’s and Buford’s tenures had been unmitigated disasters. Shepley blamed the crisis on the Seaport’s original design and convinced the board to turn the gritty area into a slick shopping mall, euphemistically calling it a festival marketplace. When Phase I opened in 1983 with what Newsweek called “all the fanfare of a NASA space shot,” the developer, James Rouse Company of Columbia, Maryland, featured the New Fulton Market, along with the restored lower floors of Schermerhorn Row and the Museum Block...

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7. “They Tore Down Paradise, and Put Up a Shopping Mall”: How Speculators and Rouseketeers Created a Bubble

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pp. 149-178

As the Rouse Company plans became public in 1979, Huxtable washed her hands of the Seaport. “What surely will be lost,” she knew, “is the spirit and identity of the area as it has existed over centuries.” She was even more dismayed that a shopping center was “at the end” of historic preservation’s rainbow. An editor of Progressive Architecture dismissed such criticism as “sheer snobbery.” Time magazine’s critic Wolf Von Eckardt used a false dichotomy, claiming, as did Hightower, “The alternatives are Colonial Williamsburg or continued decay.”...

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8. “The Museum Was Intellectually and Financially Bankrupt”: How the Seaport Fared after the Bubble Burst

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pp. 179-200

Upon arriving as president in 1985, Peter Neill realized that the Seaport “was intellectually and financially bankrupt.” Museum reformers did rein in the SSSC, whose development-minded trustees, said Lowery, were “either gone or thoroughly dispirited.” Still, Lowery pursued his Phase III plans for a hotel, a marina, and high-rises but was limited by Manhattan’s real estate swings, the LPC, and the fish market...

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9. “It’s Tough When You Have a Museum in a Mall”: How the Seaport (Almost) Succeeded

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pp. 201-232

As conceived, the Seaport was pure Sixties. Its district — a “museum without walls” — offered an open-ended, personal experience; its decentralized exhibit spaces accorded with the era’s notion of self-discovery and disdain for conventional institutions. Small was beautiful. Personal was political. The museum, said the founders, “lives best if it is broken into manageable bits that can be encountered and entered into casually. Thus, we avoid putting the past away in a separate room, and we also avoid the sense of overwhelming collections that generate awe but little relevance to life today.”...

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10. “A Ship Is a Hole in the Water into Which You Pour Money”: How Maritime Preservation (Almost) Won

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pp. 233-258

In 1983, Jakob Isbrandtsen and the two Arons voiced their frustrations at a board meeting about the fast-deteriorating ships. Not only had John Hightower joked to the Times, “You know the saying — ‘a ship is a hole in the water into which you pour money,’ ” but Chris Lowery had put what little money the Seaport had into landside programs to improve “the Museum’s image,” which had been damaged by the Rouse deal...

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11. “Sometimes You Just Can’t Get a Break”: How 9/11 Torpedoed the Seaport

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pp. 259-286

In 2001, the Seaport hoped to put wind in its sails with its biggest gift ever. The agenda for the Port Authority board meeting on September 12 at the World Trade Center included an initial $5 million for rehabilitating Schermerhorn Row and exhibiting “World Port New York” (WPNY). The Port Authority had a modest display on the harbor in the North Tower’s observatory, which drew two million visitors annually, but the Row offered better logistics...

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Conclusion: “Nobody Knows That We’re Here”: What Happened to That Promised Salvation on the East River?

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pp. 287-298

From the Seaport’s inception, it has been shaped by diverse New Yorkers who dreamed of saving an urban renewal district, returning tall ships to South Street, preserving Gotham’s fabled history, and anchoring what they regarded as a rootless city. Their ad hoc, poorly funded, idealistic campaign confronted the city’s power brokers. Those politicians, bureaucrats, developers, and corporate barons were driven by other dreams — modernizing the city, introducing business efficiencies, wielding power, and winning fame and fortune...


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pp. 299-356


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pp. 357-369

About the Author

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p. 370

E-ISBN-13: 9781479825578
E-ISBN-10: 1479825573
Print-ISBN-13: 9781479822577
Print-ISBN-10: 1479822574

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 872115044
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Preserving South Street Seaport

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Subject Headings

  • South Street (New York, N.Y.).
  • Harbors -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 21st century.
  • City planning -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 21st century.
  • Maritime museums -- Management -- Case studies.
  • Land use, Urban -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • South Street Seaport Museum (New York, N.Y.).
  • Historic buildings -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • Historic preservation -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • Historic ships -- New York (State) -- New York.
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