The South Street Seaport is a historic area in the New York City borough of Manhattan, centered where Fulton Street meets theEast River, and adjacent to the Financial District. The Seaport is a designated historic district, and is distinct from the neighboring Financial District. It is part of Manhattan Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan, and is bounded by the Financial District to the west, southwest, and north; the East River to the southeast; and Two Bridges to the northeast.
It features some of the oldest architecture in downtown Manhattan, and includes the largest concentration of restored early 19th-century commercial buildings in the city. This includes renovated original mercantile buildings, renovated sailing ships, the formerFulton Fish Market, and modern tourist malls featuring food, shopping, and nightlife, with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The first pier in the area appeared in 1625, when the Dutch West India Company founded an outpost here.With the influx of the first settlers, the area was quickly developed. One of the first and busiest streets in the area was today’s Pearl Street, so named for a variety of coastal pearl shells. Due to its location, Pearl Street quickly gained popularity among traders. The East River was eventually narrowed. By the second half of the 17th century, the pier was extended to Water Street, then to Front Street, and by the beginning of the 19th century, to South Street. The pier was well reputed, as it was protected from westerly winds and ice of the Hudson River.
In 1728, the Schermerhorn Family established trade with the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Subsequently, rice and indigo came from Charleston. At the time, the port was also the focal point of delivery of goods from England. In 1776, during the American Revolutionary War, the British occupied the port, adversely affecting port trade for eight years. In 1783, many traders returned to England, and most port enterprises collapsed.The port quickly recovered from the post-war crisis. From 1797 until the middle of 19th century, New York had the country’s largest system of maritime trade. From 1815 to 1860 the port was called the Port of New York.
On February 22, 1784, the Empress of China sailed from the port to Guangzhou and returned to Philadelphia on May 15, 1785, bringing along, in its cargo, green and black teas, porcelain, and other goods. This operation marked the beginning of trade relations and the newly formed United States Qing Empire.
On January 5, 1818, the 424-ton transatlantic packet James Monroe sailed from Liverpool, opening the first regular trans-Atlantic voyage route, the Black Ball Line. Shipping on this route continued until 1878. Commercially successful transatlantic traffic has led to the creation of many competing companies, including the Red Star Line in 1822. Transportation significantly contributed to the establishment of the New York one of the centers of world trade.
One of the largest companies in the South Street Seaport area was the Fulton Fish Market, opened in 1822. In 2005, it was moved to the area of Hunts Point, Bronx.
In November 1825, the Erie Canal, located upstate, was opened. The canal, connecting New York to the western United States, facilitated the economic development of the city. However, for this reason, along with the beginning of the shipping era, there was a need for lengthening of piers and deepening of the port.
On the night of December 17, 1835 in the city there was a large fire, which destroyed 17 blocks. Many buildings in the South Street Seaport burned to the ground. Nevertheless, by the 1840s, the port recovered, and by 1850, it reached its heyday:
Looking east, was seen in the distance on the long river front from Coenties Slip to Catharine Street [sic], innumerable masts of the many Californian clippers and London and Liverpool packets, with their long bowsprits extending way over South Street, reaching nearly to the opposite side.
At its peak, there were many commercial enterprises, institutions, ship-chandlers, workshops, boarding houses, saloons and brothels. However, by the 1880s, the port began to be depleted of resources, space for the development of these businesses was diminishing, and the port became too shallow for newer ships. By the 1930s, most of the piers no longer functioned, and cargo ships docked mainly on ports on the West Side and in Hoboken. By the late 1950s, the old Ward Line docks, comprising Piers 15, 16, and part of 17 were mostly vacant.
The South Street Seaport Museum was founded in 1967 by Peter and Norma Stanford. When originally opened as a museum, the focus of the Seaport Museum conservation was to be an educational historic site, with shops mostly operating as reproductions of working environments found during the Seaport’s heyday.
In 1982, redevelopment began to turn the museum into a greater tourist attraction via development of modern shopping areas. The project was undertaken by the prominent developer James Rouse and modeled on the concept of a “festival marketplace,” a leading revitalization strategy throughout the 1970s. On the other side of Fulton Street from Schermerhorn Row, the main Fulton Fish Market building, which had become a large plain garage-type structure, was rebuilt as an upscale shopping mall. Pier 17’s old platforms were demolished and a new glass shopping pavilion raised in its place, which opened in August 1983.
The original intent of the Seaport development was the preservation of the block of buildings known as Schermerhorn Row on the southwest side of Fulton Street, which were threatened with neglect or future development, at a time when the history of New York City’s sailing ship industry was not valued, except by some antiquarians. Early historic preservation efforts focused on these buildings and the acquisition of several sailing ships. Almost all buildings and the entire Seaport neighborhood are meant to transport the visitor back in time to New York’s mid-19th century, to demonstrate what life in the commercial maritime trade was like. Docked at the Seaport are a few historical sailing vessels, including the Flying P-Liner, Peking and museum ships. A section of nearby Fulton Street is preserved as cobblestone and lined with shops, bars, and restaurants. The Bridge Cafe, which claims to be “The Oldest Drinking Establishment in New York” is in a building that formerly housed a brothel.
The Seaport was heavily damaged in 2012 in Hurricane Sandy as tidal floods (seven feet deep in places) inundated much of the Seaport. Many of the businesses closed and the remaining businesses suffered from a severe drop in business after it. The South Street Seaport Museum re-opened in December 2012. The Howard Hughes Corporation, the Seaport’s owner, announced that it would tear down the Seaport’s most prominent shopping area, Pier 17, starting in the fall of 2013, and will replace it with a new structure by 2015.