How the Lower East Side can help save the Seaport

Downtown Express file photo  The South Street Seaport Museum’s historic vessels in front of “Two Bridges, ” the Brooklyn and Manhattan. The photo was taken prior to the demolition of Pier 17, which is currently being rebuilt with a new design.

Downtown Express file photo
The South Street Seaport Museum’s historic vessels in front of “Two Bridges, ” the Brooklyn and Manhattan. The photo was taken prior to the demolition of Pier 17, which is currently being rebuilt with a new design.

BY VICTOR J. PAPA  |  Is it possible that the historic

and irreplaceable South Street Seaport is still a landmark preservation issue? Is it possible, in spite of preservation efforts extending over what seems an endless 40-year period; in spite of copious, yet still unresolved preservation visions and plans, all laudably meant to guarantee its permanence in the annals of American and New York City’s celebrated story, but just “how” is an issue yet unresolved.

Could the future of the South Street Seaport district, after all of that, still be a question? Might we be actually witnessing what is now a historic district precariously poised to become part of New York’s extinct history?

Could we actually find comfort and justification to destroy it, or alter it or compromise the integrity of its history, all because we conveniently prefer to subscribe to that often stated, if inane, belief that, because New York City is a perpetually changing skyscape – we can sacrifice and obliterate its history at the expense of what is too often nobly described as inevitable “progress.” Or has that belief not really been, in many cases, a veiled defense of a developer’s future prospects at the expense of preserving history.

Is not New York City usually the exporter of innovative commerce and business ideas? Or does it really need to adapt to ideas that come from Arizona, California or Texas?

Are elected officials acting as arbiters of the future of this historic district, thinking that they have to “balance” competing interests, or will they act as attentive listeners to a community of preservationists, residents, community leaders and local business owners resolved in their united appeals to declare, once and for all, that the South Street Seaport district is an off-limits authentic public resource?

It is not a Disney backdrop meant to enhance a development project, but a precious resource. Any development project must serve to enhance the tremendous value of the Seaport’s existing public resources, including its berthings and moorings for historic vessels; a catalogue of eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture; and historic Fulton Fish Market buildings — the 1939 New Market Building and the 1907 Tin Building.

Two Bridges is a 60-year-old Lower East Side organization that built an entire urban renewal district along the East River waterfront with affordable housing. We are also a preservationist organization in the sense that we have been the sole sponsor of the Two Bridges Historic District, the Chinatown Little Italy Historic District and the Bowery Historic District. These preservation efforts were more motivated by the lamentable loss of so many historic buildings through developer-driven initiatives. Evidence of the once grand histories of these historic buildings can now be referenced only through pictorial sources, books and documents.

Two Bridges supports another community’s vision of the Seaport. The whole area belongs as much to the Lower East Side as it does to the Financial District; the waterfront does not stop at the Brooklyn Bridge.

In that vein we ask: Have not the visions of the past 40 years with regard to the South Street Seaport District been rather parochial? Have they not been so insular and so proprietary as to be entirely exclusive of the fact that the history of East River Waterfront, north of the Brooklyn Bridge, is also integral to the history of the South Street Seaport District; is also a central part of the same history the Lower Manhattan community wishes to preserve. Deficient of this historical fact renders a very narrow understanding of the rich history of the East River, since it continues to exclude, as it has been tradition to do, the shared mercantile, shipping and immigrant history of the Lower East Side. So in a sense, this is a Lower East Side declaration about the shared ownership of the South Street Seaport District.

Two Bridges has recently undertaken a process called the “South Street Initiative.” It is essentially a dialogue among waterfront residents, property owners, preservationists and other stakeholders, all invited to consider a wider vision, a third alternative vision, if you will, of what has been the subject of numerous planning studies to transform the area into a vibrant space that would connect diverse neighboring communities and offer opportunities for recreational, social, educational and cultural engagement for New Yorkers and visitors alike.

Resulting from overlapping and uncoordinated plans, coupled with a lack of clear stewardship and unity, the area remains underdeveloped and underutilized. The South Street Initiative, however, proposes to synthesize these various proposals into a comprehensive and feasible master plan as well as conduct an economic impact study that demonstrates the potential of its implementation. The initiative, for which Two Bridges merely serves to be a catalyst, proposes to break the deadlock, to expand the vision, and to address inequities of resources and responsible stewardship.

Two Bridges is resolved to become proactive, no longer passive observers, in the final resolution that guarantees the preservation of the entire East River Waterfront, including the South Street Seaport. It issues a call for an urgent need to implement storm resiliency measures and address climate change along with development pressure in the area. Underlying Two Bridge’s proposal is the conviction that a synchronized and implementable plan developed in concert with all stakeholder groups, north and south of the Brooklyn Bridge, will produce a far greater end result than individual, and often contradictory, efforts of this recurring question about the fate of the East River Waterfront.

Victor J. Papa is president of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *