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Development Along Lower Manhattan’s East River Waterfront

south street seaport classic ships fog

Together with tour leader Carter Craft and 12 others hearty souls, the author braved the subfreezing temperatures last Saturday to celebrate the rich waterfront history and the new cultural attractions floating to the surface in Lower Manhattan. Sites along the way included the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, the Battery Maritime Building (the gateway to Governor’s Island), Pier 11/Wall St. Ferry Terminal, South Street Seaport, and Peck Slip.

What defines a neighborhood? What underlying characteristics flavor that definition even as the decades pass?

The current structures on the Southern Coast of Manhattan represent the “front porch” of the island today, as they have done for centuries. These buildings serve little function for most Manhattanites, who visit as infrequently now as they might have for centuries. Even the East River is transitory in its own way; flowing north and south alternately with the tides.

Those tides are attenuated by Hudson River flows at the Whitehall Terminal, where Cornelius Vanderbilt originally ran ferries to Staten Island. By the time Vanderbilt sold his shipping company and built a railroad empire, the next door South Ferry terminal had quite coincidentally been converted into an elevated train station. But how many among us recognize that the Downtown Manhattan Heliport is a functional heir to Vanderbilt’s original occupation? Indeed, it is not hard to imagine a rich, especially hurried immigrant first setting foot in New York after catching a helicopter from JFK, steps from where other immigrants were first brought to the New World in the chains of servitude at South Street?

The East River froze solid in 1867, which paralyzed the businesses of the ferry goers of the day. So today, the descendants of those ferries depart Wall Street under the majestic panorama of the Brooklyn Bridge, built to replace, albeit incompletely, those ferries. Now, as then, the transient breed of commuters partake of the city a la carte, unlike the Manhattanites here around the clock. A few yards inland, the FDR drive curves in a hairpin to drop visiting passengers for the ferries, but also as a shortcut for canny southbound drivers looping around for faster access to the bridge.

Traveling north, one next encounters more ships retired by history. The South Street Seaport Museum holds the last sign of oceangoing cargo ships that once defined Manhattan as a great port, displaying goods and humanity recognizable as ‘foreign’ only for the moments before they were absorbed into New York.

One more type of boat lost its purpose completely in 1979, when the last trawler docked at the Fulton Fish Market. For a generation after that, fish were delivered by truck; now the buildings are landmarked but empty. You can still see the fish mongers – but only in the gallery of Naima Rauam, whose watercolors and charcoal sketches depict the era before the market swam upstream to Hunts Point market in the Bronx.

Her gallery is perhaps the only tenant in the South Street Seaport shopping mall whose custom reflects the culture and fabric of the City of New York. Today, primarily tourists come to the seaport to dine on Chicago-style pizza, or to sup at the aptly misnamed “Pacific Grill” seafood restaurant. Do these visitors, ephemeral in their own way, recognize that their alien status grounds them to this place more firmly than the well-heeled citizens now residing in the neighborhood? In their imminent departure, they carry the tune heard here since a teenage boy rowed passengers back and forth across the harbor.