South Street Seaport

Heading to a concert at Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find the area vibrant and busy – people were eating, drinking, there was a DJ outside playing music as people danced, all with spectacular views of the Brooklyn Bridge on one side, and an enormous four-masted schooner, the Pioneer, on the other. With the Fulton Street fish market having moved to the Bronx in 2005, the area no longer has a pervasive piscine smell, and the new shopping area that opened in 2018 mixes a variety of shopping and dining choices next to one of the oldest bars in the city (The Paris Cafe, from 1873) and the South Street Seaport Museum, one of several that make up America’s National Maritime Museum. Here’s what this revitalized mix of old and new in lower Manhattan has to offer.

Entering the Seaport area from Fulton Street as it dead ends on the East Side, right away the lighthouse and cobblestoned streets give one notice that you are entering one of the original areas of Manhattan settled by Europeans. In 1625, the Dutch West India Trading Company built the first pier nearby, and the port was a focus of trade with England. During the Revolutionary War, the port was occupied by the British for several years, and after the war many merchants returned to England, marking a slump in the Seaport’s fortunes. But by the mid-19th Century the port was booming again. Many of the buildings burned to the ground in a fire in 1835 but it recovered quickly and was at its peak as a maritime trading center again by 1850. Such history in this area, and you can sense it as you walk on cobblestoned streets past low brick buildings.

It’s also important not to forget that New York City had a market near here, between Water and Pearl Streets, in the early 18th Century for selling enslaved persons captured from Africa. We in NYC often choose not to look on this part of our history, but in 1730 42% of people in the city had enslaved persons, a higher percentage than any other city other than Charleston, SC. At this time in the city’s history, between 15 and 20% of the population was enslaved, and enslaved people literally built the city and fueled the economy that made the city run. There is a plaque nearby first installed in 2015 that reminds us of this, see it and read more here. I also highly recommend reading the 1619 Project from the New York Times to learn about this aspect of the city’s history.

The South Street Seaport was home to the Fulton Fish Market until it moved to the Bronx. Now with formerly commercial buildings turned into restaurants and bars, this area has become a very popular place to gather in the evenings. The new Jean-Georges development, Tin Building, just opened this month, and has everything from full-service restaurants and a wine bar to food to-go and a culinary shopping marketplace.

It wouldn’t feel like the Seaport if you didn’t have lovely ships to gaze at (and you can pay to visit or even take a sail on some of them). Check out the Clipper City if you want to go on a sunset sail. The Wavertree, a wrought iron tall ship typical of those that would have filled the Seaport in the mid 19th Century, and a few other ships can be visited as part of your ticket to the South Street Seaport Museum.

Industry Kitchen, under the FDR drive, has great views and I have enjoyed dining there on several occasions.

There’s an ipic movie theater and lots of shopping in the more recently developed sections of the South Street Seaport. Ipic has reserved stadium seating and food and drink service to your seat, like my personal favorite Alamo Drafthouse (which now has a theater near the Seaport in the Financial District to add to their original location in Brooklyn).

The view as you walk around the Seaport next to the East River encompasses Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Bridge. When I was there a DJ was playing music and people were dancing in the open spaces with this view as a backdrop (see my Instagram video here).

I was at the Seaport a few weeks ago for a concert at Pier 17 (Nick Lowe opening for Elvis Costello). Having been to two concerts there before lockdown, I was happy to see that the magic of this space for a concert venue is unchanged. When there aren’t concerts happening, you can go up to this space for drinks and enjoy the views as well.

The South Street Seaport is a part of New York City that reflects on its history – good and bad – and is adapting to serve the needs of the 21st Century. I was taken by the vibrancy of the area when there a few weeks ago, and it reminded me in some ways of the area around One World Trade, which has completely transformed itself over the past decade to be a destination area for entertainment, shopping and nightlife. And like that area, there are new development residential condo buildings being built to keep people in lower Manhattan after work hours are over (or work-from-home hours!). 130 William, near the Seaport, is an important new development designed by famed British-Ghanian architect, Sir David Adjaye. Such a project would have been unimaginable even ten years ago, but is now part of this neighborhood which, as New York City constantly reminds us in so many ways, is evolving and will continue to do so.

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