The History of South Street Seaport
Today lower Manhattan is a global center of financial trading. A few centuries earlier, it was a global center of trade for more-tangible products, from rice and tea to porcelain and clothing, thanks to the presence of one of the world’s largest natural harbors. Where this harbor meets the East River became the site of numerous wharfs and piers, including those that are part of what is now known as the South Street Seaport.
When the Dutch built the first pier in the area, in 1625, Pearl Street was the shoreline. Because the eastern area of the New York Harbor was better sheltered from winds and ice than the western portion that meets with the Hudson River, Pearl Street quickly became crowded with docks, ships, traders, and maritime-related businesses. By the end of the 17th century the piers were extended farther into the East River, and the shallow intertidal zone was filled in with everything from ship ballast to dead animals. This “wharfing out” allowed for the creation of Water and Front Streets and made the port even more attractive to ships, as the new coastline was deeper and easier to navigate. By the early 19th century additional wharfing out created South Street.
The British occupation of the port during the Revolutionary War all but destroyed what had been a thriving commercial area. The port soon rebounded, however, thanks in part to “Empress of China.” The first American-built wooden ship departed from the port in 1784 to Guangzhou, China, with the goal of bringing back tea, porcelain, and other goods. After distinguishing itself with another first—becoming the first American merchant ship to enter China—“Empress of China” returned to New York Harbor laden with goods, marking the start of trade with the country. President George Washington himself bought a set of porcelain imported by the ship.
By the early 19th century the Port of New York was the busiest commercial port in the country. In 1817 it became the home of the Black Ball Line, the first trans-Atlantic passenger line to make regularly scheduled trips; until then ships left a port only once they were sufficiently loaded with cargo, often varying their route to stop at other ports along the way.
To accommodate the influx of business, merchant Peter Schermerhorn commissioned a row of brick buildings on Fulton Street. Each of the handsome Federal structures that made up Schermerhorn Row featured a shop on the ground floor, with warehouses and counting houses—the equivalent of administrative offices—on the other levels, making them among the earliest multiuse buildings. Later they were also the site of restaurants, boardinghouses, a hotel, and bordellos.
On the opposite side of Fulton Street, the Fulton Market opened in 1822. Originally selling all manner of foods, the market soon focused on seafood and gained the name the Fulton Fish Market. By the 1850s it sold primarily to businesses, not consumers; in the early 20th century it accounted for about 25 percent of all seafood sold in the U.S.
Yet as early as the 1880s the South Street Seaport was in decline. The port was too shallow for many of the newer, larger cargo ships, which now docked along the Hudson. By the mid-20th century most of the once-thriving wharves were abandoned and the once-bustling streets were empty, though the Fulton Fish Market did remain in the area until 2005, when it moved up to Hunts Point in the Bronx.
The South Street Seaport Museum was founded in 1967, in one of the buildings that make up Schermerhorn Row. The following year all of Schermerhorn Row was declared a New York City Landmark. By the time it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, the city and local developers were working in earnest to revitalize the area. In the early 1980s the South Street Seaport reemerged as an urban shopping mall. The existing Pier 17 was replaced with a multilevel structure that, along with Schermerhorn Row and the main building of the Fulton Fish Market, housed shops, bars, and restaurants that made the area a major tourist attraction.
Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 forced the South Street Seaport to undergo yet another renaissance. Flooding damaged the buildings, and many of the businesses closed or relocated. The Howard Hughes Corporation, which owns or oversees much of the area, used this as an opportunity to shift the South Street Seaport away from being a tourist destination toward becoming a destination for locals as well. The souvenir shops were replaced with upscale retailers, and Pier 17 was again torn down. The current iteration of Pier 17 opened in summer 2018 as a concert venue and the broadcasting studio for ESPN, with restaurants from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, David Chang (of Momofuku fame), and other star chefs expected to open before the end of 2019.
Today upscale shops such as Cynthia Rowley and Lee Lee’s Forest line Fulton Street, down the center of which, from spring through autumn, the 78-foot-long Garden Bar serves as an ideal place to enjoy an alfresco drink. You can grab a cone at Big Gay Ice Cream, sit down to a burger at Cobble & Co., or savor an Italian meal at the restaurant of 10 Corso Como, a cutting-edge Italian emporium whose only U.S. store is here. But for all the newness, the history of the Port of New York has not been subsumed. You can tour “Wavertree,” an 1885 iron-hulled ship, and the 1908 lightship “Ambrose,” which are permanently docked at Pier 16, view antique navigational instruments and shipbuilding tools at the South Street Seaport Museum, or simply stroll along the waterfront, close your eyes, take a deep breath of the salt-laced sea air, and let yourself be transported to an earlier time.