Preserving South Street Seaport

The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District

384 pages

April, 2014

ISBN: 9781479822577

$40

Cloth

Also available in

Author

James M. Lindgren is Professor of History at SUNY Plattsburgh, and the author of Preserving the Old Dominion (1993) and Preserving Historic New England (1995). 

All books by James M. Lindgren

Preserving South Street Seaport tells the fascinating story, from the 1960s to the present, of the South Street Seaport District of Lower Manhattan. Home to the original Fulton Fish Market and then the South Street Seaport Museum, it is one of the last neighborhoods of late 18th- and early 19th-century New York City not to be destroyed by urban development. In 1988, South Street Seaport became the city's #1 destination for visitors. Featuring over 40 archival and contemporary black-and-white photographs, this is the first history of a remarkable historic district and maritime museum.   
 
Lindgren skillfully tells the complex story of this unique cobblestoned neighborhood.  Comprised of deteriorating, 4-5 story buildings in what was known as the Fulton Fish Market, the neighborhood was earmarked for the erection of the World Trade Center until New Jersey forced its placement one mile westward. After Penn Station’s demolition had angered many New York citizens, preservationists mobilized in 1966 to save this last piece of Manhattan’s old port and recreate its fabled 19th-century “Street of Ships.” The South Street Seaport and the World Trade Center became the yin and yang of Lower Manhattan’s rebirth. In an unprecedented move, City Hall designated the museum as developer of the twelve-block urban renewal district. 
 
 However, the Seaport Museum,whose membership became the largest of any history museum in the city, was never adequately funded, and it suffered with the real estate collapse of 1972. The city, bankers, and state bought the museum’s fifty buildings and leased them back at terms that crippled the museum financially. That led to the controversial construction of the Rouse Company's New Fulton Market (1983) and Pier 17 mall (1985). Lindgren chronicles these years of struggle, as the defenders of the people-oriented museum and historic district tried to save the original streets and buildings and the largest fleet of historic ships in the country from the schemes of developers, bankers, politicians, and even museum administrators. 
 
Though the Seaport Museum’s finances were always tenuous, the neighborhood and the museum were improving until the tragedy of 9/11. But the prolonged recovery brought on dysfunctional museum managers and indifference, if not hostility, from City Hall. Superstorm Sandy then dealt a crushing blow. Today, the future of this pioneering museum, designated by Congress as America’s National Maritime Museum, is in doubt, as its waterfront district is eyed by powerful commercial developers.  While Preserving South Street Seaport reveals the pitfalls of privatizing urban renewal, developing museum-corporate partnerships, and introducing a professional regimen over a people’s movement, it also tells the story of how a seedy, decrepit piece of waterfront became a wonderful venue for all New Yorkers and visitors from around the world to enjoy.  This book will appeal to a wide audience of readers in the history and practice of museums, historic preservation, urban history and urban development, and contemporary New York City.
 
This book is supported by a grant from Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund.  

Reviews

  • "It should…be required reading for everyone—politicians, preservationists, developers, community members, journalists, and museum administrators—involved in rethinking how South Street Seaport will be remade in years to come.”

    The Journal of American History

  •  “Preserving South Street Seaport ends on a bittersweet note: the district beautifully restored, but the museum barely noticeable, and the ships under constant threat of being sold off.  It is precisely this abrupt, incomplete, and depressing ending that makes this book an active part of the preservation project.  It becomes a call to arms, challenging the reader to actively participate in the Seaport’s existence and to provide a more satisfying conclusion for the story of the South Street Seaport.”

    Journal of Folklore Research

  • “The details are overwhelming and fascinating, providing readers a play-by-play rendering of negotiations with politicians, banks, and developers, as well as the often heart-breaking process of acquiring the ships and other artifacts that constitute the Seaport Museum. This eminently readable book, filled with revealing anecdotes, is a red flag to all preservationists aiming to partner with commercial interests. Lindgren demonstrates all too clearly the difficulties of achieving economic viability as a cultural and educational institution, and pointedly questions the lack of sustained support for what could be one of the most important maritime museums. Summing Up: Highly recommended.”

    Choice

  • "Most New Yorkers think of South Street Seaport as only a touristy shopping mall. But the real South Street Seaport is a historic district with three piers and 11 blocks surrounded by Manhattan's skyscrapers. It's a treasure we must protect."

    New York Post

  • "Since 1997, SUNY professor James M. Lindgren has been researching the history of the South Street Seaport Historic District, the museum that championed its preservation and became its steward, and the complicated relationships that eventually emerged between that organization, the City of New York, the city’s economic development offices, and the ‘Festival Marketplace’ that was brought to the district in 1983. . . . This timely book will be sure to prove essential as we all work to unravel the Seaport’s tangled past and set it back on the right path."

    New Amsterdam Public Market Association

  • "Preserving South Street Seaport, by James M. Lindgren, is the first history of this district - the city's top destination for visitors in the late 1980s - and its maritime museum . . . Lindgren chronicles the battles between preservationists and developers as well as how the tragedies of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy crushed the area's renewed promise. In a work that features more than 40 archival and contemporary black-and-white photographs, Lindgren  reveals the challenges of privatizing urban renewal while also providing a narrative of how a decrepit piece of waterfront rose to become, for a time, a go-to spot for New Yorkers and tourists alike."

    NYU Research Digest

  • “South Street Seaport Museum has lived as many lives as the proverbial cat, but it was born feral and has remained so to this day. James Lindgren . . . tracks the promise of what began in the 1960s as a grassroots movement to 1) preserve an evocative and colorful remnant of nineteenth-century New York, 2) let troubled young people use seafaring experiences to rebuild their lives. Lindgren succeeds, here as elsewhere, in evoking the dreams and visions of the organizers, while also making clear the forces arrayed against them.”

    —, H- Pennsylvania

  • "Lindgren sails through the maritime museums in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, and California. Of the museums, South Street Seaport is the most complicated story he ever came across."

    —Robin Caudell, Press-Republican

  • "The author has done exhaustive research in assembling factual evidence of what went wrong . . . . This cautionary tale informs readers how not to run a museum and is recommended for museum educators, historical preservationists, and New York City history buffs."

    Library Journal