Op-Ed | New York must remember where it came from — that means preserving the South Street Seaport Museum

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This pandemic has dealt our beloved city a terrible blow, the full extent of which is still unclear. As New Yorkers, we have faith that the city will rebound as it has time and again. For a city that constantly reinvents itself, there must–there will–be a bright future. 

It’s time to rally around the essence of our city — its rich history, its relentless focus on the future, the cultural nourishment that makes it so compelling. One aspect of this effort must be to save the South Street Seaport Museum. 

Today, we launch a campaign – Our City, Our Seaport  to engage our friends and neighbors to save the South Street Seaport Museum. 

The greatest city in the world was a port before it was a city. Founded in the port-birthplace of New York, the Seaport Museum connects us as New Yorkers to our roots. Today, in what we still have of that lower Manhattan seaport, the Museum tells the story of a growing metropolis, connecting the stories of immigrants, enslaved people, merchants, indigenous people, and workers–early New Yorkers–to the present day.

To understand the City through its growth from port outpost to financial capital of the world, you must visit the Seaport Museum. 

The Museum does this work in ships and shops, in the 19th-century buildings that were the first ‘world trade center’, and on the cobblestone streets of the historic district.  Serving adults, school children, and visitors, the Seaport Museum is an irreplaceable jewel in New York’s crown. 

This institution is not new to setbacks. Since its founding in 1967, it has been knocked back repeatedly. It was closed for nearly two years following 9/11, hit early and hard by the 2008 financial crisis, flooded by Sandy, and now closed by the pandemic. The museum has been battered to the point of closure practically every half-decade, and yet it persists. Why? 

Two reasons. First, it’s a museum that represents the essence of our city, and the people who built it. Second, it has a loyal group of devotees who passionately defend it. 

Board, staff, volunteers, members, New Yorkers. These people understand the Museum’s importance. Its very existence is an audacious idea made real and replicated nowhere else: a museum in symbiosis with a historic port district at the heart of this global metropolis.

But this crisis is different. COVID-19 has put many businesses on the ropes: restaurants, museums, theaters; all are facing the prospect of a grueling fall and winter and an uncertain 2021. 

Some will not survive. But the loss of the Seaport Museum would be an inexcusable tragedy for the City. The landmarked buildings would be repurposed for retail or offices; the lauded fleet of historic ships would be given away, or worse. The painstakingly-accumulated artifact collection–some 28,000 objects that represent the beginnings of New York City–would be scattered. And the South Street Seaport Historic District would lose what defines it. 

New York will have lost its birthplace. 

A stabilized Seaport Museum can be something magnificent, a world-class maritime and port museum worthy of the mighty city of New York and reflective of its diversity. 

That Seaport Museum can illuminate a city that was born of the sea and that today is threatened by that same sea. It can look to the future as well as to the past, envisioning a resilient and thriving New York, a New York that will rebound because it is in its DNA to do so.

It can provide a window for all New Yorkers to see themselves through, by whatever means they or their ancestors arrived here. It can celebrate the meteoric rise of this magnificent city while shining a harsh spotlight on the slave markets of Wall Street, stolen labor, and the many injustices that exist in the very building blocks of the city. 

Ours is a sacred charge, but we must act quickly. At present stripped-down levels of funding, the Museum will not survive 2021. In a time when the city and state are strapped for financial resources and philanthropic dollars are stretched thin, we must look outside of traditional funding models to steward the Seaport Museum into the future. 

I ask all those who love New York to step forward. Join the die-hards who have kept the Museum alive through myriad challenges. Work with us to build anew, so that future generations will return to New York’s birthplace, walk the cobblestone streets, step aboard the ships, explore the harbor, and connect with their identities as New Yorkers and as Americans. 

The time is now. The threat is real. Together we must, we will, save the South Street Seaport Museum. 

Captain Jonathan Boulware is the President and CEO of the South Street Seaport Museum. To learn more about the Our City, Our Seaport: Campaign to Save the Seaport Museum, visit ourcityourseaport.org.

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