What should South Street Seaport be?

The South Street Seaport is at the heart of what created New York City.

It was the island’s original port, and quickly became crowded with all the things that ports need: merchants, financiers, lodging, entertainment. Until 2010, a business dating to the 18th century dealt with financial documents there.

As a working seaport, it pulsed with the now-romantic hustle and bustle of ships, sailors, salesmen, commerce.

In the 20th century, container ships and trucking spelled the end of the port’s dominance, but still South Street held on with the Fulton Fish Market. It was gritty and Mafia-infiltrated, but still evocative, at least the idea of it.

There has been little true industry in the seaport since shipping moved elsewhere after WWII and waterborne delivery of fish ended in 1979 — even less since the fish market moved to the Bronx in 2005.

The South Street Seaport Museum was founded in 1967, amid a preservationist mood in the city (too late to alter what became the FDR Drive, which cuts the port off from the mainland and shadows the market). Since then, the city has struggled to figure out what in fact the non-working seaport should be.

A stab at redevelopment in the 1980s cleaned up the area and brought a sense of rejuvenation, but left little more than a mall.

A second take was already underway by current developers Howard Hughes when Superstorm Sandy inundated the port. Little but the ships, properly secured, escaped flooding.

But development is moving forward again, on projects including a luxury movie theater, a more thoughtful food hall and an expanded Pier 17, where the old mall used to be. The new one will have an accessible roof, restaurants, and some non-chain stores, such as the bookstore McNally Jackson. It will, of course, still be a shopping center.

Groups such as Friends of South Street Seaport have objected to more private use of semi-public land. Maureen Koetz, a member of the group, laments “another jean store,” which won’t do much to accentuate the history of the neighborhood. The seaport museum, which has struggled for funding, would receive some form of support from the developer, according to a 2014 plan, though a final deal hasn’t been worked out.

After absorbing six feet of water during Sandy, the museum opened again last week. It also operates the beloved historic ships docked nearby and a few satellite spaces.

The main building on Fulton Street is on the site of the old hotel that inspired New York chronicler Joseph Mitchell, who wrote about the abandoned upper floors of the building along with other parts of the already-dying seaport.

There’s an irony in the admirable preservationist instinct that revels in nostalgia for the old market while dismissing new development, soulless as it might be. It’s all mercantile — it’s all New York.

The finely built ceilings of the current museum feature sturdy beams inches apart from each other, meant to support the tons of goods when the building was a warehouse. The elegant carved figureheads at the prows of ships pounded the waves in search of profit.

Another model for waterfront development presents itself across the river with Brooklyn Bridge Park — public land (except for those condos…), a strip of green space, a merging of water and city. Though that option almost entirely elides the history of those docks, now papered over with joggers and basketball players where once there were steel hooks, too.

Freezing the seaport in the past, colonial Williamsburg style, doesn’t seem like much of an option: Then it would be dead to all but tourists and school kids.

And settling for just a shopping mall, while a symbol perhaps of the consumerism that has always driven the city, just seems sad for such a fertile area.

So we will continue to look for a way to make the port contemporary, living, vital to the rest of the city. Building up, breaking down, trying again.

Then it will be true to its hectic past: always in flux and changing as city dwellers saw fit.

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