Three years after Hurricane Sandy, the South Street Seaport is still on the mend. Shops remain closed, buildings show damage from the flooding that rose over seven feet, and the historic character of Manhattan’s oldest intact neighborhood is threatened by a 494-foot waterfront tower proposed by the Howard Hughes Corporation.
This week the area got an essential boost. On Thursday, Congressman Jerrold Nadler of the 10th district of New York jointly announced with the South Street Seaport Museum that the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has allotted $10.4 million for the area. The money is directed at repairing remaining damage from 2012’s storm. In a release, Captain Jonathan Boulware, executive director of the museum, said that the institution has “been working for more than two years to secure funding for Sandy recovery.”
In June, the South Street Seaport was listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the United States, partly due to the Sandy damage and partly in reaction to the looming Howard Hughes development. The FEMA funding follows last week’s announcement by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that $6.2 million in grants has been designated for post-Sandy repairs at other historic sites around the city, including the Fraunces Tavern Museum near the Seaport, Lehigh Valley Barge No. 79 in Red Hook, Lookout Hill in Prospect Park, and Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Alongside the new governmental support for the Seaport, another entity — the recently organized Seaport Culture District — revealed plans this month for empty storefronts in the neighborhood to be filled by organizations like the Guggenheim Museum, Eyebeam, AIGA, and HarperCollins. This Culture District is funded by the Howard Hughes Corporation, and nowhere in its announcement does it mention the South Street Seaport Museum, the neighborhood’s existing cultural force, which remains mostly closed, post-Sandy, aside from its lobby. As Jennifer Smith at the Wall Street Journal pointed out, the museum’s “operating budget is now about $2.3 million, down from $4.4 million in 2012,” and it has no endowment. However, it remains an essential presence in engaging visitors and the local community with maritime history, as well as hosting ship tours and other events. Since 2012, the museum has increased its membership and transformed the 1893 schooner Lettie G. Howard into a sailing school vessel. The federal funding is a positive step towards restoring the historic and economic resources of the South Street Seaport, yet with the radical changes in the neighborhood, the balance between development and historic preservation remains fragile.