For a relatively long moment in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Boston was pretty hot. Between the Preppy Handbook (which came out in 1980), the hit television series “Cheers “ (which premiered in 1982) and Steve’s Ice Cream (which originated in Boston and helped begin the national craze for fancy ice cream), all things Brahmin and baked-beany felt of-the-moment, if not exactly chic. Possibly the country was enjoying some kind of a post-bicentennial afterglow, leaving behind the messiness of the ’70s (and all that cinematic urban decay) for the kind of wholesome Americana vibe that Boston always captured so well.
All of that might explain why the City of New York seemed to think that essentially trying to replicate a successful Boston market, the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, in Lower Manhattan would be a good idea. Faneuil Hall was, and is, what its developers, the Rouse Corporation, called a festival marketplace. Take some historical charm, some wide-ranging retail, add some beer-battered shrimp, a few jugglers and mimes, put it all by the water — that’s a festival marketplace. How could it go wrong?
Indeed, the South Street Seaport, New York’s answer to Faneuil Hall, ranks as a big tourist attraction even now. But among actual New Yorkers thinking about fun things to do and where to do it, it ranks pretty close to zero. All of that tastefully enough refurbished architecture, that priceless waterfront property, has been put to the dubious service of retail chains like Express and Mrs. Fields. Exactly what sort of a festival is that?
So it should have come as no great surprise — more like a great relief — when the Seaport area’s current developers, General Growth Properties, last week announced their plans to abandon the current development on Pier 17, which is at this point little more than a mall full of T-shirt shops and mediocre food.
Some major logistical problems probably deterred New Yorkers from ever adopting the location as a destination of their own: no direct subway line, competition from the development of the World Trade Center area and the perfectly upscale shopping areas that New York already had (a challenge that Faneuil Hall and its counterpart in Baltimore, Harborplace, didn’t really face).
The Seaport Museum, which might have anchored the area with some salty New York maritime history, never got the financing it was supposed to get in a complicated deal with the developers (and it’s unclear how much of a draw maritime history would ever be). The development’s identity crisis didn’t help: Even in the dark days of the city’s history, New Yorkers weren’t likely to embrace a district that looked and felt like a watered-down version of some other city’s success story.
Finding the right, mysterious balance of grit and vitality, authenticity and innovation — that’s the elusive goal chased by all developers in New York, who’ve come close in, say, Red Hook, but are still struggling to hit it at 125th Street.
Before the South Street Seaport was developed, the harbor area was one of those funny, forgotten corners most New Yorkers never visited. But those who did found urban treasure: It was a neighborhood that still reeked of New York’s maritime past, a place where you could imagine some old Tammany Hall boss out working the wards, a place where rope and tackle shops operated even as personal computers were being sold not too many blocks north.
Until it moved to the Bronx a few years ago, the Fulton Fish Market might have been expected to provide a connection to some of the authenticity of that old historic neighborhood; instead, the market never felt connected to the new development, except in the smells, mostly unwelcome, that wafted through the air.
What’s to come at the Seaport, according to Michael H. McNaughton, vice president of asset management at General Growth Properties, is a new retail area on the pier that better serves downtown residents, an open space the size of Bryant Park, and a new luxury high-rise hotel. Another gigantic luxury development shooting out of the ground — just when the country seems to be sobering up about real estate — seems like just the kind of maneuver that could feel dated within five minutes of its being built, just as the festival marketplace was by the late ’80s.
But there are also promising signs that the neighborhood might be returning to its original roots as a great market, if not in old-timey look or feel, then in function. This Sunday, not one but two green markets will be competing for foodies’ attention at the South Street Seaport. The New Amsterdam Market, run by Robert LaValva, will be operating out of the parking lot of the New Market Building (expect a lot of local cheese and high-quality bread, among other delicacies) and in the now-vacant fish stalls of the Fulton Market, General Growth Properties will be offering locally grown produce and artisanal foods.
Food markets seem like a good place to start for the Seaport — it makes sense for what’s new about the area (a lot of families who want and have the money to spend on artisanal sausage) and yet it ties the location to its past as a great nexus for food distribution. A thriving, high-quality food market there would feel, at this moment, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, organic.
By SUSAN DOMINUS