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Chronicling The South Street Seaport's Post-Sandy Decline

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of a series on soon-to-change neighborhoods, Kensinger visits the embattled Seaport.

[The Pier 17 shopping mall in the South Street Seaport, which has not yet recovered from Hurricane Sandy, will be permanently closed on September 9 before being demolished.]

The shopping mall on Pier 17 has been one of Manhattan's quintessential tourist traps for over 25 years. On a hot summer day, the tourists are like bugs circling flypaper, swarming around establishments that include Shoelaces You Never Tie, The Wonders Of Rice, and Christmas In New York. Inside this massive shed, souvenir license plates and steaming trays of cheap food are served up alongside stunning views of the lower Manhattan waterfront. When this troubled old mall is closed down at the end of this week, to be replaced with a shiny new mall designed by SHoP Architects, few New Yorkers will miss it.

But hidden on the second floor of this building is one of the neighborhood's last living connections to the South Street Seaport's past. Her name is Naima Rauam, and she has been documenting the history of the Seaport for over 45 years through her paintings and drawings. "I came here in 1966 as an arts student," said Rauam, who has maintained a studio in the mall since 2005. With a panoramic view of the Brooklyn Bridge, she is able to paint while looking out over a neighborhood that is currently stuck in a post-Sandy limbo. A neighborhood that has changed irrevocably in the past decade, and that will soon change again thanks to her landlord, The Howard Hughes Corporation.

Rauam and all of the tenants of Pier 17 have until September 9 to close down their businesses. Then the building will be shuttered in preparation for its demolition. "I am on the verge of leaving the neighborhood and am kind of in shock," said Rauam. "Unfortunately, because of all the storm damaged buildings, I can't find a space."

Many of the neighborhood businesses near Pier 17 were severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy and have not yet reopened. On the side streets of the Seaport, restaurants, theaters, and the Seaport Museum galleries have all been boarded up, abandoned, or vacated, while the Fulton Market Building, another mall owned by the Howard Hughes Corporation, has remained closed since the storm.

Given all that, some business owners in the area will be sad to see the Pier 17 mall closing. "They are shutting down the only traffic we have right now," said Amanda Zink, the owner of The Salty Paw, a dog grooming business which was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. After the storm, Zink managed to secure a pop-up space inside an old bar at the Pier 17 mall, and has been working there since April. "It was a way to get up and running and to try to save my business."

After many months of hard work, Zink and her fellow small business owners near historic Front Street are planning to reopen with a block party celebration on October 19. "We are rebirthing the old Seaport," said Zink. "I'm thrilled to say everybody is coming back." For Naima Rauam, though, the future is less certain. "I have a storage space in Staten Island," she said. "I'll have to reinvent myself." The destruction of the mall, a building she witnessed being built, is yet another loss in a neighborhood that is increasingly unfamiliar. "To watch something I have been so intimately connected with come down... perhaps I'll have to sit shiva."

The Pier 17 mall was opened in 1985, and has had a difficult history. "For all of the high hopes attached to Pier 17 in 1985, it has always had a hard time generating a profit," according to the Times.

"Pier 17 has been a troubled complex for many years and has failed to live up to its potential," according to Crain's. Many of the current shops in the mall are aimed towards tourists.

After Hurricane Sandy, a number of businesses in the mall closed down, including restaurants like Harbour Lights and Finn's Fish Market Pub.

The entire mall will be closed on September 9th and emptied for a "complete renovation," according to the Howard Hughes Corporation. Their new mall is scheduled to open in 2015.

On the second floor of the mall, Naima Rauam exhibits her paintings and drawings, which document the recent history of the neighborhood.

Rauam's first studio in the neighborhood was located inside a smoked fish shop in the 1980's. For her last few days in her current space, she has a panoramic view of the East River waterfront.

The subject of many of Rauam's paintings is the Fulton Fish Market, which was closed down in 2005. "The city wanted to get rid of it for 90 years," Rauam said. "They didn't realize what an international attraction it was."

The fish market was relocated to the Bronx, leaving behind its old buildings. This newer section of the market was built in 1939 and is located next to the Pier 17 mall.

The building was denied Landmark status in August, according to the Epoch Times, leaving preservationists concerned that its owner, The Howard Hughes Corporation, "will tear the building down and replace it with a high-rise structure."

Across the street from the old fish market, the Fulton Market Building (right) remains empty, after being severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Its owner, The Howard Hughes Corporation, has has several lawsuits filed against it by tenants who "feel that the developer is manipulating the situation to get longtime businesses out and effectively charge higher rent to more premium tenants," according to Racked.


Around the corner, many of the businesses that are part of historic Front Street have remained closed since Hurricane Sandy. "Here we are almost a year later, and we just got our keys back," said Amanda Zink. "All of us got our keys on July 1."

Zink's business, The Salty Paw, is one of several empty storefronts on Peck Slip. "Before Sandy hit, we were the most bustling, up-and-coming neighborhood."

"In the end, I have to say some positive things came from this. We created a merchants association," said Zink. "We want to be different from the new Seaport. What Howard Hughes is doing is not us."

Zink's neighbor, The Paris Cafe, has also been closed since Sandy. "We've done a major restoration," said owner Peter O'Connell, standing in front of his newly restored 1873 wooden bar. "We've had to do the basement, the electric. We've redone everything here."

Though renovations continue on the historic older structures of the neighborhood, the future of the Seaport is far from certain. "The key thing that I hope will happen is that we will find a viable way forward," said Captain Jonathan Boulware, the Interim President of the South Street Seaport Museum. "For the museum and, in the bigger sense, for the neighborhood."
?Nathan Kensinger
· Nathan Kensinger [official]
· All South Street Seaport coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archives [Curbed]

Pier 17

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