Tied to Pier 16’s west side at South Street Seaport, just outside the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, the schooner Pioneer tosses against her dock lines. Built in 1885 to haul sand for an iron foundry on the Delaware River, the sailboat is 102 feet long, boasts a 76-foot main mast, and sails six days a week from March to October with a combination volunteer and professional crew. In a city where most waterfront access is commercially zoned or privately held, providing little opportunity for New Yorkers to get out on the water, the South Street Seaport Museum’s schooner Pioneer offers the only free sailing program in the five boroughs.
Even if you’re the kind of New Yorker who secretly wants to learn the trade of tall ship sailing and run away to sea, it’s unlikely that you’ve heard of the program. You’d have to stumble upon a sign on a pier by accident, like I did ten years ago when I first moved to New York, twenty-one years old and drinking watered-down margaritas at Pier 17 to forget my dead-end internship. Within a week I completed the museum’s screening process and was shipped off to an eight a.m. training sail on a sweltering windless Saturday.
On that mandatory four-hour excursion, which I would attend monthly for seven years—first as a volunteer and later as a paid crew member—I learned to coil halyards and set sails, respond to commands to tack or gybe, polish brass and operate an engine, steer the boat, patch a sail, use a marine radio to say things like “Two whistles, cap” and read charts and tide books. Like other Pioneer volunteers I learned about the currents among our islands; the dreary results of our archaic sewage system that overflows every heavy rain; the harbor pilots who guide large containers in our port; the state of the flounder and sea stars that still congregate in the Bay Ridge flats; and where to spot Venus in the late summer sky. Any New Yorker can become a sailor aboard the people’s schooner.
For years I stood next to individuals on a bow watch at sunset with whom I would never otherwise converse. I ate dinner with these people—architects, firemen, professors, tugboat captains, advertisers, construction workers, teachers, electricians, waiters, filmmakers, union organizers and sweet retired ladies who hugged me and told me not to take any flak from young men. I taught people’s grandkids how to tie knots; giggled with crewmates as we outran thunderstorms; and even fell in love. Whether we sailed with school programs of eager nine-year-olds on a boat for the first time, or wedding parties raising toasts at the skyline, sharing the history and life of the harbor with strangers was part of my New York. The Seaport itself became a third place—not home and not work—my third sphere of being, protected by signs that couldn’t be read unless one was initiated by an unspoken mythology about what it all meant.
There was always a more troubled side to the Seaport Museum in those years. Out-of-town sailors would often repeat rumors of the museum’s crooked administration. I came to expect to hear of the museum’s past misdeeds from neighbors or marine restoration professionals. As I learned more about how boats decay I became concerned about safety and management of the museum fleet, but tried not to think about it, because this life of being sunburnt and joyfully sore from tossing dock lines was so good. I didn’t want to consider anything that might threaten the Federalist buildings, quiet streets and a ship that thousands of my fellow city denizens diligently cared for over four decades, in a corner of Manhattan most people think is just a colonial caricature next to the Abercrombie store. It was my secret New York.
Eventually I did not have a choice. Frustrations grew as it became clear the museum’s future was in jeopardy, whether from real estate interests or mismanagement. On cold nights the crew would gather to talk in hushed tones about what could be done to protect the thing we all love, to prevent our anchor from being destroyed and replaced by yet another mall. Eventually we got organized.
It’s a rainy Tuesday night in July in the Seaport Historic District. Fulton Street foot traffic is light and a heavy grey mist rolls off the Upper Bay. The lights of the Howard Hughes Corporation’s “festival marketplace” and preserved brick buildings of the Seaport Museum are dark, as they have been since Sandy tossed six to eight feet of tide through the cobblestone streets. The rigging of dilapidated sailing ships peeks through a shroud that otherwise feels complete. No one is out who doesn’t have to be.
A crowd gathers in the lobby of St. Margaret’s House, a seniors housing complex. There are tall ship sailors, mostly, along with aging residents of Southbridge Towers, staffers from the offices of elected officials, several lawyers and former Seaport Museum employees. There are a few neighborhood organizers and representatives of Save Our Seaport, an eclectic community group dedicated to preserving the historic seaport and its museum.
The meeting opens with rumors. “What have you heard? We’ve all heard something. Let’s try to find out what’s floating around,” says the chair.
On July 5th, in just three days’ time, the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) will cease to operate the programs, collection and maintenance of the South Street Seaport Museum, leaving a valuable slice of Manhattan real estate without a steward. MCNY only operated the museum for twenty-one months, and with their departure, the search for a new steward will resume. A representative from the office of City Council Member Margaret Chin, whose district includes the Seaport, tells us the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs is assembling an interim board for the Seaport Museum. Many in the room are concerned: Who will ensure it doesn’t fall into the hands of private developers? Who will help raise the money needed to restore the museum’s collection, including the ships that line South Street piers?
Since the 1967 founding of the South Street Seaport Museum at the center of the Seaport Historic District (officially designated in 1977), the area has struggled to maintain a preserved historical atmosphere designed to interpret New York City’s legacy of maritime commerce. The museum’s founders were a historical revivalist lot who wandered into an area known for its Fulton Fish Market mafia and prostitutes and recognized architecturally significant buildings that had been degraded and neglected. Some felt the call of the sea and longed for a return to the “Street of Ships,” as South Street was once known, but many more just wanted community and purpose. Together they formed the museum’s first volunteer corps.
The City designated the museum as the unassisted sponsor of the area urban renewal project, which included eleven blocks (from John Street to Dover, and Pearl to the East River), using eminent domain to purchase property at market rate, with the understanding that the museum was responsible for raising the funds necessary to restore and maintain the properties without City assistance. The intention was for commercial tenants to write checks to their museum landlord, creating a new and sustainable model for nonprofit funding.
What happened over the next four decades remains unclear and contentious. The museum’s inability to meet its financial obligations became a matter of public record. It was poorly managed, known for high turnover and an inability to stick to agreements or operate according to its original mission. (The museum had four executive directors between 1974 and 1977, for example, seriously damaging fundraising efforts and partnerships.)
Norman Brouwer, who for more than thirty years served as the museum’s maritime historian, curator of ship restoration and librarian, says the problems stem from the founders’ decision to seek corporate involvement.
“The museum was founded by hard-working, enthusiastic people with little experience in fundraising,” says Brouwer. “They felt they needed a board of trustees made up of people who would give money or get money. These board members saw themselves as managerial professionals from the business world, and the founders of the museum as well-meaning amateurs and dreamers. When the museum didn’t function like a well-run corporation, they fired the founders and replaced them with managers who had no knowledge of, or real interest in, maritime history, and no experience in running museums.”
Even as some old-timers hung in, the museum slowly lost the support of neighbors and allies. The buildings and collection, including the ships, suffered. One of them sank while docked, and a museum-operated pier dissolved into the East River. As the museum lost the ability to fund itself or control the legacy of the historic district it calls home, the corporate-focused board members sought business solutions.
Today the museum controls only a handful of buildings. Over the years, commercial developers took hold of leases, often with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) as advocate and landlord. Theoretically, this should have provided the museum with a steady income from commercial tenants that would comprise a robust operating budget. The largest of the leaseholders, the Rouse Corporation, agreed to pay a portion of its profits to the museum in their original leasehold, but due to “Hollywood accounting,” as area resident and Save Our Seaport member Michael Kramer describes it, Rouse claimed they never had any profits (net or gross) and the museum fell behind on its rent until the City took back their properties. (Rouse did not respond to a request for comment.)
Whether the failure of the project to generate profits was real or imagined, the original plan to generate revenue for the museum failed even while the developer became more politically powerful. Rouse was able to demand additional square footage on Pier 17, eventually leading to the erection of a shopping mall that blocked one of the museum’s “greatest assets: the spectacular view of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the River beyond, from its Pier 16,” said Brouwer.
“Little by little they take away public space and it becomes private,” said Robert LaValva, Executive Director of the New Amsterdam Market that operates in the old Fulton Fish Market. “It adds up.”
Today the museum’s landlord is the NYCEDC, rather than the Department of Cultural Affairs (which oversees all other city museums), and the largest leaseholder in the neighborhood, the Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC)—a subsidiary of Rouse—has put forward big plans for the development of the area, including a new mall geared towards affluent shoppers and a stage to draw crowds of concertgoers. HHC operates the mall on Pier 17, filled with chain and tourist shops, and most of the property on Fulton between Water and South Streets. Community Board 1 meetings are often little more than heated discussions of HHC’s latest proposal.
One source of tension is the company’s desire to lease or utilize as much public space as possible and to maximize what they do control, right down to the water. In recent testimony to Community Board 1, the museum asked the City to recognize their right to berth the lightship Ambrose on the east side of Pier 16, which the museum owns. This would seem to be obvious—typically owning and operating a pier means controlling all three waterfront sides and the access on land. But HHC claimed the water on the east side of the pier was theirs (they said they would allow the museum to continue to keep the boat in their water.) HHC does control the other half of the slip, including all the dockage area of Pier 17, where it generates dockage fees from companies operating commercial vessels catering to tourists. HHC doesn’t have any legitimate claim to the museum’s pier, as the NYCEDC confirmed, and asserting it does is the kind of behavior that has earned the company a reputation as a bully. It’s just one example of the back-and-forth that characterizes the contested public space of the Seaport district.
On land, Fulton Street is lined with temporary shopping kiosks, while buildings remain boarded over and dark. More than one preservationist called this a Potemkin village. Why has the post-Sandy recovery been delayed? Robert LaValva suggests what many preservationists and residents acknowledge privately but refuse to state publicly: “They want full control. They’re waiting for the museum to fail. They want control of every last cobblestone.” While many Save Our Seaport advocates acknowledge the museum is a mess, the great fear is that once it is gone there will be one less obstacle to privatizing the whole area.
The conflict between commercial development and preservation may come to a head in the post-Sandy Seaport. According to the current lease, if museum buildings are vacant for six months the NYCEDC has the right to give Howard Hughes Corporation an option to take over the space. As the museum struggles to fully resume operations, this is a considerable threat. When MCNY exited on July 5th, the Department of Cultural Affairs dissolved the museum’s board and three City employees were appointed to maintain the organization’s nonprofit status. Jonathan Boulware, the museum’s former Waterfront Director, was promoted to Interim President on July 8th.
“During this time our hope is that a successor steward will take responsibility for the museum’s mission and collection,” said Kate D. Levin, the cultural affairs commissioner. If a steward isn’t found, the nonprofit will be dissolved and its collection turned over to the Attorney General and sold. This includes the schooner Pioneer and the fleet of ships, Bowne and Company printing presses, artifacts, archives of the fleet and port and other ephemera. For now, Pioneer continues to sail, operated under a contract with New York Water Taxi until October, but in the event that no steward is found, it too stands to be sold off.
It is a bleak moment, but winds might be shifting in the museum’s favor.
Council Member Chin’s office has confirmed the Council appropriated $3.15 million for the museum in the fiscal year 2014 budget. Much of this is earmarked for specific projects, like repairing Sandy damage or restoring ships. Even museum enthusiasts agree that not all ships need to be restored, either. The Peking, a German barque built in 1911, is unsafe for the public and needs to either find a home or be scrapped. Rumors have circulated for years that the ship will be returning to Germany, but “if a place can be found to store it locally in the meantime, it should be moved,” says Brouwer. The new steward for the museum will need to evaluate which parts of the fleet to save and which should be removed.
Rebuilding the museum’s board could be an opportunity to recruit marine restoration and historic preservation professionals who understand how to sustainably manage a unique and vulnerable collection. “The museum should stop trying to be all things to all people. Its exhibits should only deal with the Port of New York and the South Street Historic District. It will never run out of appropriate topics,” says Brouwer. As Sandy demonstrated, the City’s relationship to the sea is hardly a thing of the past.
The crisis also presents an opportunity to improve the politics and strategic direction of the Seaport Historic District’s development. NYCEDC is assigned the responsibility of landlord at the moment, but the City is a free owner, meaning that any other public benefit organization could be the landlord. Neighbors, museum supporters, and even some public officials have acknowledged the need for a new landlord over the years. “We need to immediately change the governance at the Seaport so that NYCEDC hands over the leaseholds to a newly formed East River Trust, which will stay true to the public purpose of the Seaport Historic District,” suggests Michael Kramer.
A few years ago, one of the Pioneer crew’s favorite watering holes was featured in a guidebook, just as the Fulton Fish Market left and the Seaport began to develop a higher residential density. The writer claimed the bar, Fresh Salt, was a good place to take in “local color.” What does that really mean? It means that on winter nights you can find a group gathered in the leather booths practicing the ancient technology of knot tying, learning a material culture all but lost in our mechanized society. Until recently, it meant you could sit on a stool and find a small plaque screwed into the bar in honor of the late Captain Don Taube, infamous for wearing a peace sign belt buckle and requiring Pioneer passengers to take a full minute of silence at sunset whenever he was at the helm. (Sadly, Sandy destroyed the plaque last year.) It means you can walk into an establishment a block from the water and someone is likely to know when the next high tide will arrive. This is the knowledge the Seaport contains despite the politics, real estate shenanigans and mismanagement, and it’s available to anyone who desires it.
“It’s difficult to capture what the ship has meant to me,” says Rosleyn Hirsch, a volunteer on Pioneer since 1993. “Watching the sun strike the buildings on the Brooklyn waterfront, listening to the ripple of the water as the wind fills the sails…spending cold winter days painting and sanding and using power tools I never knew existed with people I had never met but who would become best friends…sharing my love of New York and New York harbor with visitors from around the world. It saddens me to think that such a historic treasure may be lost to the city forever.”
This is the secret New York we stand to lose, which has converged for hundreds of years in this section of island, and which has nowhere else to go.