Skip to content

Changing Tides Engulf the South Street Seaport

Mayor Ed Koch wanted a family-friendly attraction for Lower Manhattan. But this 1983 icon of yuppie-era NYC was swept off course by changing tastes.
Opening day for South Street Seaport in 1983.
Opening day for South Street Seaport in 1983.Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

New York was born a maritime city. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville described the pull of the sea on his fellow New Yorkers: “[p]osted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.” Walk towards the East River in Lower Manhattan and the street names anticipate the water: Pearl Street, Water Street, Front Street, and finally South Street. There at the eastern edge of the island, the ghosts of the 19th century can still be made out in the tall masts of ships bobbing at the South Street Seaport piers. Hidden beneath the ground, hulls of other ships are buried, used to stabilize the landfill that extended the island far beyond its original borders.

But a century later, the daily life of Manhattan had turned inland. Much of the network of warehouses and boarding houses that served the nautical trades was demolished and replaced with new construction. In 1961, the building of the Chase Manhattan Bank skyscraper spurred a wave of corporate towers in Lower Manhattan.