New York's Original Seaport

Traces of the city’s earliest beginnings as an economic and trading powerhouse lie just beneath the streets of South Street Seaport


September/October 2015

New York Seaport Print


Over the past 250 years, perhaps no stretch of land in America has undergone greater transformation than Lower Manhattan. Today, its shoreline barely resembles what the earliest Dutch immigrants encountered in the 1600s. The labyrinthine canyons formed by block after block of modern skyscraper construction were once an idyllic setting of small hills, streams, and wetlands. Lower Manhattan is a palimpsest on which each new era has written its own physical history. With the help of archaeology, it is occasionally possible to reconstruct those faintly visible landscapes of the past. The South Street Seaport is located along Lower Manhattan’s eastern shore, near the place where the East River meets the top of New York’s magnificently sheltered harbor. Today it is a tourist-friendly destination with shops, tour boats, and restaurants, and serves as a refuge from the bustle of neighboring Wall Street. No other place epitomizes the growth and transformation of Manhattan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries more than the South Street Seaport, when it was the busiest port in the United States.



New York Seaport PlateThe 11-block area right around the Seaport, nestled in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, has recently been the focus of a city-led initiative to improve its utilities and infrastructure. The city has long hoped to stimulate the neighborhood’s commercial, residential, and touristic appeal, most recently after it was devastated by a seven-foot storm surge during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. The initiative includes installing new curbs, resurfacing the streets, and maintaining and replacing damaged subterranean utility lines. All of these projects permit and, in fact, require that archaeologists be brought in prior to the work. Alyssa Loorya, founder of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants, is one of the archaeologists contacted by city officials to evaluate sensitive areas slated for construction. Over the past decade her team has excavated areas along Fulton, Front, Beekman, Water, and Pearl Streets, as well as extensive sections of Peck Slip. “We have covered pretty much every block in the historic district that has been excavated since 2005,” she says. “It’s been really nice to get a whole little picture of the way this area developed.”


Almost none of the land where Loorya’s team has worked existed when the first Europeans arrived in New York Harbor. The original Manhattan shoreline coincides roughly with the line of present-day Pearl Street, three blocks inland. The land associated with Water, Front, and South Streets, which form the backbone of the South Street Seaport, was completely created by human activity. From the late 1600s through the early 1800s, Lower Manhattan’s shoreline gradually crept farther into the East River as part of a deliberate landfilling process. Land, especially waterfront land, has always been at a premium in New York, and it was no different during the city’s early history. The real estate created for the South Street Seaport was extremely valuable, especially to the merchants, ship owners, and shopkeepers responsible for its growth.



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