The historic cobblestone streets and 19th-century mercantile buildings near the water’s edge in lower Manhattan are eerily deserted, a neighborhood silenced by last year’s Superstorm Sandy.
Just blocks from the tall-masted ships that rise above South Street Seaport, store interiors are stripped down to plywood and wiring. Restaurants are chained shut, frozen in time, saddled with electrical systems that were ruined by salt water that raced up from the East River and through their front doors.
“People have no clue that this corner of Manhattan has been hit so badly,” said Adam Weprin, manager of the Bridge Cafe, one of the city’s oldest bars. “Right now, it’s a ghost town and a construction site.”
Nearly four months after the storm, roughly 85 percent of small businesses near the South Street Seaport are still boarded up. It could be months before some reopen, while others may never return. On Fulton Street, the wide tourist-friendly pedestrian walkway that comprises the seaport’s main shopping district, not a single one of the major chain stores — which include Coach, Ann Taylor and Brookstone — has reopened.
Among local business owners, there is a sense that their plight has been ignored by the rest of the city. A state senator who represents the area estimates at least 1,000 jobs were lost in lower Manhattan — 450 in the seaport neighborhood alone.
In the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Bridge Cafe has dealt with its share of changes over the last two centuries, including stints as a Civil War-era brothel and a bootlegging speakeasy during Prohibition. But after the basement was flooded to the rafters and water destroyed the building’s wood foundation, Weprin faced the prospect of shutting its doors for good.
“The neighborhood’s been beaten,” Weprin said. “You walk around here and it’s like Chernobyl. At night, it’s vacated.”
The small businesses of the seaport were far less resilient than the neighboring skyscrapers that house many of lower Manhattan’s large financial companies. Some corporations were displaced for weeks after the storm.
It’s unclear how many residents of lower Manhattan fled the neighborhood after Sandy. But 2 Gold St., a flood-damaged luxury residential skyscraper with nearly 1,000 residents, did not allow tenants to start moving back in until last week.
In the darkened window of Stella Manhattan Bistro, an Italian restaurant on Front Street, hung an American flag reminiscent of those displayed all over the city after the Sept. 11 attacks in lower Manhattan. Alongside it, someone had posted a sign that said: “Thank you for all your support. Stay strong.”
The future of the South Street Seaport is uncertain. Howard Hughes Corp, which controls the former 19th-century counting houses that are home to the retail chains, said it does not yet know which — if any — of the major retailers will come back. The hope is to have Fulton Street in working order again before Memorial Day in May, when the summer season kicks off and the seaport will desperately need an influx of visitors.
Milad Doos, an immigrant from Egypt, is planning to close his jewelry and collectibles store for good.
“Like you see, there’s nobody,” said Doos, who earned just $5 on a recent afternoon. “After the storm, this whole place has become dead place.”