Their Ship Has Not Sailed
On a cold February evening, only one streetlight flickers on dark, deserted Front Street. Beloved New York staples like the Paris Café are all boarded up, and generators are still scattered everywhere. During Superstorm Sandy, the East River rushed through the storefront windows of bars, shops and restaurants in and around South Street Seaport, tearing rooms apart and dragging their contents onto the sidewalk. Hundreds, maybe thousands of beer bottles burst through the Paris’s windows and out onto the street, where they lay surrounded by driftwood, seaweed and overturned barstools. More than three months later, the air still smells stale, a mix of mold and salt water. The usually bustling neighborhood is eerily quiet.
The neighborhood around Fulton Street is unusually accustomed to destruction and rebirth. After the Seaport mall opened here in 1985, chain outlets followed, opening along historic Schermerhorn Row. From there, residents and local shops gradually arrived in the area until September 11, 2001, which filled the area with toxic dust and damaged many businesses. Residents rebuilt, and, after the notoriously odoriferous fish market moved to The Bronx four years later, local business owners turned the neighborhood’s empty warehouses into fashionable restaurants such as Barbarini, Bin 220 and SUteiShi. By 2010, the historic cobblestone streets around Peck Slip and Front Street had sprouted more than thirty quaint bars, restaurants and other stores, revitalizing a neighborhood once populated by squatters, the homeless and stray fish guts. Previously only a sliver of a tourist destination surrounded by far less desirable environs, the area was now a bustling, thriving neighborhood. Summer nights took on the feel of one big block party, with happy, laughing business owners, locals and visitors gallivanting on the sidewalk, bouncing from place to place.
In a way, the South Street Seaport area today feels like taking a trip back in time to 2005, when the Fish Market had only recently closed its doors and small businesses were still few and far between. Four months after the storm, many office buildings are still closed and tenants remain relocated. Almost all of the South Street Seaport’s stores and restaurants are still shuttered, so tourists are few and far between. The neighborhood is back to square one, as though the last decade’s wave of gentrification never happened. Many small business owners face a series or do-or-die decisions in the next few months that will determine whether they, and their neighborhood, rebuild or go bankrupt.
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We knew it was bad when our super called the night Sandy hit to tell us that one of our refrigeration units was floating a block away,” says Linda Marini, who co-owns Barbarini Alimentari, an Italian restaurant and deli/grocery located at 225 Front Street, with her husband, Claudio. “When he returned after reviewing the damage the next day, he was still in shock, and drove me and the kids so we could see for ourselves.”
Everything was overturned, and almost nothing was salvageable. The smells of fresh cooked pasta, bubbling tomato sauce and red wine were replaced by the overpowering stench of ocean, oil and sewage.
In a chaotic impromptu meeting held just days after the storm, many business owners were in tears, bewildered and shocked by the extent of the damage. More than sixty people gathered in the courtyard of 220 Front Street, dressed in rugged outdoor attire and prepared to wade through the muck of their shops. Looking tired, disheveled and bewildered, they gathered on the only patch of sidewalk that wasn’t covered in garbage and debris. Many of them also lived nearby, and their homes were without power or water. No one could reach insurance companies.
“Everyone was crying and trying to figure out how to handle everything. How do we pay rent? What happens to the lease? Everyone felt stuck,” Linda Marini recalls. “There was a lot of confusion.”
Confusion quickly turned to dread when the insurance companies provided answers: nobody had any flood coverage.
“I grew up here, and we didn’t know anything about Flood Zones A or B. Who thought about flooding in New York City?” Marini asks rhetorically. “Nobody from the insurance company ever proposed flood coverage to us, or even mentioned it.”
Amanda Byron, owner of The Salty Paw, a doggy day care/groomer located at 38 Peck Slip, says the situation is all too reminiscent of the response her friends and neighbors got after 9/11.
“The insurance companies told everybody that they weren’t covered because ‘terrorism’ wasn’t in anyone’s insurance policy. They fought it, and the Attorney General got behind us, and the community won,” Byron explains. “We want to try and get the same thing done this time,” she continues, adding that she and others are already meeting with lawyers to discuss possible legal action.
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The morning after the storm, Byron learned of the status of her shop after her super left a harrowing voice message on her cell phone.
“I just wanted to let you know it looks pretty bad over here. I would suggest maybe you have your husband come over to your shop to assess everything,” the super told Byron. “You may not be emotionally ready to handle this. It’s not just your shop…everyone is flooded out. I’m really sorry, Amanda.”
But she didn’t send her husband; she insisted on going alone. As she walked through the flooded streets, she began to find dog collars, cans of cat food, and toys floating on South Street and Peck Slip, and knew it was going to be even worse than she had imagined. She walked in without a key, since only one door of the double doors was left on its hinges, and stood silently for five minutes in disbelief before muttering, “It’s all gone.”
As weeks turned into months, some businesses began to reopen their doors, although The Salty Paw was not one of them. Neither was Barbarini. Businesses operating under a lease with The Durst Organization, a real estate company that owns many of the buildings in the Seaport neighborhood, found themselves faced with a big problem. Rather than simply repair the geothermal unit, a boiler system that provides heat to many of the businesses on Front Street and Peck Slip, Durst decided to replace the entire system. As a result, local proprietors were told that they wouldn’t be able to reopen for at least six to eight months.
“If I have to wait six months to reopen, I’ll lose everything,” Byron says as she tosses wet, discolored sheets of paper containing client information into a pile of garbage.
What was once The Salty Paw is now dark and damp, almost like a cave. Byron pushes away her blonde hair with a yellow rubber-gloved hand and sighs, “What I don’t understand is, why would you put a boiler system in the sub-basement of a flood zone in the first place?”
Byron is currently running her grooming service out of the basement of the nearby Seaport Animal Hospital. The surgical sink is only large enough to wash small dogs, and there’s no room to shelter dogs during the day. Desperate to keep her employees around, she worries that without the daycare component, the business won’t be able to survive.
For others, the same question remains: Kill the business, or cut employees? After the storm, employees showed up to Barbarini in tears to clean up the place. Then Linda Marini had to deliver more bad news: everyone was going to be out of work.
“It was painful to have to hand them the number for unemployment,” she recalls. “We tried to place them elsewhere through friends, but most of them couldn’t be absorbed because the job market is so down.”
“People are still paying back loans from after 9/11. With no business for eight months, we can’t afford to take out new loans while we’re still paying back the old ones,” Claudio Marini says as he watches men remove pieces of scrap metal from his storefront and toss them out onto Front Street. “Seven years ago, we were trying to build, day by day. I can’t do it again. It’s not something we can chance with the economic climate.”
At last count, approximately 450 employees of Seaport-area businesses were laid off as a result of Sandy, according to an informal survey among owners.
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Though the little guys started cleaning up as quickly as possible after the flood, the corporate retailers are still, in large part, nowhere to be found. The entire mall, including all of its stores and restaurants, is still closed. Shops on Schermerhorn Row, including Guess, the Body Shop, Brookstone and Ann Taylor, are boarded up with wood. The Bodies exhibition, which has consistently drawn thousands of tourists a week since 2006, is dark inside, also out of commission. This makes local shop owners very nervous; if the corporate anchors decide to pull out, the small guys are in even more danger.
Without neither the bustling fish market nor the tourists, the neighborhood is even more deserted and dilapidated than it was when Marco Pasanella arrived to open his winery, Pasanella & Son Vintners, at 115 South Street, in 2006.
“It feels a little bit like Groundhog Day. It feels even more dramatic now because there’s no fish market chaos and smelliness,” says Pasanella. “At least, back then, it was alive. Now, it’s ghostly.”
While the holidays are usually the busiest time for stores like Pasanella & Son, offsetting the slow New Year, November and December were bleak.
After the storm, as he waded through thousands of bottles, he had to stop and take a breath, too overwhelmed to continue.
“When I first saw the damage, I had a pain in my stomach. It’s hard to see something you worked so long for be gone.”
Some Sandy relief came in the form of a “Back to Business” grant from the Downtown Alliance, which allocates up to $20,000, while funds last, to small businesses in Flood Zone A upon their re-opening. But the application deadline is April 30th. And since Durst estimates that the renovations could continue well into the summer, proprietors fear they won’t be eligible to apply.
“I know I’m not going to get the grant because I can’t reopen until at least June, and that disqualifies me,” says Byron. “I’m also disqualified if I relocate, even across the street, because I’m changing locations.”
Fortunately, Byron’s husband works, so while The Salty Paw and all of its pups are her passion, she and her two children, two and four, don’t depend on it for their livelihood. Other families, however, don’t have that luxury.
Calli Lerner and Sandy Tedesco were among the first proprietors of the new establishments to arrive on Front Street in 2005 with their wine bar Bin 220. In 2010, after watching the neighborhood grow, the couple opened a second restaurant-bar, called Keg 229, down the street. Days after the storm hit, the couple returned from vacation to find Keg 229’s freezer turned upside down. Bottles that sat behind the bar had flown twenty feet and crashed against the windows, tables were overturned, and walls had to be taken out because of the mold. Keg 229 and Bin 220, both named for their numerical addresses on Front Street, were destroyed.
“We really put all of our eggs in one basket. We’ve lost both of our incomes,” Lerner says. “We still believe in our community, and want to see it come back to life, but who’s to say this won’t happen again?”
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As they look for little things to salvage—a cheeseboard here, a couple of lighting fixtures there—the Marinis lovingly bicker in Italian over what to keep. “Everything but the kitchen sink,” Linda Marini says with a sad smile as her husband hoisted the sink onto the sidewalk with a gurney. Soon Linda had to leave—it was too difficult, too uncomfortable for her to continue looking at the remnants of what used to be. Their children—Camilla, six, and twins Sebastiano and Federica, nine—have made a particular effort to keep the restaurant’s spirit alive.
“Camilla’s teacher called to tell us that she refuses to take off the baseball cap that has ‘Barbarini’ written on it, and she’s been wearing it every single day since the storm,” Linda Marini explains. “Her class was supposed to take a field trip to the store on November first to learn about pasta making and how to take inventory.”
The Marinis are currently searching for a new space in the financial district, on higher ground.
When Pasanella’s seven-year-old son, Luca, saw the condition his father’s shop was in, he froze, shocked, in the doorway. It was almost unfathomable that it had all been seven feet underwater.
“It’s hard for kids to imagine things can change so quickly,” Marco Pasanella surmised. Back upstairs in the dark of their apartment, father and son sat together in silence, staring out a window that looks out over South Street.
“Dad,” Luca said, turning to his father. “I’m nervous. This is the first time I’ve been through something like this. I’m scared.”
“Me too,” Marco Pasanella replied.
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Helaina Hovitz is a born and raised New Yorker who has written for The New York Times, Teen Vogue and Salon.com, among other publications. She is currently writing her first book and has the unshakable notion that she can help save the world.
Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.