23 October 2012

Olde New York

During the first half of the 19th century, the Port of New York was the busiest port in America with a constant stream of ships coming in and out, carrying goods from all over the world. Businesses, counting houses, and hotels sprung up around the port as did Fulton Fish Market in 1822 (it moved to the Bronx in 2005). Today the area, now known as South Street Seaport, is a tourist destination filled with chain shops and restaurants. The sailors and fishmongers are long gone. Yet remnants of old New York can still be found as you walk along the streets, some of which are covered with cobblestones.

Built in 1807, the Jasper Ward House at 45 Peck Slip was one of the area's many counting houses. Notice the address doesn't say street. That's because it used to be an actual slip used to move ships in and out of the water.

These two buildings off Schermerhorn Row once housed sailors and labourers during the port's heyday. Today there's a Heartland Brewery downstairs.

Ships have not completely disappeared from the former port. The South Street Seaport Museum oversees a collection of historic vessels including the cargo ship the Peking and the lightship Ambrose. Unfortunately money problems at the museum have thrown the ships' future into uncertainty, which is a shame. The sight of the masts against a backdrop of high-rise buildings is a perfect mix of the city's past and present.

Walk down to the water and there are fantastic views of Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Bridge. The East River, once crowded with ships, still has vessels sailing by, some of which are reminiscent of the past.

One of the best places to get a feel for the past is at Bowne & Co., Stationers on Water Street, which pays tribute to a mercantile business with the same name that first opened in 1775. With its 19th-century presses, wooden shelving, and stacks of blank books and cards, Bowne & Co., resemble a 1870s print shop.

The shop was in full Halloween mode when I was there with a large black crow atop a display table while skeletons hung out on one of the cases. There were jars of black and orange glass glitter, Victorian masks, sheets of stickers, and streamers with skulls, all of which seemed to fit well with the atmosphere of the shop.

I do wish the area hadn't been turned into such a mall but at least the 19th century is still there. You just need to know where to look.

Photos by Michele.

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