Torn apart after Sandy, the Seaport community comes together

November 26, 2012: 10:52 AM ET

The second installment of Fortune's #SaveTheSeaport series looks at the changing marketplace in South Street Seaport post-Sandy.

By Ryan Bradley, senior editor

FORTUNE -- From the beginning, in 1642, the market was the center of things—the feature that tied South Street Seaport together and gave it purpose. Produce, meat and dairy from Brooklyn farms came in across the East River on the Fulton Ferry, and around the landing grew a neighborhood that became one of the city's most bustling and beloved. Wine merchants and spice importers built warehouses; boarding houses and restaurants sourced their food from the surrounding blocks.

The greatest market of all, the biggest and longest lasting, was for fish. Joseph Mitchell, the great chronicler of mid-20th-century New York, began his most famous story by describing it. "Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to the Fulton Fish Market," Mitchell wrote in "The Cave." "The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the sea-weedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometime they elate me."

In 2005, the Fish Market relocated to Hunts Point, in the Bronx. The shells of the old market remain but are, for the most part, shuttered. Rumblings of some form of renewal have been in the air ever since. The Seaport was turned into a mall that failed. It is now closed, under new ownership, and will be torn down and reopen as something different (plans are not yet released) in 2015. It's funny how things work out: it may have taken a disaster to bring the markets, and the neighborhood, back.

MORE: Save the Seaport!

Days before Thanksgiving, under hanging bras and Sharpie-d graffiti at Jeremy's Alehouse, a crowd of two dozen gathered. They were business owners whose spaces had been destroyed by the storm surge Sandy brought. The mood was somber—many were waiting for news of federal grants, which have been tied up in fear of the fiscal cliff—but small green shoots, the idea of a long path to recovery, were beginning to appear. The neighborhood at least felt needed.

"This thing is so catastrophic it has a weight of its own," said Ro Sheffe, the head of the Financial District Committee and Emergency Small Business Task Force. Sheffe mentioned that there were 19 skyscrapers and 25 million square feet of office space without power, as well as "the tens of thousands displaced from jobs," not yet back to the neighborhood. They will be back, he told the crowd, "It's our job to be ready for them when they get here. It's an ecosystem—the big businesses need small business."

Discussion turned to what could be done in the meantime to make ready. Rebuilding could mean rethinking the streets, the possibility of a pedestrian plaza and sidewalk cafes. The most important thing, several people said, was to think as a team. Unlike many other areas, the Seaport neighborhood does not yet have an umbrella nonprofit, such as Friends of Little Italy, or Rebuild Red Hook, which was formed in Sandy's aftermath. It does, however, have a market. And as in the past, the market has become the center of things.

MORE: How Facebook and Twitter changed disaster relief

The same year the Fulton Fish Market relocated, Robert LaValva formed the New Amsterdam Market to, if not take its place, fill some of the void. At Jeremy's the crowd turns to LaValva, who is tucked in a corner. He has been advocating and organizing, doing the sort of work they suddenly need very badly, for years. The neighborhood, LaValva says, "has been in search of an identity, and we can do something that's in its genetic makeup."

Every Sunday, in the parking lot fronting the New Market Building (dedicated in 1939) butchers, grocers, and venders of all sorts sell locally sourced products. It's not a farmer's market, because it's not just farmers. The New Amsterdam Market is, in a very old sense, a public market; but it is also something new—a not-for-profit that seeks to "preserve and revitalize this last remnant of the city's original working waterfront." LaValva doesn't like calling it a throwback, just something that "dovetails nicely with history." People have always enjoyed staring at plentifulness. It gives them a sense of well being.

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