New Book and Exhibit by Visionary Chronicler of Lower Manhattan Evoke Palimpsests of a Lost World
“I realized right away that the streetscape was a project waiting to be documented,” is how photographer Barbara Mensch recalls being inspired by the South Street Seaport, when she moved to the community in 1980 (photo at right). “It was an urban archeological project. The neighborhood was filled with characters, like my next-door neighbor—this little old man named Curly, who was hunched over and had corroding dentures. He managed one of the warehouses that were then still operating near the waterfront, and he had a pigeon coop on the roof.”
Her apartment, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, “was a loft in an old warehouse, which had been used to store barrels that cured meat. So there were barrel-shaped stains on the planked floor.” In that Civil War-era building, her 1,000-square-foot space “with 14-foot ceilings and enormous exposed beams” cost a grand total of $250 per month, which she occasionally paid by bartering away photographs when cash was scarce.
McCormick’s Restaurant (located at Dover and Water Street, and later known as the Bridge Cafe) “was populated by longshoremen coming off overnight shifts, along with retired sea captains,” she remembers. “It was the kind of place that had sawdust on the tile floor, where there was always a pot of soup or chili cooking. You were expected to walk into the kitchen, help yourself, and then pay the guy at the bar.”
But while the environment seemed timeless, it was, in fact, transitory. “When I moved in turned out to be a pivotal time in Lower Manhattan,” Ms. Mensch says. Then-Mayor Ed Koch “had recently gone to Boston and marveled over Faneuil Hall and decided that he wanted the same developer, the Rouse Company, to do something similar down here in the South Street Seaport.” This marked the beginning of the community’s metamorphosis from a thriving center of industrial commerce to an affectedly quaint simulacrum of its own history.
“Very early on, I knew that the fishing boats I was photographing coming into the Fulton Fish Market were among of the last that would ever dock here,” Ms. Mensch says. “Some of my first shots were of the last scallop boats from the Carolinas, berthing on the East River waterfront.”
She recalls, “there were many community meetings in a shack on Pier 20,” a wharf alongside the Brooklyn Bridge, now demolished. “Workers would show up from the docks, wearing overalls and grappling hooks. And this stevedore named Eddie threw his iron hook on the table as he shouted at the elected officials, ‘in the market, our word means something. But all of you lie through your teeth!’”
In the market itself, “everything happened face to face in just a few hours each night,” Ms. Mensch says. “As the boats pulled in, there was intense bargaining and trading. The pace and tempo were driven by the fact that seafood is perishable. And a lot of money was transacted every night, because seafood is also an expensive commodity. But everything was done on a handshake. The market revolved around credit, and they would tack up on wall the names of businesses that owed money. This was considered a deeply shameful thing.”
“Everybody who worked at the Seaport was related. These were jobs and businesses that fathers passed down to their sons. There were generations of people who had very little education or status, but who could still cobble together a living and leave something to their kids.”
“Because of the Seaport’s proximity to Wall Street,” she says, “there was always a psychological edge to this drama. Rouse coming in made it clear that the future of the Seaport was going to be about real estate and money.” The company’s redevelopment of Pier 17 into a shopping mall and tourist destination that opened in 1984 attested to the direction in which events were moving.
The transmogrification went into overdrive when Rudy Giuliani, then a young federal prosecutor assigned to Lower Manhattan, “turned this into a war” by targeting organized crime infiltration of the Fulton Fish Market. “They said it was about integrity and accountability,” Ms. Mensch says, “but look at the later conduct of some of these reformers.”
This epic narrative is captured in Ms. Mensch’s new book “A Falling Off Place: The Transformation of Lower Manhattan,” now out from Fordham University Press, and available from (among other sellers) McNally Jackson Books, at Four Fulton Street. The book takes an affectionate but unflinching look at Lower Manhattan through three eras: the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
Images from the first of these document generations of immigrants scraping out a livelihood at the Fulton Fish Market. The second section chronicles a decade of bulldozing to clear the way for new luxury housing. And the final chapter narrates the rebuilding that followed the cataclysm of September 11, 2001.
“The book is a personal timeline of events told visually,” Ms. Mensch says. “It makes me realize how much has been lost.”
Accompanying the release of “A Falling Off Place” is an exhibit of Ms. Mensch’s photographs, “The Nobility of Work,” now on view at the Tin Building (located in front of Pier 17, at 96 South Street). Displayed dynamically on large electronic screens, the curated collection of more than 100 images focuses on the now-vanished “urban tribe” of workers who swarmed through the Fulton Fish Market in the 1980s.
“I’m just the vessel,” Ms. Mensch says. “It’s up to people to decide what kind of world they want to live in.”