Pier 17 at twilight

Pier 17 at twilight. Photo by admiretime on Flickr

Just 27 years after it opened with much hoopla, New York’s South Street Seaport is on the rocks. As David W. Dunlap of the New York Times reported last week, the onetime popular “festival marketplace” was well suited to New York City in the 1970s-80s. At a time when its dockland areas, like much of the city (even Times Square), presented the specter of crime and dinginess, successful attractions like South Street Seaport created insular realms that nevertheless appeared to connect organically with the city’s maritime heritage at wharf’s edge.

The festival marketplace concept repackaged abandoned or underutilized structures like public markets, factories, and wharf sheds as tourist-oriented shopping, dining, and entertainment venues. Popularized by the James Rouse Company’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston in 1976, the idea actually began earlier. As historian Alison Isenberg writes in Downtown America: The Place and the People Who Made It, San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square opened in 1964 in a former chocolate factory. But Ghirardelli Square failed to catalyze a strong commitment to remaking other similar buildings because of the lackluster results in some other attempts made in the intervening years before Rouse burst onto the scene.

Even before he opened Baltimore’s Harborplace and South Street Seaport in the 1980s, Rouse could already see the limitations of his clever play on public sentimentality for the past. As Rouse biographer Nicholas Dagen Bloom details in his essay in American Tourism, despite the novelty of wrapping nostalgia and place-based emporia, even a visionary like James Rouse succumbed to the bottom line – return on investment. Seen in this way, the current effort to create a glassy shopping venue with global retailers in a city where affluent residents fearlessly take their place alongside tourists throughout Manhattan is just the latest in a long history of remaking tourist venues to remain viable. Though its heyday may have passed, the festival marketplace played an undeniable role in clearing the way for reinvestment and in the heart of the American city.