We began reporting this story shortly after Hurricane Sandy hit in late October. While the storm left most of Manhattan relatively unscathed, we kept hearing about damage at the South Street Seaport, so we went to look for ourselves.
Our first trip was roughly a week-and-a-half after the storm. By that time, much of lower Manhattan was back on its feet. But as soon as we walked down Fulton Street, the Seaport’s main thoroughfare, it was evident the neighborhood suffered serious damage.
As we started speaking with business owners we were struck by both the scope of damage and the way the storm was threatening irreplaceable chunks of New York City history.
The South Street Seaport is one of New York City’s most storied neighborhoods. Pearl Street, the northern border of today’s seaport, was one of Manhattan’s first roads, laid out in 1633. Over the ensuing 200 years, the South Street Seaport developed into a thriving commerce center. Merchants from around the globe unloaded their wares off ships and into New York City’s bloodstream.
Today, past and present coalesce. Clothing chains like Ann Taylor and J. Crew share cobblestone streets with buildings that date back centuries, like the Bridge Café and the old Fulton Fish Market.
One of the first people we met during our trips to the Seaport was Pete O’Connell, co-owner of The Paris Café. The restaurant wears its history on its sleeve, so to speak. The sign out front reads “The Paris Café Est. 1873” in ornate yellow lettering. The restaurant is only about 200 feet from the East River. When Sandy roared ashore, it left The Paris Cafe under 11 feet of water.
We got our first look inside the restaurant about two weeks after Sandy. The damage was immense. Chairs and couches sat in piles inside the cafe. Rips in the black carpet exposed slippery brown tiles covered by a thin layer of brown sludge. Thick film marked a line across a mirror about four feet high, tangible evidence of where the water settled.
The items atop its massive horseshoe-shaped wooden bar poignantly illustrated life pre- and post-Hurricane Sandy. Six champagne flutes sat next to a hammer used to tear out water-drenched walls. Wine bottles – five red and one white – were within reach of a plastic one-gallon jug of pine oil cleaner for storm-damaged wood.
During the same visit, we spoke with Perry Jacobs, who rode Sandy out in an apartment above The Paris Café. He’s a regular at the restaurant and management asked him to report damage in the morning. When Jacobs noticed Sandy’s floodwaters receding around 4 a.m., he ventured downstairs into The Paris Cafe.
“The doors were all busted in,” he said. “Beer bottles were floating out the front door. There’s really no way to describe it other than someone grabbed the building, turned it upside down like a shaker, shook it, and then walked out.”
“There’s really no way to describe it other than someone grabbed the building, turned it upside down like a shaker, shook it, and then walked out”
There’s really no way to describe it other than someone grabbed the building, turned it upside down like a shaker, shook it, and then walked out
The café’s managers had no idea how much it would cost to repair the damage. They were unsure if they were even going to reopen. We visited the Seaport several more times throughout November and December. While the area was making minor strides toward recovery, it became clear the cleanup was going to take a considerable time.
Four months after the storm hit, the South Street Seaport remains a testament to Sandy’s wrath. Piles of debris fill giant dumpsters. Boards cover windows. The dissonance of construction equipment used for the cleanup fills the air.
When we returned to The Paris Café two weeks ago, rebuilding was in full swing. A team of about half-a-dozen construction workers was putting a new layer of cement in the basement.
During that visit, we caught up with O’Connell. He told us the restaurant is being gut renovated. He estimates repairs will cost between $700,000 and $800,000. He’s still unsure how much, if any, of that money will come from FEMA or other government agencies. Management is taking the opportunity to remodel the bar and recreate the 1873 layout. During all of our conversations with O’Connell, he was acutely aware of the bar’s historical significance. He said restoring it to its original design was always a plan, and Sandy gave management that opportunity.
O’Connell told us The Paris Café is scheduled to reopen at the end of April, with a massive opening party planned. And while he has tremendous faith in The Paris Café, he knows its fate is at least partially linked to that of its neighbors, many of whom still have a long recovery ahead.