NEW YORK — The historic cobblestone streets and 19th-century mercantileÂ buildings near the water’s edge in lower Manhattan are eerily deserted, aÂ neighborhood silenced by Superstorm Sandy.
Just blocks from the tall-masted ships that rise above South Street Seaport,Â the windows of narrow brick apartment buildings are still crisscrossed withÂ masking tape left by their owners before the storm. Store interiors are strippedÂ down to plywood and wiring. Restaurants are chained shut, frozen in time,Â saddled with electrical systems that were ruined by several feet of salt waterÂ that raced up from the East River and through their front doors.
“People have no clue that this corner of Manhattan has been hit so badly,”Â said Adam Weprin, manager of the Bridge Cafe, one of the city’s oldest bars thatÂ sits on a quiet street near the seaport. “Right now, it’s a ghost town and aÂ construction site.”
Nearly four months after the storm, roughly 85 percent of small businessesÂ near the South Street Seaport are still boarded up. It could be months beforeÂ some reopen, while others may never return. On Fulton Street, the wideÂ tourist-friendly pedestrian walkway that comprises the seaport’s main shoppingÂ district, not a single one of the major chain stores – which include Coach, AnnÂ Taylor and Brookstone – has reopened.
Among local business owners, there is a pervasive sense that their plightÂ has been ignored by the rest of the city. A state senator who represents theÂ area estimates at least 1,000 jobs were lost in lower Manhattan – 450 of them inÂ the seaport neighborhood alone.
From its red wood-frame building in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, theÂ Bridge Cafe has dealt with its share of changes over the last two centuries,Â including stints as a Civil War-era brothel and a bootlegging speakeasy duringÂ Prohibition. It has endured economic slumps, nor’easters and the Sept. 11Â terrorist attacks. But after the basement was flooded to the rafters and waterÂ destroyed the building’s wood foundation, Weprin faced the prospect of shuttingÂ its doors for good.
“The neighborhood’s been beaten,” Weprin said. “You walk around here andÂ it’s like Chernobyl. At night, it’s vacated.”
The small businesses of the seaport were far less resilient than theÂ neighboring skyscrapers that house many of lower Manhattan’s large financialÂ companies.
Some corporations were displaced for weeks after the storm, forced toÂ relocate to temporary office space farther uptown while flood-damagedÂ skyscrapers fixed their infrastructure and moved electrical systems to higherÂ floors. Con Edison said 10 major buildings remained without power as of Feb. 13,Â most operating on emergency generators.
At 110 Wall St., a 27-story office tower that occupies a full block near theÂ New York Stock Exchange, all leases were terminated because the building was soÂ badly damaged by flooding. It remains empty while its management company comesÂ up with a long-term plan for weathering future storms.
“How do we protect the lobby?” said William Rudin, the company’s CEO. “HowÂ do we protect the retail spaces?”
Spotty phone and Internet service also hampered business activity afterÂ underground copper cables operated by Verizon, the area’s largest networkÂ provider, were wrecked by flooding. By mid-February, Verizon said 10 percent ofÂ its customers still had little or no service.
It’s unclear how many residents of lower Manhattan fled the neighborhoodÂ after Sandy. But 2 Gold St., a flood-damaged luxury residential skyscraper withÂ nearly 1,000 residents, did not allow tenants to start moving back in until lastÂ week.
“These offices, these high-rise apartments, they need to be reoccupied,”Â said Lee Holin, who owns Meade’s Restaurant, which sits on the edge of theÂ seaport a few blocks from Sandy-damaged skyscrapers on Water Street. “All of ourÂ customers who live there have not been here in a long time.”
Meade’s was only able to reopen thanks to a $25,000 grant that Holin receivedÂ from the Downtown Alliance, a neighborhood association that has doled out 100Â grants to small businesses totaling about $1.5 million.
The grant program was so popular that it was suspended two weeks after itsÂ debut in mid-November.
“We don’t have a lot of traffic,” said Nicole Osborne, who was tending theÂ bar at Meade’s on a weekday afternoon. “It’s like we’ve been forgotten.”
In the darkened window of Stella Manhattan Bistro, an Italian restaurant onÂ Front Street, hung an American flag reminiscent of those displayed all over theÂ city after Sept. 11. Alongside it, someone had posted a sign that said: “ThankÂ you for all your support. Stay strong.”
Most of the Front Street buildings had a geothermal heating and coolingÂ system that was destroyed in the flood, said Jordan Barowitz, a spokesman forÂ the developer, The Durst Organization, Inc. The repairs, which include movingÂ the mechanical systems to the roof, are expected to drag on for months.
“We hope that they will come back,” Barowitz said of the shutteredÂ businesses. “It’s very challenging.”
The future of the South Street Seaport is equally uncertain. Howard HughesÂ Corp, which controls the former 19th-century counting houses that are home toÂ the retail chains, said it does not yet know which – if any – of the majorÂ retailers will come back. The hope is to have Fulton Street in working orderÂ again before Memorial Day, when the summer season kicks off and the seaport willÂ desperately need an influx of visitors.
But in a case of unfortunate timing, Pier 17, the shopping mall housedÂ inside a rustic wooden building on the pier, is slated to close for aÂ long-planned renovation in June that will transform it into a modernÂ glass-walled structure with a rooftop plaza. The impending renovation has onlyÂ added to the misery of shop owners who lost so much revenue since the storm andÂ haven’t recouped their losses.
Milad Doos, an immigrant from Egypt, is planning to close his jewelry andÂ collectibles store for good.
“Like you see, there’s nobody,” said Doos, who earned just $5 on a recentÂ afternoon. “After the storm, this whole place has become dead place.”
At the Bridge Cafe, most of the wood foundation will be gutted, sparing onlyÂ two pillars and a wall behind the bar that are part of the original building.Â Repairs will cost around $400,000.
Weprin, who has no flood insurance, launched a fundraising page online toÂ appeal for financial help from the restaurant’s many loyal patrons. To hisÂ astonishment, many of them didn’t even realize the place was closed.
That’s because nobody has frequented the neighborhood for weeks.
“During the day, you have tourists who are coming to look at the carnage,”Â Weprin said. “That’s about it. Before Sandy, it was a neighborhood.”