In Response to Seaport Project Opponents

Editor's note: The following letter from Jonathan Boulware, South Street Seaport President and CEO, is in response to a recently posted open letter to him from the Seaport Coaltion.

To the Seaport Coalition: 

I read your open letter in this paper and I share your obvious concern for the future of the South Street Seaport Museum. The Museum and the district it was instrumental in founding are unique symbiotic organisms replicated nowhere else in New York, nor indeed the world. The Museum interprets and gives voice to the district, and right from the beginning it was intended that the district in turn would provide financial support to the Museum. While the Seaport Museum has credibly and award-winningly executed its mission over decades, the promises of revenue from the district have failed to materialize. 

The perennial shortages in revenue sufficient to properly care for and activate 19th-century ships, buildings, printing presses, artifacts and tools have been balanced by creativity, entrepreneurship, and dedicated support on the part of trustees, staff, donors, volunteers and the city. But despite decades of diligent work, the Seaport Museum has never attained true sustainability. Vulnerable to every blow, the Museum staggered after 9/11, through the Great Recession, Sandy’s floodwaters, and now a pandemic.

We have weathered all of these setbacks, precisely because there has always been a dedicated corps of support, from those in elected office, to volunteers, to intensely passionate people like you. We have done that without the steadying force of an invested endowment, the very thing that keeps cultural institutions afloat when disaster strikes. But now the COVID crisis has put New York’s South Street Seaport Museum in a truly precarious position. This is the worst calamity to strike the Seaport Museum; you of  Save Our Seaport and the Seaport Coalition know that for this institution that’s really saying something. 

The Seaport Museum must secure reliable recurring revenue -- not sometime in the future but now, right now -- to survive this moment.  

The plan currently proposed for a building on 250 Water Street would achieve several key goals nearly immediately. It would create the reliable revenue the Museum needs to be sustainable, as well as survive the current crisis. It would allow the Museum to truly reopen for the first time since Sandy. And it would create a clear path, including a full design and the beginnings of a capital program, toward a cutting-edge resilient Museum building on the John Street lot. This would connect the Museum visually and logically to Pier 16 and provide the community of New Yorkers and New York lovers with proper museum space in which to interact with the Museum's 55,000 historic records and over 28,000 works of art and historical objects, the crown jewels of maritime New York.

But time is of the essence. We have little more than a year before dramatic action will be required.

The Museum’s leadership are open to all ideas that address this crisis, provided that they are real, actionable solutions and that they’re viable within the critical timeline the Museum faces. If a solution doesn’t work in time, then it’s no solution at all.

I recognize that knowledgeable and thoughtful people will reach different conclusions on the best path forward for the Seaport generally and the Seaport Museum and 250 Water Street specifically. Here are mine: The South Street Seaport Historic District is a wildly improbable place. In a city that historically razes and rebuilds as a character trait, the very existence of these 19th century buildings, ships, and piers, with a Museum specifically chartered to preserve and educate within them, is near miraculous. A parking lot does not contribute to this magic. The Museum does. As a resident of the Seaport, as a parent, as a New Yorker, I believe the loss of the Seaport Museum would be a terrible tragedy. And I believe that any proposal that saves and stabilizes that irreplaceable cultural treasure must be taken seriously. To do otherwise is to miss the forest for the trees, to lose our own history and a precious piece of New York’s identity.

Again, I truly appreciate the passion behind your letter. The Seaport generally and the Museum specifically attract ardent people. I am one of them. And while we may reach different conclusions from the same facts, I am gratified that all of us are motivated by the importance of the South Street Seaport Museum.


Capt. Jonathan Boulware, President & CEO, South Street Seaport Museum