Hard Work and Creativity Bring Glimmer of Hope To Seaport
Claudio Barbarini waves to a customer from his new stand at the New Amsterdam Market. Photos by Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib
Bundled up in gloves and a winter coat late last month, Jasmine Cardona straightened a tray of pastries on a small wooden table set up outside Jack’s Coffee at 222 Front St. Every once in a while she scanned the quiet street of mostly shuttered stores, looking for potential customers.
“Not everybody knows we are out here yet,” Cardona said of the makeshift stand, with its coffee hauled from a nearby location with electricity. “Hopefully, it is going to start picking back up. It’s dead now, though.”
Jack’s was one of dozens of small businesses in the Seaport so badly flooded during Hurricane Sandy that it will likely be months before the coffee shop can reopen. But it was also one of many businesses finding plucky and inventive ways to keep a presence in this forlorn neighborhood filled with the intrusive sounds and smells of generators and pumps.
Seaport businesses are setting up “pop-up” stands and shops, turning to crowdsourcing websites to raise funds for rebuilding, selling undamaged goods at the New Amsterdam Market, and calling on volunteers, bar patrons, and friends to pick up hammers and pull out their checkbooks. The unusual tactics are all part of the hard work and creative thinking, business owners said, that will be needed to survive.
Of the roughly four dozen shops and restaurants located in the Seaport Historic District, only seven (according to a visual survey by the Trib) were able to reopen in the month after Sandy struck. The Pier 17 Mall, which houses some 50 shops and eateries, also remained shuttered at the end of November.
“We have to save the Seaport. How do we do that? We have to think outside the box,” said The Salty Paw owner Amanda Byron Zink, who has been offering pet grooming services in the unfinished basement of a nearby veterinary clinic since the storm shuttered her store at 38 Peck Slip. “We are trying to help each other with ideas. The more we can help each other, the faster we will all come back.”
Bringing business owners together has been a goal of Zink’s since the first painful sight of her waterlogged and destroyed shop. Around her she found neighbors as confused and distraught as she was.
“Everybody was sort of hugging everybody, but nobody knew what to do, where to go. Nobody had any answers,” Zink said of the first few days after the storm, which inundated much of the Seaport Historic District.
So Zink and the owner of Nelson Blue, a nearby bar and grill, teamed up to survey the neighborhood, checking in with fellow business owners and collecting contact information. A few days later, the group got together for an ad hoc town hall meeting in a courtyard of a building on Front Street.
“Over 50 businesses showed up,” Zink said. “It was just kind of a Q&A. ‘Hey, what happened to your store? What do we need? Who do we call?’”
Since then, the business owners have been emailing nearly daily, and setting up more group “town hall” meetings to share resources and talk about the future.
“Everyone is in kind of different places, but we are all united in that we have no insurance,” Zink said. “We have to stick together because of our leases, we have to stick together as a community, we have to stick together as a neighborhood.”
The challenges are many. Few, if any, businesses had flood insurance. There are a few grants programs—the Downtown Alliance is offering up to $20,000 to affected businesses. But most disaster help is in the form of loans, which many owners say they don’t want.
“I really don’t want to get into debt,” said Marco Pasanella, owner of Pasanella and Son Vintners at 115 South St. “I want a viable business. I want it to work on its own.”
Beyond the loss of expensive equipment and merchandise, many businesses simply can’t get back into their spaces. Some landlords are slow to make repairs, while others, like Historic Front Street developer Richard Berry, are hard at work but face steep hurdles to fix damaged electrical systems. Berry estimates that it will take until April for the company to repair its buildings, which house 95 apartments and 14 businesses that were all heated by geothermal wells.
“We are serious long-term owners, and we are too invested—mentally invested, emotionally invested in that place to do something which is going to cut a corner,” Berry said of the lengthy repair process ahead.
But where chain stores on Fulton Street and larger players like Howard Hughes Corp. seem slow to make progress, the creative efforts of small business owners appear to be paying off.
Pasanella “officially” reopened his wine shop on Nov. 19, but in truth he never fully closed—despite the extensive damage. After the storm, when the shop was being repaired, Pasanella placed a sign in the window with his cell phone number. When customers called, he would come down from his apartment with their order.
“We were selling wine from underneath tarps, basically,” Pasanella said. “It helped us psychologically a lot in that, ‘We are down but we are going to keep going.’ But it helped also to keep money coming in.”
Once it became clear that her pet shop could be shuttered for months, Zink moved her business into much smaller unused space at the Seaport Animal Hospital at Southbridge Towers, offering pet grooming in the hospital’s spare concrete basement and setting up a cash register in a corner of the reception area near stacks of pet food.
By the end of November, Zink was able to obtain a six-month lease on a space at 254 Water St., where she plans to open a “pop-up shop” and temporary doggie day care.
“I’m really excited,” Zink said, explaining that some of her clients live in the building. “The landlord is also putting a lot of [temporary walls] for free, which is good because I have no money.”
The owners of the Italian grocery and restaurant Barbarini Alimentari at 225 Front St. were told they could not even begin rebuilding their place for six to eight months. But that didn’t stop them from selling the olive oils, pastas and other goods that seven feet of flood waters couldn’t reach.
On Sundays, Stefano Barbagallo and Claudio Marini were at the New Amsterdam Market, selling their salvaged inventory, courtesy of Robert LaValva, the market’s director.
“Robert said, ‘Guys, why don’t you just grab a table,’” Marini recounted between greetings and good wishes from regular customers, who all managed to find an item or two to buy.
“Whatever they don’t need, they’re buying anyway!” Marini said, smiling. “It’s amazing.”
“We are here because we need to make some extra cash,” Marini added, “but at the same time, to see all these people coming here and saying, ‘We’re so sorry, we’re with you, we are behind you.’ That gives you a big lift.”
Acqua, an Italian restaurant at 21 Peck Slip that hopes to reopen this month, started fundraising online days after the storm. Cowgirl Seahorse, which was able to begin serving customers in mid-November with limited bar service, soon followed suit.
“We said, ‘I don’t know, is that tacky? Should we do it?’” Cowgirl owner Maura Kilgore recalled. “And then people started asking us online, ‘What should we do? Should we send money?’ Who are we to say no to people trying to help us right now?”
Kilgore, who raised more than $8,000 online, was also aided in her efforts to reopen by customers and neighbors who helped her staff rip down damaged drywall, strip soggy decorative rope off tables and re-varnish chairs.
Bar patrons also helped Jeff Lim and his mother, Lynn Yong, reopen their South Street bar, The Fish Market, if only to a shadow of its former business.
“One of my customers who lives around Wall Street took a week vacation to help me,” said Yong. “To take out the walls and put in a new one.”
And patrons even loaned the owners money to buy a new supply of alcohol.
“They want a place to hang out and drink at night,” said Lim, who reopened within days of Cowgirl.
He, too, had already begun to fundraise online. “They don’t want to just go home to a building with no power no water. They want normalcy.”