Over seven months have passed since Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, and while much of the city is back to normal or well on its way, the South Street seaport tells a different story.
Buildings there remain eerily empty, as if the residents had vanished into thin air and, in late April, bulldozers worked to a symphony of drills and hammers. A number of local business owners—many of them restauranteurs—are still waiting for the return to normality promised to them.
The Durst Corporation owns 95 residential and 13 commercial units on Front Street, all between the blocks of Beekman Street and Peck Slip. Because the units share a heating system still in need of repair, none have come back to life, a loss that has been particularly difficult on neighborhood-oriented businesses like Pasanella & Son Vinter.
"We're a neighborhood store and there's nobody in the neighborhood. People are coming back slowly, but we're still missing the people in the Front Street buildings," Pasanella told me. "We had to rebuild that whole ground floor. We lost all that wine and three weeks of business during the holiday season, which, for a wine store, is a really big deal.
"We have clients from all over, but the bread and butter are the people who are in your neighborhood. The people who, on their way home from work, are going to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner. Those people buying a $12 bottle of wine every day, a couple times a week, those end up being the people who are the mainstay of the business. People don't walk blocks and blocks for a bottle of wine. Really, they go within a few blocks of where they live, and it just happens that those blocks near us are the ones that have most been impacted by Sandy."
One of the Front Street businesses that remains closed to this day is the pizzeria Il Brigante. Like many in the neighborhood, the restaurant was exposed to the full force of the storm. In the days immediately after Sandy, the owner—who, for professional reasons, has asked not to be named and will be referred to henceforth as T.—was determined to open up immediately after. It is now May, and they will not open any earlier than August.
"When I saw the damage, I said, 'I don't care how much it's going to cost. I'm going to spend the money as quickly as possible, and get us back on our feet in a couple of weeks.' That was my initial response," T. told me. "And then I spoke to someone from Durst who said, 'you might not want to do that right away.' So that was when I first got an inkling that there was something beyond my control, and then they started talking about this big geothermal nightmare."
That geothermal nightmare is the reason why Durst's Front Street properties all remain uninhabited, while nearby restaurants like Aqua reopened a month after the storm. The company had installed what T. called a "state of the art, avant garde" geothermal heating infrastructure underground, leaving it unavoidably vulnerable when Sandy hit. This is the locus for the dubiously prolonged closing of Il Brigante and the other businesses on Front Street.
Part of the problem was figuring out what to do next. Durst waffled over whether to replace or repair the equipment for two months, eventually favoring replacing it. To avoid further incident in the event of similar hurricanes, the company is trying to put as much equipment as possible on the roof and to avoid having any equipment near ground level.
The owners of Il Brigante are now able to move ahead, but remain a long ways from reopening.
"The stage we're at now is that the landlord has looked through the designs, has just made a few modifications and now my engineer is making the corrections," T. told me in late April. "The plans are going to be sent back to my landlord and finally I can send it to the Department of Buildings and Landmarks for approval, which should take about four weeks. Then we're talking about seven weeks of rebuilding time."
After the hurricane, Durst took the precaution of removing the sheet rock in Il Brigante all the way up to the ceiling, and not just what was required by law. As a result, the ceiling began inadvertently collapsing and will need to be replaced. Every wood panel in the restaurant must be replaced, as do the electrical fixtures, and the plumbing and sprinkler system have to be reattached. Everything, T. said, must be done from scratch. When I visited the restaurant, it looked like the basement of a bombed out building. Stoves and fridges were stacked near the entrance, and wire tubing hung from the ceiling in the back.
Though she lost most of her staff as a result of the prolonged closure, in December T. was able to start a delivery service out of a pair of local kitchen spaces. This has allowed her to hold on to five key employees, including her chefs, but all the money has gone to paying those employees and the businesses she is renting from. She estimates that the damages will cost $150,000 in total, a comparable amount to that suffered by Coney Island's Totonno's, though some public assistance has eased the burden.
However, T. is worried that things won't be the same when they finally do reopen.
"The question is: I don't know if we're going to busy as we were when we reopen. I just don't know if the neighborhood is ever going to be the way it was before. They're tearing down Pier 17, that's going to be a four year project, so a huge tourist attraction is going to be out of commission for the next four years."
The delivery service has allowed Il Brigante to continue serving customers in a limited capacity over the last 5 months, but this kind of extended, drawn-out absence is particularly difficult for a neighborhood spot like the restaurant. Still, the busy dining room of Pearl Diner after their three-month closure offers hope.
By the time Il Brigante reopens, it will have been ten months since hurricane Sandy. Other businesses in the neighborhood that are not Durst Corporation properties have endured similar trials. The owners of the Paris Tavern tell me they will likely reopen in July.
"But it's still not clear to me why we're going to be the last ones in the entire city of New York, it seems like, to reopen," T. told me. "We will have the dubious distinction of being one of the last small businesses in Manhattan to reopen after hurricane Sandy."