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The South Street Seaport has a rich history that was almost lost in the mid-20th century. At a time when the Fulton Fish Market began to descend into organized crime and the surrounding neighborhood was nothing more than deteriorating 19th century row houses, the city had enough issues without trying to restore an old port neighborhood.
Luckily things began to turn around when Peter and Norma Stanford founded the South Street Seaport Museum around the same time that original photo above was taken (note the up-lifting banner). It would take another 30 years before the neighborhood would be truly revitalized, and still to this day there's work to be done. For example, the Fulton Fish Market moved to a new facility in the Bronx in 2005, but the old market still sits empty 8 years later.
The buildings in today's photo, known collectively as Schermerhorn Row, were in bad shape before being taken over by the museum. They were renovated in 1983, though the New York Times criticized the renovation saying it turned the block "into something flat and dull." Arguably the Times had a point: Their prior appearance was full of character, the same way a scarred face would have character – it told a story.
Photo source: Tom Riggle, Flickr