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In Lower Manhattan, Sandy Still Keeping Businesses Dark

People walk past a closed business affected by Hurricane Sandy in the heavily damaged South Street Seaport in New York City in December.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
People walk past a closed business affected by Hurricane Sandy in the heavily damaged South Street Seaport in New York City in December.

When compared with its neighbors Coney Island and the Rockaways, Manhattan seemed hardly touched by the waters and winds of Superstorm Sandy in late October. But almost three months later, areas of lower Manhattan are still laboring to recover.

Earlier this month, a museum devastated by Sandy finally reopened. About 800 people packed the lobby and upstairs galleries of the South Street Seaport Museum in lower Manhattan as Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed the crowd.

"The best days are yet ahead," he said, pulling out various sailing references. "We did not crash on the shoals, and the river finally went down. God bless, let's all get back to work."

From an outsider's perspective, the crowd reflected a vibrant, active neighborhood. But with the exception of the museum, every single store on the block of Fulton Street is closed and boarded up. Even the museum is limping along.

Sandy swept up to 6 feet of water from the East River to the museum lobby, taking out the elevators, escalator, and heating and air conditioning units.

"But the worst of everything is that the basement was completely submerged in water, and that is where all of our electrical equipment comes in and the water pumps," says Jerry Gallagher, the museum's general manager.

The museum, he says, was able to reopen because of temporary heaters powered by kerosene on the back of the building.

Struggling Stores

At night, the hum of generators is a now-familiar sound for passersby on neighboring streets. A few blocks from the museum, the Bowne & Co. print shop is one of the businesses that's open. It's a glorious space, filled with 19th century presses, handprinted stationary, and shelves of wooden and metal type.

Master printer Robert Warner has his foot on the treadle of a press from 1901, printing cards with the simple word "love" for Valentine's Day. "There is nothing quite like the smell of the ink and the sound of a 19th century machine at work," he says.

The company was founded in 1775, around the time of the American Revolution, making it "New York City's oldest company that operates with the same name," Warner says. It survived The Revolution and the Sept. 11 attacks, but almost ended with Sandy.

About 200 cases of type were submerged, prompting about 100 volunteers to help dry everything out — much of it very old, rare, wooden type.

"We had people cleaning every individual letter," says Ali Osborn, a printer with the shop. "And they all had to dry, and, of course, that was hard because we had no power or electricity for a couple of weeks."

Some stores still don't have power or phones. Verizon is replacing copper wire damaged by Sandy with fiber-optic cable, a job that may take months.

Many stores are also still relying on cash-only sales. The Downtown Alliance, which manages the business improvement district for lower Manhattan, gave out nearly 100 of the little attachments that transform smartphones into credit card machines.

Quiet, Emptier Streets

Marco Pasanella, a local vintner, says most Manhattan residents don't have a clue about their home's rocky condition.

"Friends of mine who live even five or six blocks away can't really believe it," he says. "And then they come down to the neighborhood and they say, 'It really looks like a disaster area.' "

Pasanella is the owner of Pasanella & Son, a beautiful wine store on South Street. He says 10,000 bottles of wine were floating around the day after Sandy hit.

The water rose up to 6 1/2 feet in the store, forcing Pasanella to spend six figures on renovations. But he turned the place around in a quick three weeks. "The holiday season can be 60 percent of your year," Pasanella says. "That helped motivate us."

Almost three months after Sandy, his place is the only one open on the block. Outside, Pasanella points at a closed corner restaurant, The Paris Cafe.

"A favorite hangout of Thomas Edison, among others," he says. He motions up. "Above the cafe are 17 apartments, all empty."

Con Edison, a New York City energy supplier, says 22 large buildings are still without power, or on only partial power, as well as some smaller ones. That makes tough times for small businesses like Pasanella & Son.

"With no neighbors, nobody nearby, there is no one to buy wine," Pasanella says. "This was a whole neighborhood; it's dark outside and very quiet. It's eerie."

Slowly, more tourists have begun visiting the area. The Downtown Alliance says more than 87 percent of lower Manhattan businesses were up and running by the first of the year.

Still, some stores are barely holding on financially and may not open until late spring.

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Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career
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