Jon Demane and his son Joseph are the last remaining holdouts at South Street Seaport's shuttered Pier 17 mall. Though the Howard Hughes Corporation has slated the mall for demolition in October, the lease on the Demane family's food court seafood shack, Simply Seafood, isn't up until 2020. Jon and Joseph are currently suing for both past and future losses incurred by the corporation's development plan, and until then remain doggedly open for business on the third floor of the gutted mall.
Eater recently made the trip past the security guards, through the mall's one open door, and up two darkened levels to chat with the Demanes about their memories of the Seaport, where their family has been selling fish for three generations:
What was this neighborhood like when you first got here?
Jon: I graduated high school, went to college at night and worked for my father in his retail-restaurant place. That was across the street on Fulton and Front, where I think the Brookstone used to be. Prior to that he was in the wholesale business. In the mid 1940s he decided he not only wanted to do that, he also wanted to go into the retail and restaurant business. So he opened up Fulton Market Retail Fish. And I started working there in 1963. And business was great. Business was great to the late '70s, early '80s. We opened other places, a couple other restaurants, and then the Rouse Corporation came down, and they wanted to develop the area to make it like Harbor Lights in Baltimore, MD. They got the city to go along with them and they developed the Fulton Market building across the street. That opened in 1983. We had a place in there because we were grandfathered in, because we had been here so long. Then in 1986 they opened up this place, Pier 17. And Pier 17 basically killed the Fulton Market building, because everybody wanted to be on the water, and nobody wanted to go there anymore. So they eventually closed that building in '95 or '96.
A few tenants that were in there—I was one of them—was able to come over here with a new lease. So we're here. We had a 15 year lease with a 10 year option that goes to 2020, and that's why I'm still here. We've been in a lawsuit since 2004, because in 2004, prior to the Rouse company being sold, they wanted to tear down the pier building and put up a Cirque du Soleil. So they let the pier kinda deteriorate so people wouldn't want to stay in here, because business was so bad that people would just leave. And then they would rent to monthly tenants, someone who wanted to come in for two or three months, or the summer months, and then after the summer they would leave. That went on till recently, till a month or so ago.
So, we brought a lawsuit against them for over-billing and neglect of the building, not repairing it, letting it run down so people wouldn't come. Then the Rouse company got sold in the end of 2004 to General Growth Properties. GGP bought them in November of 2004, and I know they overpaid because four years later they went bankrupt. They paid something like $12 million for the Rouse company, which was grossly overestimated. So they went bankrupt, and now we're still in the lawsuit because you have to wait two years for them to come out of bankruptcy. So that happened, and now we're in the late stages of our lawsuit. So hopefully it comes to an end soon.
Joseph: When I started over in the Fulton Market building it was busy there. Then they opened this place and business slowly died over there, and we moved over here in the same situation we are now. We've had to do this twice. When we came over in '95, it was great. There were concerts, tons of people, we were busy all the time. On the weekends, believe it or not, we wouldn't get out until one or two in the morning. They always left the doors open and people would come in and we'd still be doing business at 12:00 at night. And slowly but surely it just started trickling down.
It kinda leveled off about 2000. 2001 was about the same. And then when 9/11 hit, business obviously went down for a while. And it came back a little bit, never to the same level it was before. And after I guess 2003, 2004 it was just a steady decline. They've done everything to hinder business. They started locking the doors at 9:00 so people couldn't come in anymore. The bars and stuff, I don't know how the heck they did it. But bars were open until 2:00 in the morning, and they would shut off the AC at 9 p.m. when the mall closed. And it would be so hot in July by 10:30 you couldn't even sit in here. So I mean, they slowly just drove business away on ya. By small little increments, every little thing that they did just slowly dried business up. Whether it was not having as many concerts, locking the doors on you, turning off the air conditioning...but they basically did everything they could to drive business away on you...Just like if you buy a house and you're gonna renovate it, or you're gonna tear it down, you're not gonna upkeep it. It doesn't make sense. Why are you gonna put money in a building or a house that you're gonna tear down? And that's basically what happened, but instead of it being four years, it's been 10 years of it.
That's it in a nutshell. We've always been open to talk to them and work something out, but they don't want to. Everybody in the whole building is out, they don't want anybody back. They just want to start fresh. And that's fine, that's their prerogative if they wanna do that, but we have a lease, so we're not going to just walk away. It's crazy.
What was it like after Hurricane Sandy?
Jon: I wasn't here, but I can remember other floods that hit South Street that were nowhere near as bad as Sandy. When I had my place up the block, we'd get a foot of water and that was all the way to Water Street. So I can't imagine what it was like, there must have been three or four feet of water in those buildings. So it had to be horrendous....Everything kinda met and then it just exploded. When the surge comes and it pushes everything in, there ain't nothing you can do. They wanted to keep the whole Seaport closed. They weren't planning on reopening the Pier building. But there were a lot of complaints, and the community board got involved.
You know, the pier building didn't really get any damage because it's eight to 10 feet above sea level, or above the decking. So they wound up opening the pier, but they kept all the stores on Fulton street closed, which a lot of them still are. But time heals all wounds, so I guess eventually they'll all open. This had quite a few restaurants in the area. On South Street and Front Street and Water Street, there was quite a few that really took a beating. So it's nice to see some of them opening up. But it'll take a while.
After this is over, what will you do next?
Jon: I'm retired. My son Joseph unfortunately has to be here, because if we close basically what we're doing is we're abandoning the business, and they could hold that against us. The judge wouldn't look kindly on that. So were here until some kind of settlement is reached, or we lose the case. Either or.
Joseph: What do I want to do after this? I don't know. I really haven't thought yet. This has taken up so much of my time, that I'm just trying to get through this whole process. I don't know if I'll do the food business, especially in the city, it's a hassle. But I'm waiting to see, I don't know. I might go into teaching, I don't know. Maybe do that, I'd like to have the summers off.
I'm sure summers used to be your busiest season.
Joseph: We used to pray for Labor Day to come just so it would slow down a little bit that you could get home at 11 or 12 o'clock at night, instead of two or three in the morning.
And here's a look inside the mall now: