NEW YORK - The historic cobblestone streets and 19th-century mercantile buildings near the water's edge in lower Manhattan are eerily deserted, a neighborhood silenced by Superstorm Sandy.
Just blocks from the tall-masted ships that rise above South Street Seaport, the windows of narrow brick apartment buildings are still crisscrossed with masking tape left by their owners before the storm. Store interiors are stripped down to plywood and wiring. Restaurants are chained shut, frozen in time, saddled with electrical systems that were ruined by several feet of salt water that raced up from the East River and through their front doors.
"People have no clue that this corner of Manhattan has been hit so badly," said Adam Weprin, manager of the Bridge Cafe, one of the city's oldest bars that sits on a quiet street near the seaport. "Right now, it's a ghost town and a construction site."
Nearly four months after the storm, roughly 85 percent of small businesses near the South Street Seaport are still boarded up. It could be months before some reopen, while others may never return. On Fulton Street, the wide tourist-friendly pedestrian walkway that comprises the seaport's main shopping district, not a single one of the major chain stores — which include Coach, Ann Taylor and Brookstone — has reopened.
Among local business owners, there is a pervasive sense that their plight has been ignored by the rest of the city. A state senator who represents the area estimates at least 1,000 jobs were lost in lower Manhattan — 450 of them in the seaport neighborhood alone.
From its red wood-frame building in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Bridge Cafe has dealt with its share of changes over the last two centuries, including stints as a Civil War-era brothel and a bootlegging speakeasy during Prohibition. It has endured economic slumps, nor'easters and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But after the basement was flooded to the rafters and water destroyed the building's wood foundation, Weprin faced the prospect of shutting its doors for good.
"The neighborhood's been beaten," Weprin said. "You walk around here and it's like Chernobyl. At night, it's vacated."
The small businesses of the seaport were far less resilient than the neighboring skyscrapers that house many of lower Manhattan's large financial companies.
Some corporations were displaced for weeks after the storm, forced to relocate to temporary office space farther uptown while flood-damaged skyscrapers fixed their infrastructure and moved electrical systems to higher floors. Con Edison said 10 major buildings remained without power as of Feb. 13, most operating on emergency generators.
At 110 Wall St., a 27-story office tower that occupies a full block near the New York Stock Exchange, all leases were terminated because the building was so badly damaged by flooding. It remains empty while its management company comes up with a long-term plan for weathering future storms.
"How do we protect the lobby?" said William Rudin, the company's CEO. "How do we protect the retail spaces?"
Spotty phone and Internet service also hampered business activity after underground copper cables operated by Verizon, the area's largest network provider, were wrecked by flooding. By mid-February, Verizon said 10 percent of its customers still had little or no service.
It's unclear how many residents of lower Manhattan fled the neighborhood after Sandy. But 2 Gold St., a flood-damaged luxury residential skyscraper with nearly 1,000 residents, did not allow tenants to start moving back in until last week.
"These offices, these high-rise apartments, they need to be reoccupied," said Lee Holin, who owns Meade's Restaurant, which sits on the edge of the seaport a few blocks from Sandy-damaged skyscrapers on Water Street. "All of our customers who live there have not been here in a long time."
Meade's was only able to reopen thanks to a $25,000 grant that Holin received from the Downtown Alliance, a neighborhood association that has doled out 100 grants to small businesses totaling about $1.5 million.
The grant program was so popular that it was suspended two weeks after its debut in mid-November.
"We don't have a lot of traffic," said Nicole Osborne, who was tending the bar at Meade's on a weekday afternoon. "It's like we've been forgotten."
In the darkened window of Stella Manhattan Bistro, an Italian restaurant on Front Street, hung an American flag reminiscent of those displayed all over the city after Sept. 11. Alongside it, someone had posted a sign that said: "Thank you for all your support. Stay strong."
Most of the Front Street buildings had a geothermal heating and cooling system that was destroyed in the flood, said Jordan Barowitz, a spokesman for the developer, The Durst Organization, Inc. The repairs, which include moving the mechanical systems to the roof, are expected to drag on for months.
"We hope that they will come back," Barowitz said of the shuttered businesses. "It's very challenging."
The future of the South Street Seaport is equally uncertain. Howard Hughes Corp, which controls the former 19th-century counting houses that are home to the retail chains, said it does not yet know which — if any — of the major retailers will come back. The hope is to have Fulton Street in working order again before Memorial Day, when the summer season kicks off and the seaport will desperately need an influx of visitors.
But in a case of unfortunate timing, Pier 17, the shopping mall housed inside a rustic wooden building on the pier, is slated to close for a long-planned renovation in June that will transform it into a modern glass-walled structure with a rooftop plaza. The impending renovation has only added to the misery of shop owners who lost so much revenue since the storm and haven't recouped their losses.
Milad Doos, an immigrant from Egypt, is planning to close his jewelry and collectibles store for good.
"Like you see, there's nobody," said Doos, who earned just $5 on a recent afternoon. "After the storm, this whole place has become dead place."
At the Bridge Cafe, most of the wood foundation will be gutted, sparing only two pillars and a wall behind the bar that are part of the original building. Repairs will cost around $400,000.
Weprin, who has no flood insurance, launched a fundraising page online to appeal for financial help from the restaurant's many loyal patrons. To his astonishment, many of them didn't even realize the place was closed.
That's because nobody has frequented the neighborhood for weeks.
"During the day, you have tourists who are coming to look at the carnage," Weprin said. "That's about it. Before Sandy, it was a neighborhood."