Few New York districts have the illustrious history of Lower Manhattan's South Street Seaport. It's where the Dutch West India Company first established an outpost in 1625; where Thomas Edison opened the country's first commercial power plant in 1882 and where Theodore Roosevelt pounded the cobbled streets while he was the city's Police Commissioner in the 1890s.
Tragically, this storied 10-block district lost its way in the 1980s. Wedged between the Lower East Side and the Financial District, it morphed into a tourist trap of shopping malls, souvenir stores and Irish theme pubs. It was dealt a further blow in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy swamped the entire area in two metres of water.
Since then, things have looked up, largely due to the efforts of The Howard Hughes Corporation, which signed a long-term lease on the area in 2010 and has spent more than $US600 million redeveloping it.
The most obvious fruit of this labour is the new and improved Pier 17, which was unveiled to great fanfare last July. A striking glass-panelled structure, it's managed to lure an impressive list of tenants including The Fulton, a seafood restaurant by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Bar Wayo by Momofuku's David Chang. Still to come is a venue by feted US chef Andrew Carmellini and an outpost of Helene Henderson's popular California eatery, Malibu Farm.
The pier's most striking feature is R17, a rooftop cocktail bar and restaurant with knockout views of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge. Serving delicious cocktails (try the passionfruit-infused mezcal margarita) and a range of innovative sharing plates (the English muffin burger is a revelation), it's quickly become the hottest rooftop in Lower Manhattan.
Adjacent to R17 is a 3000-person outdoor summer concert venue that's already hosted sold-out shows by Sheryl Crow, Diana Ross and Kings of Leon.
One of the district's perennial challenges has always been the lack of a decent hotel. That all changed in July 2018 with the unveiling of Mr C Seaport, a stylish boutique property by the Cipriani family (of Harry's Bar in Venice fame).
Housed in a handsome 19th-century brick building on the corner of Front Street and Peck Slip, the hotel's 66 rooms feature comfortable beds swathed in Italian linen and opulent marble bathrooms with La Bottega amenities. Guests are welcomed in the elegant teak-panelled lobby bar with a complimentary Bellini (Cipriani's signature cocktail), while next door an intimate inhouse restaurant serves authentic traditional Italian fare.
Two unexpected features are the provision of a car service with free rides in a 20-block radius and a special "Little C" package for kids that includes cookies and milk, a colouring book and a teddy bear.
The property has brought a welcome dash of Italian panache to the area and it's a trend that's been echoed in the district's retail offerings. Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli opened a high-end store in September 2018, as did Sarah Jessica Parker, who unveiled an outpost of her eponymous SJP shoe store where you can snap up a pair of Carrie black stiletto heels for $US355.
Last year's most notable arrival was 10 Corso Como, the first US concept store by publisher and designer Carla Sozzani. The sprawling 2600-square-metre complex features an upmarket Italian restaurant, a photography gallery and an immaculate store selling high-end fashion, furnishings, design objects and books. The Corso Como team is also behind the lively Garden Bar pop-up on Fulton Street, which has managed to lure locals back to the area and inject some much-needed life after dark.
The challenge, of course, will be whether the district can continue to reinvent itself while still honouring its heritage. Hopefully, businesses such as Bowne & Co Stationers, which was founded in 1775, and The Paris Cafe, which dates from 1873, can thrive alongside these fashionable newcomers. The verdict at this stage? So far, so good.
Rob McFarland was a guest of United Airlines, Mr C Seaport, R17 and 10 Corso Como.
United Airlines flies to New York via Los Angeles, Houston and San Francisco. See united.com
Rooms at Mr C Seaport start from $US269. See mrcseaport.com