It’s somewhat improbable that a 73-year-old from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia would become the darling of the New York social scene, but that’s exactly what happened last summer.
The F/V Sherman Zwicker, a wooden fishing schooner built in 1942 at the Smith and Rhuland shipyard, is the last operable vessel of its kind still in existence. Since last year, she has found a new home on the Hudson River, at New York City’s Pier 25, where she is maintained by the non-profit Maritime Foundation, using proceeds from Grand Banks, a seasonal oyster bar that she hosts on her deck. Rustik caught up with one of the owners of the venture, Alex Pincus, to find out how it all came to pass.
Q: Tell us how you came to be in possession of an old wooden fishing boat from Nova Scotia?
AP: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the history of lower Manhattan, but in the 17th and 18th centuries, they had these barges that surrounded the entire city. They looked like two-storey saloons and they sold oysters and liquor – they were called oyster barges. That was the original idea we were working with. We were going to make a contemporary version of that.
We started talking to Hudson River Park, and they really liked the idea except that the only pier that was available – which was also an ideal spot – was designated for historic vessels. So we started looking around for a suitable historic vessel and I think the Sherman Zwicker was one of the first few boats that appeared as a possibility.
Q: So you jumped at the opportunity to buy it?
AP: It wasn’t for sale. It had been on the market for 10 years, to be gifted to a suitable non-profit. The guys who originally discovered her in Nova Scotia and restored her had a non-profit [in Maine] that maintained her for 30 years. They were also getting a bit older and couldn’t handle all of the upkeep that the boat required, so they were looking for a new home and, to make a long story short, we went up there, met with them a number of times, and told them what our intentions were. We established a non-profit and they gifted us the boat.
Q: How has your restaurant concept, Grand Banks, been received by New Yorkers?
AP: The one thing that’s been interesting is that we’ve really become a place where people interested in high-culture go. It’s become a lot of power players and magazine editors and fashion industry types, which is not necessarily what we envisioned. We didn’t know what we were building when we built it. We just did what we thought was cool. There are lines every day, and it’s not something any of us anticipated. It’s just strange that this working piece of history from Nova Scotia from the 1940s has become the ‘in’ thing to do now.
I think people fall in love with the experience overall. Some people get more into the details of the boat, other people get more into the idea that they’re on the water. Definitely, it’s opened up some ideas in people about preserving historic objects and engaging with the waterfront in New York, which for some reason has always been a neglected idea, which I don’t understand.
Q: Why has it been neglected?
AP: In the 1950s, the city did a lot of mass urbanism that cut everything off from the waterfront with giant highways. From then on it was downhill in terms of people engaging with the waterfront. There was a time when all commerce and everything happened around the waterfront, so it wasn’t thought of in a romantic way … It was part of the culture of everyday life, and then it got cut off, and all the trade on the waterfront started to evaporate and then there was no real strong way to access the waterfront. The city has started to address this by building parks and trails in the last 15 years, and it’s starting to get better, but it’s still not nearly as engaging as it could be.
Q: Is Grand Banks simply a restaurant, or is there more to your mission?
AP: We are a maritime attraction restaurant and non-profit that promotes maritime culture in general. Basically, we have a for-profit entity that runs on a non-profit entity. It’s really cool because we have money to do stuff that we think is worth pursuing.
Two days ago, we had a lunch on the boat for Sustainable Seafood Week where our chef, as a huge sustainable seafood proponent, worked with an author to put together a menu of fish that people don’t eat – bait fish and undervalued species – that would be healthy for us to start to put into our diet from a health perspective and a sustainability perspective. We had a lunch surrounding that. We didn’t make any money – you know, 99% of people don’t care – but it was really cool, it was a lot of fun, and there were a lot of really interesting people there. And, it was in a historic boat on the water in New York! That’s the kind of stuff we get to do because of having some money and the non-profit. It’s pretty unique.
Q: Have you had a lot of interest from people north of the border who want to know about your enterprise?
AP: A lot of individuals have come to us from Canada… In fact, of all the people who come to us knowing the boat, I would say the majority of them are actually Canadian and it’s probably because they know the Bluenose. There have been a lot of visitors from Lunenburg, or people who have second homes in Lunenburg. A couple of the Zwickers came, as did the grandson of one of the founders of Smith and Rhuland. It’s pretty interesting all the different relationships people have to the boat, including people who have worked on it in various stages of its life.
Q: Your latest venture involves rehabilitating an old oyster barge like the ones you mentioned before. Tell us more about that.
AP: So we have the last remaining New York City oyster barge. It had been slated to be demolished because the marina that it was in was being sold and it just took up space on reasonably valuable property. So we ended up buying it for $1 and we had a contractor take it apart piece by piece, label all the parts and put it into a shipping container. Once we get everything a little more stable in the summer, we’re going to ship it down here, put it on a barge in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and start to reassemble it.
We have a reasonable sense of what it’s supposed to look like and there are a lot of photos of similar barges. There’s a historian that we’ve been working with who says he thinks he knows the specific one that it is. There is a good amount of historic stuff that points us in the right direction. I don’t think it will ever be perfect, but none of them ever were perfect.