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Beloved South Street Seaport Woodcarver Faces Eviction

Sal Polisi paints a sign that will go on one of the Seaport Museum's boats.
Sal Polisi paints a sign that will go on one of the Seaport Museum's boats.
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DNAinfo/Julie Shapiro

SOUTH STREET SEAPORT — A master woodcarver who has worked at the South Street Seaport for nearly 30 years is in danger of being evicted.

Sal Polisi, 76, a volunteer for the South Street Seaport Museum, has been carving everything from mermaid figureheads to wooden signs at a small shop near Pier 15 since 1983, drawing dozens of curious visitors every day.

But now, the city says Polisi's carving shop blocks a future bike path and walkway that is part of the new East River Waterfront esplanade, several people familiar with the situation said.

An initial plan to move the shop to a new home under the FDR Drive fell through last week, and now Polisi's friends and longtime supporters are worried he could be forced out of the Seaport for good.

"It's the last traditional marine craft that is actively pursued in the Seaport area," said Robert Rustchak, 56, a member of Save Our Seaport's steering committee who has known Polisi for 28 years. "We don't see a good reason for [the shop's eviction]. Everybody's very confused."

After Save Our Seaport presented Polisi's plight to Community Board 1's Seaport/Civic Center Committee Tuesday night, the committee passed a resolution urging the city Economic Development Corp. to allow Polisi to remain.

"He needs to be in that same waterfront area where he's always been," said Noah Pfefferblit, CB1's district manager.

A source familiar with the negotiations said the city backed out of the new location under the FDR Drive just south of Pier 17 after deciding there was not enough space for the shop and the new ramp that is required to make it handicapped accessible. Other potential locations, including a city-owned lot on John Street, have also fallen through, the source said.

It was not immediately clear how soon the city plans to move or close Polisi's shop.

An EDC spokeswoman said the city is working with the South Street Seaport Museum on a new location for the shop.

A spokesman for the South Street Seaport Museum said the museum offered Polisi a different space on Water Street next to Bowne & Co. Stationers, a block inland from the Seaport. Advocates said the location is not ideal because it is farther from the East River and the museum's historic boats.

Polisi said he was in discussions with the South Street Seaport Museum but they had directed him not to comment on the potential move.

Polisi, a Long Island resident and veteran of the US Navy, took up woodcarving as a hobby three decades ago, studying with masters in New York and Italy.

He began working at the Seaport Museum as a volunteer, and in the early 1980s the museum offered him space in a rudimentary shop made of two shipping containers, shared with other volunteers who built ship models.

Today, the woodcarving shop measures 13 feet by about 32 feet and is brimming with half-carved figureheads, mallets, gouging tools and buckets of paint. A 6-foot eagle Polisi is restoring leans against one wall, while a blue heron he is carving for his wife keeps watch near one of the windows.

Although the shop has limited heat in the winter and no air-conditioning in the summer, Polisi often spends more than 40 hours a week inside, hard at work on pieces for the Seaport Museum and other museums all across the country.

Polisi's method has not changed at all during the past 30 years: Whether he is carving a figurehead or painting letters onto a sign, he does all his work by hand, with no power tools and no computer.

The Seaport Museum covers the cost of materials, but Polisi does not charge for his work.  

"I don't do it for the money," Polisi said as he painted a red border on a sign Wednesday morning. "I like the challenge…. It's very rewarding. It's fun."

Polisi also likes greeting visitors who are curious about his work, and he points proudly to a log with signatures of tourists from as far afield as China and South Africa.

Despite the threat of eviction, Polisi has no intention of retiring.

"If I retire, what do retired people do?" Polisi said with a smile. "They do their hobby, so that's what I'm going to be doing, same thing."

Polisi's longtime friends also don't want to see him go.

"I can't imagine the waterfront without him," said Naima Rauam, a painter who has known Polisi since the mid-1980s. "[The shop] gives visitors a chance to visually connect with the history of the waterfront of New York City."

The South Street Seaport Museum's woodcarving shop, just east of South Street near John Street, is open Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.