…And Thanks For All The Fish

by Misha Lepetic

“Fish is as natural in Fulton Market as they are in their own briny element.”
~Harper's Magazine, 1867

Elliott_Erwitt_Fulton_Fish_Market_New_York_1276_67Followers of the New York City food scene have recently been galvanized by yet another all-too-predictable brawl between, on the one hand, real estate developers and the city and, on the other, scrappy entrepreneurs bent on preserving another endangered aspect of New York's urban heritage. In this case, the contested site is the Fulton Fish Market, whose fishmongering operations had already decamped to the Bronx back in 2005. Since then, two sizable waterfront buildings have remained astonishingly, unconscionably empty. In the meantime, the New Amsterdam Market, founded by Robert LaValva, has grown its following with increasingly successful seasonal, weekly markets, conducted in the shadow of the old fish market for the last seven years.

Not only has New Amsterdam Market been steadily expanding since its 2005 inception, but LaValva's vision is decidedly more ambitious: to re-occupy the former market buildings and create an urban market as worthy of New York as Reading Terminal Market is of Philadelphia, as La Bocqueria is of Barcelona, or as Les Halles once was of Paris. This unstoppable force has, unsurprisingly, run into the immovable object of what we may call the “city-developer complex.”

But in order to understand what it would take to recreate the Fulton Market, it is instructive to look back to its genesis. Markets tend not spring wholly formed from the minds of expert city planners, visionary mayors, or magnanimous philanthropists; nor do they manifest themselves in some sui generis manner from self-organizing associations of merchants. They are messy affairs, constantly contended and never fully secure. What, then, drives the creation – and maintenance – of a successful urban market?

Fulton Market's site on the East River, in retrospect, seemed to be the perfect place for a market. As a tidal strait, the East River was much freer of the ice floes that plagued shipping on the Hudson; it furthermore had the advantage of facing Brooklyn, whose incipient ferry service was about to create New York's first commuting class. But the origins of the market, usually dated to 1822, reach much further back, to 1695, and to a site a few blocks south, known as the Fly Market. As David Allgeyer writes in “The Tip of The Island:”

“Vley Market”…came to be used for a trading center which was developing in the general area known as “Smit's (Smith's) Valley.” “Valley” was shortened to “Vley,” and eventually “Vley” became corrupted [albeit appropriately] to “Fly.” [It] became the main trading center for the townspeople with Long Island farmers. In the late 1700's two pavilions were erected for the merchants [sic] activities during inclement weather. The one at the foot of the slip was a fish market. At the foot of the slip were steps leading down to the water level, where a dock for the Long Island Ferry boarded passengers. Apparently the Ferry to Brooklyn also used the dock [for] some period of time. (pp121-2).

Despite this seemingly sensible evolution, the Fly Market was situated over an open sewer, which made summertime operation difficult; moreover, the vendors wanted to get closer to the docks where the new ferry to Brooklyn had been operating since 1814 – the cartage fee was eating into their profits. Certainly by 1815 the idea had been floated, and by March of 1817 the state legislature had empowered the city to take possession of the land. However, the city dragged its heels until the following incident, as documented in Thomas Farrington De Voe's richly detailed (and delightfully chatty) 1862 compendium The Market Book: Containing a Historical Account of the Public Markets of the Cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Brooklyn [etc].:

Early in 1821, a large fire took place in Fulton Street, Front Street, and Crane's Wharf, which destroyed all the wooden buildings on this site. This induced the Mayor to call a meeting of the Board on the 29th of January of that year, for the purpose of deciding the question, “Whether or no a public market shall be erected on this site.” The Gazette of that date says: “The late conflagration has exposed to view this beautiful spot of ground, which has so universally been considered as the most eligible of situations for a market, and which has already been actually vested in the Corporation for the purpose of a market.” (De Voe, 488ff)

Thus it was thanks to a tabula rasa – of however dubious a provenance – that the Fulton Market had its start. Even then it was a struggle to get the market opened: further cajoling and browbeating of the City Council was needed to persuade it of its duty to erect a public market in an area where the value of real estate was rapidly climbing. In fact, the Council enlisted several lawyers to argue that it was under no obligation to build what it promised on the land that had been so conveniently cleared for it. Nevertheless, Fulton Market opened for business on January 22, 1822.


But in case anyone might think this was an urban market mecca, à la Union Square's now-famous Greenmarket, Robert Greenhalgh Albion, writing in “The Rise of New York Port” (1939), quotes a Glasgow printer as noting that the slips, “being completely out of the current of the stream or tide, are little else than stagnant receptacles of city filth; while the top of the wharves exhibits one continuous mass of clotted nuisance, composed of dust, tea, oil, molasses, &c., where revel countless swarms of offensive flies” (p221).

Business was not without its rambunctious aspects, either: the initial 1822 auction of stalls had been boycotted by the butchers due to the greediness of the council, and when one of their profession crossed the picket line he was unceremoniously seized, thrashed and tossed into the East River (De Voe, p493). Nevertheless, as the city evolved, so did its port, and the supply of fresh fish, oysters and other seafood continued unabated, of which Fulton Market rapidly became the epicenter. Soon enough it had become nearly the largest in the city, second only to Washington Market; as an example of its prodigious supply, by 1867, the anonymous writer for Harper's Magazine featured in the epigraph above was able to report that, thanks to the Market, “with regard to oysters, about 250,000 are daily eaten in New York during the “R” months; about 25,000 per diem during the remaining months of the year.”


And yet more overpowering than the smell of fish was the smell of money. The city's foot-dragging in 1821 as it sensed more lucrative revenue opportunities for the land dedicated to the market would be not be the last time such preferences emerged. As Philip Lopate writes in his excellent introduction to Barbara Mensch's book of photographs chronicling the Fish Market's twilight years:

[In] April 4, 1857, a Tribune editorial had argued…that it made more fiscal sense to close the downtown markets and sell the property to realtors:

The ground occupied by Washington Market is estimated to be worth $385,000; Fulton Market, $210,000. A more accurate estimate, at present values, would make the aggregate near a million dollars – certainly as much as that including the wharf and dock rights. The markets are now far away from their customers; dwelling and boarding houses have been generally abandoned in their vicinity, and… the people who still resort to these markets would be more generally accommodated if they were removed a considerable distance uptown; the city would profit largely by selling these sites, and the rush and crowd of Broadway below the park would be sensibly relieved by withdrawing the thousands of carts and wagons which necessarily throng around the present markets (pp9-10).

Aside from being exquisitely prescient of the Fish Market's future, this is illustrative of a larger truth. Cities have traditionally held little concern for the means by which the populace feeds itself. Usually, things are left to just manage themselves, unless there is good money to be made from taxing alcohol and other kinds of conspicuous consumption. It is only when waves of cholera sweep the slums are efforts made to clean up the drinking water supply; similarly, it is only when the streets are clogged with vendors that prevent the effective transaction of “business” (as if the purchase of foodstuffs is not business at all) that permanent spots for markets stand a chance of being created.

Les-pushcart_market_1During the 1930s, NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia presented one model for doing so: he “made it a mission to eradicate “pushcart evil”, calling it “a blemish on the face of the city” that must be removed. He envisioned a brighter, cleaner Lower East Side that erased any vestiges left from its ethnic immigrant past. Under LaGuardia's leadership, new laws forbade any goods from being sold on the street.” Instead, he organized several indoor markets around the city, including the Lower East Side's Essex Street Market, and La Marqueta in East Harlem, among six others; four are still standing today, more than seventy years later. However, it also bears mentioning that those vendors who could not afford the indoor fees became unemployed.*

In the meantime, Fulton Fish Market had turned to wholesale as well as retail, thus further cementing its vital position. The trade was so profitable, in fact, that all other, non-seafood vendors had been bought out; the Mob, too, smelled the money sometime in the 1930s and began making its own inroads. But, improbably, the venue remained, with its absurd hours (the best time to get fish was when you'd finished clubbing downtown, around three or four in the morning), even more absurd characters (I dearly enjoyed hanging out with Annie around the time I moved to the City, about 13 years ago), and a general atmosphere of unsurpassed crankiness and camaraderie. It was probably the last place in Manhattan where you could walk up to a couple of guys warming themselves over a trashcan fire and cadge a smoke off of them, and wind up shooting the bull for an hour.

Eventually, with the Disney-fication of South Street Seaport, these practices were squeezed out of existence, one by one. Which leads us to ask, why should something like this have persisted for so long? Philip Lopate proposes a sort-of answer:

Quick to innovate, New York will then conservatively attach itself to a physical status quo, however cumbersome and even ugly, so long as it is reassuringly familiar. Two reasons may be proffered: first, the large immigrant population often prefers casual, under-regulated work environments; second, the town being a famously difficult if exciting place to live, the typical New Yorker does not expect comfort, proudly adjusting to crisis or hassle through a mixture of resilience and resignation (pp1-2).

I wonder, however, if this is still the New York that exists today. Certainly Fulton Fish Market, as I have sketched it above, is gone, and gone forever. Now situated in a state-of-the-art facility in the Bronx, the peanut-gallery/jury of the fishmongers themselves is still out as whether any of this was a good idea. Not that there is any going back. If anything, Bloomberg's New York seems intent on pushing anything unpolished and wholesale into the periphery, if not beyond the city limits. It seems as if the only kind of “urban market” that can open these days in New York is the likes of an overpriced gastro-fantasyland such as Eataly, a place where you will never be in doubt to whom to give your money.

FFM_tagWhile these are no longer gritty, vaguely intimidating places but shiny, welcoming temples where there is simply no room for someone like Annie, this is not the axe I want to grind here, as tempting as it might be. The more important issue is how this development closely mirrors the larger shift, that cities are now largely perceived by policymakers as sites of consumption, and not of production or interaction. And yet, in all this time the task of feeding the city has not changed one whit.

Which brings us back to the future of New Amsterdam Market. What future would that be? I refer readers to other, more capable commentators on the ins and outs of the recent political process, which, shall we say, is about as sausage-y as sausage-making gets. LaValva's vision is what is compelling: a vibrant regional food hub for farmers and producers; retailers and wholesalers; tourists, restaurants and regular New Yorkers alike. This is not an attempt to reproduce the grungy flair of the original market, but it definitely is not a further step in the ongoing homogenization of New York, and many other cities. It is, if anything, a valiant attempt to reweave the urban and rural fabrics.

But without the overt pressures that drove planners and officials to create markets in the past – whether they were rioting butchers, caroming pushcarts, or other public health hazards, real or imagined – it is difficult to see what inspiration will impel our recalcitrant officials to forego the kind of alliances that have proven so fruitful in the recent past. These days, more than ever, it is a big money game. The kind of money that people cannot really visualize (although films like Battle for Brooklyn and My Brooklyn are a good start, and deserving of a separate post). The kind of money for which people are willing to be very, very patient. Indeed, the developer who a week ago said “If I got $300 a square foot [in commercial tenants' rent], I'd be very happy…we want to charge as much rent as we can…” reminded me of 1821, when, nearly 200 years ago, almost no market came to be built at all. And yet, stranger things came to pass.


*Incidentally, for seven years I lived across the street from a produce shop that was owned by one of Brooklyn's last horse-and-cart vendors. Even for Jimmy's obituary, the Times couldn't resist quoting its earlier (less gentler?) self:

Of course, not everyone looked upon the peddlers kindly. The New York Times wrote (somewhat sneeringly) in 1884: “Is there any satisfaction at all in buying the freshest and greenest vegetables from a lank-haired dirty fingered peddler who probably never saw a fifty-acre farm in his life?” It continued: “They all sell at poor people's prices and get poor people's custom, but they have no more in common with the mob and rabble around the auction wagons of the vendors than they have with a wholesale grocery house in West Broadway.”