A Walk to the Old Fulton Fish Market with Robert LaValva

In the mid-1990s, while working on composting infrastructure for the NYC Department of Sanitation, city planner Robert LaValva began to engage with what was then a niche world of small-scale food purveyors who were dedicated to local, responsible food production and distribution. A decade later, he established the New Amsterdam Market, a reinvention of an institution that has existed, in one form or another, since the city first began: the public market. His mission was not just to improve the public’s access to fresh, locally-sourced food; he wanted to revive the notion of the public market as economic incubator, vibrant public space and source of civic pride.

The weekly New Amsterdam Market now operates in front of Lower Manhattan’s New Market Building and Tin Building, which have sat vacant since their previous occupant, the Fulton Fish Market, moved to Hunts Point in 2005. The buildings are some of the last vestiges of what was once a thriving public market system throughout New York City, driven by and centered around the city’s ports. Today, the neighborhood’s historical significance is sometimes overshadowed by its most conspicuous tenant, South Street Seaport’s Pier 17, often maligned as a tourist trap and glorified shopping mall, or by the Bloomberg Administration’s extensive redevelopment of the East River Esplanade. But this renewed attention to the waterfront and to Lower Manhattan seems to LaValva to be an excellent opportunity to bring the market buildings back to life by returning them to their original use as a public market. I had the opportunity to join Robert LaValva for a walk through what he calls the East River Market District, to talk about the tradition and history of the public market as civic space, the role of the city in shaping our food systems, and the value, to our cities and our psyches, of cultivating small and local commercial enterprises. –V.S.

Traces of the neighborhood's fishmongering past.
Varick Shute (VS):

Where are we starting out?

Robert LaValva (RLA):

We’re on the edge of Pearl Street, which was the shore of Manhattan in what I’ve come to call the East River Market District. The word “seaport” is somewhat of a misnomer for this area. In the earliest days it was actually called “The Ferry.” It was never called a seaport when it was a port. At heart, this is a market district. All of the 19th century buildings you see in the South Street Seaport were once connected with food. They were ship suppliers, wine importers, coffee roasters, spice importers, butchers shops, grocers.

VS:

Tell me about how you’re involved with Lower Manhattan, and why your interest in the public market has brought you here.

VS:

The idea for creating a new public market came about after I had left a job as a city planner and was pursuing an interest in food and food systems. That pursuit, I think, is a civic pursuit: how we feed ourselves, how we treat the planet and people and animals. I think the public market as a civic space should be a forum for that kind of debate and discussion — public space should be inspiring it.

Eight or nine years ago, I was working for Slow Food, which introduced me to this emerging world of food purveyors and artisans who were starting to open more small businesses focused on locally-sourced food. That really intrigued me. Around the same time, I stumbled onto the history of New York’s markets. And then a chance visit to London’s Borough Market — a historic market site that had been operational for hundreds of years —made me wonder, why can’t we have this in New York? A permanent public market site in New York, where you can really feel that weight of time, but where you can also experience the excitement of something that’s growing and new, this reemerging food system.

I started New Amsterdam Market in 2005 by holding a one-day market in the covered arcade of the Municipal Building by City Hall, which I’ve always loved as a public space. The project brought together my interest in city planning, architecture, design and public spaces with my growing interest in local food systems. In my mind, those things have always gone together. Markets are places, and the place itself is as much a part of the whole experience as what is being sold.

The Fulton Fish Market, 1892 | Image courtesy of Robert LaValva
VS:

How did you start engaging with this neighborhood? Was it the history of the marketplace, the history of the commerce and the waterfront?

RLA:

There is a book called The Market Book, a history of New York markets from Dutch times through the 1860s, written by a public market butcher named Thomas DeVoe, that became a guide for me. I learned the Essex Market actually traces its roots back to 1818, and the Fulton Market back to 1822, and there had been a Washington Market where the World Trade Center now stands.

I also found out that there are a few publicly-owned historic markets still standing in New York, like Essex Street Retail Market, Gansevoort Market and Fulton Fish Market. And that some of those still-existing markets are not fully utilized. I just kept thinking about the Fulton Fish Market, about these two buildings standing there empty. When it became clear that there were no specific plans for them, I thought we should be campaigning to preserve the spaces as a market. It’s a public site and the public has a right to determine what happens there.

VS:

Which we can see at the end of this street. So, we’re standing at the corner of Pearl Street and Beekman Street…

RLA:

It’s rare in the grid of Manhattan to find focal points, where you look down a corridor and the street ends in an actual thing. You have Grand Central Station; you have the New York Public Library down 41st Street; and you have it here, with the Tin Building and the original Fulton Fish Market. Other streets around here tend to end in views of the FDR Drive. So the building softens the effect of the highway and also becomes something that draws you down the street.

Over the years, I began to notice how the buildings around here relate to each other — the fish market building, the Fulton Market Building that was part of the Rouse Development from 1983, and then Pier 17 behind it. I’ve never loved the Rouse development. And the whole concept of the festival marketplace, while it may have had its moment, doesn’t feel like it belongs in New York. But when I strip away the content and think just about the form of the buildings, I find that they were actually quite sensitively inserted. They create a sense of cohesion that is rare in New York City. I’ve come to treasure it.

Pier 17
RLA:

I’ve spoken with Jane Thompson and Phil Loheed, both of whom had worked for Ben Thompson Associates in Boston on Pier 17 and the entire Seaport development. Their intention was for the Pier to be an incubator for new, small, locally-owned businesses. A central public courtyard was meant to be a place for low-risk, low-rent kiosks for businesses to start out. If they failed, they didn’t lose much. But if they succeeded, they could grow and maybe occupy one of the small shops upstairs or move into another space in the neighborhood. Now that space, the very best spot overlooking the water, is a chain clothing store. Successive generations of owners of this mall have increasingly moved away from that original concept of incubating local businesses, and instead have created a very generic place that anyone could find everywhere.

Many people say that the place isn’t successful, so a new mall has now been commissioned. They are blaming the form but they never talk about the content. In the new plan, again, the content is going to be big-box retail. One has to wonder if that is the right thing to be doing here. Especially when you have a lot of energy that could be funneled into supporting local businesses. Thousands of people are drawn to Pier 17 every day, particularly the decks, which function well as public space — they are almost like a stacked piazza. But the content fails to deliver.

On Front Street between Beekman and Peck Slip, you have a place that so many people tell me they are drawn to, though they can’t necessarily explain why. And inevitably the same people say that they never walk down Front Street in the opposite direction, towards Fulton Street (which is part of the “South Street Seaport” development), that they can’t stand it. The buildings are essentially the same, but everyone prefers like the north end of Front Street because it has no chain stores. The preferred stretch of Front Street is the result of an EDC redevelopment, backed by the Durst Organization and finished around 2006, that took a number of city-owned abandoned buildings and lots and assembled them under one development parcel, making sure that the buildings fit well into the neighborhood and that they worked with small businesses. The scale of it is different than typical New York streets, and the independent businesses are appealing to people. It’s an important lesson in thinking about what this area was, what it is, and what it could be.

L: Front St. between Beekman St. and Peck Slip; R: Front St. between Beekman St. and Fulton St.
VS:

Tell me about your educational and professional background, and your evolution from planning and architecture to food systems and markets.

RLA:

I studied urban planning and then got a Masters in architecture. But I became personally disconnected with architecture. I love buildings and design, but I didn’t find myself drawn to what most people found exciting in contemporary architecture. But what drew me to study architecture from the very beginning were cities and the systems that make cities work.

I ended up working at the Department of Sanitation with someone who was developing composting infrastructure. The whole idea of composting utterly fascinated me — organic processes of decay and how they relate to natural systems.

Being in the composting program exposed me to people who were thinking about permaculture, rooftop farms, urban farms, organic food. I saw that they were drawing inspiration from how agriculture was practiced in the days before cheap petroleum, how we used to feed ourselves before chemicals, pesticides and so on. Nobody is saying we should go back to the 19th century, but that was the last time that we were rapidly expanding the efficiency of agriculture before this present system got firmly entrenched. That inspired me to think, well, if people are looking to that century to inform ways forward in agriculture and food production, what about the rest of the food system? Back then it was a public market system, not a supermarket system. It’s not that we’re all going to begin shopping at public markets, but the public market can play a role in reshaping the food system.

I’m thinking of the public market at its roots, as a forum. It’s not simply a place to buy and sell food. It’s like a living organism. I think of it as a public precinct where private commerce, under a set of rules and regulations, is allowed to thrive by virtue of the proximity among so many small businesses. The advantage of being in a large marketplace is in attracting people in a way that a small business can’t when located by itself. That’s how these markets are set up.

The New Market Building, former home of the Fulton Fish Market.
VS:

Now we’re standing outside the old Fulton Fish Market. Was that how the Fish Market was set up?

RLA:

If you peer inside here, you see a space with 16 bays and at the end of each bay is kind of an office space and enclosed space. These were small stalls that allowed independent fish businesses to start and grow. As they grew, many of them became established neighborhood businesses.

There have been markets here since the 1640s. There was a market at Peck’s Slip called Peck’s Market where George Washington bought his food. You had Burling Slip, at the end of John Street, which was where all the tropical fruit would come into the city. Around 1815 or so, this residential area had become quite prosperous and the neighborhood residents wanted their own public market. And so finally Fulton Market was built.

It was one of these grand markets of the early 19th century. It had 88 butcher stalls, a coffee seller, a tripe seller, produce stalls, fish stalls. About 10 years afterwards, in the early 1830s, the vendors petitioned to have the fishmongers removed from the market and put in their own space across the street, because of the mess they made cleaning and processing all of the fish. And that was the birth of the Fulton Fish Market.

Over time, as the neighborhood changed and became less residential, the market itself and the market system began to erode, to fade away. But the fish market gradually became more and more of a wholesale market and it began to grow as the preeminent fish market. So you find a real ebb and flow over the years. And of course what we dream is that now a new market can occupy what was left behind and grow into a new type of market, relevant to our needs and thoughts today.

Scenes from New Amsterdam Market
VS:

Where does the New Amsterdam Market operate now?

RLA:

Right now, we rent space in the parking lot in front of the New Market building. It’s done through a direct relationship with EDC, who has an operating agreement with the parking lot management company. Part of the larger campaign to be inside those buildings is so that we could connect to water and electricity, but it’s also about what those buildings could and should be — processing, storage and distribution, where you could have cheeses being stored and fish being cleaned and meat being cut.

Many of our vendors have identified distribution and processing as key challenges to their businesses. One of the reasons local food or regional food is so expensive is that it’s a really inefficient system. And while it won’t necessarily become cheap, it will become more affordable when the whole system around getting local food to the city, distributing it and processing it becomes less patchwork and benefits from economies of scale. Markets like ours can help facilitate that change.

VS:

How do your efforts intersect with City initiatives, and how has your experience as a planner informed your work? A number of City officials, Christine Quinn and Scott Stringer being the most vocal examples, have been active in advancing policies connected to food systems, the regional foodshed and food-related industry — your timing on this project seems to be good.

RLA:

Timing obviously has something to do with these things. There’s always the element of cultural change. It used to be a very esoteric topic. Now there’s been a shift and more people are asking how to eat in a way that’s healthier for us and for the planet. The fact that these issues have entered into public consciousness has been what’s enabled our project to gain momentum.

The Tin Building
RLA:

In terms of the city, I’ll take it a step back. The New Market Building was built in 1939 under Mayor LaGuardia, a time that marked the fall of the public market system. The fall began in the 1840s in New York City, when, under pressure from immigrant butchers, an old law whereby meat could only be bought in the public markets from licensed public market butchers was overturned. In some ways it was for good reason, but it also meant that the whole public markets system began to slowly erode. But since it was an old and venerable way of doing things, it took 100 years to fall apart completely.

So, in 1939 we still had the Department of Markets in the City of New York, which existed to create rules and promote economic development. During the Depression, it had radio broadcasts telling housewives what fish was cheapest that day, it held cooking classes, it was doing all sorts of things that are being carried out by other entities today. When I hear elected officials like Christine Quinn and Scott Stringer talking about these issues, I think there might one day be a City Department of Markets again. Of course we now have the USDA, the FDA, we have federal agencies that look at the food system. But I think the City can play a role in shaping the food system as well. That’s something that will take a long time to come to be, but I think the path has been set now for that to happen.

VS:

What is that role? What do you think the city can do that a federal agency can’t?

RLA:

I think that first and foremost the city can play a very active role in supporting regional agriculture. It can facilitate the growth of businesses, distributers, wholesalers, purveyors and retailers. More and more people are making food using local ingredients —it might seem a little faddish, but there are people doing this very seriously. Food businesses are very hard to start; they don’t make enormous profits, nor should they. The people who are committed to this work just want to make a good living sourcing, producing, distributing and selling food that they know is healthy, is good for the planet, and that doesn’t abuse animals or workers — and they should be able to. If the City can facilitate the growth of these businesses, it will do the regional food system a huge favor and it will do itself a favor, because it will help bring diversity to the city’s economy and diversity and health to daily life.

Shops at Pier 17
VS:

Similar to the changing public desire for markets and for local food, there’s also a huge shift in the public perception of what public space means in the city — pedestrian plazas, shared uses of streets, the idea of using the city as your living room, and ensuring that public spaces are active and alive. What role does the public market play in the citywide discussion of public space?

RLA:

That question speaks to a lot of my motivation. The public market is one of the most ancient forms of public space. Streets are another one, but long before there was such as a thing as a park, which is what most people think of public space now days, there were public markets — think of the Greek agorae. There was something about bringing commerce, agriculture and the merchants of agriculture into the public space that was very important. They had an element of the sacred to them.

One thing I learned when looking at the agora is that there were stones called horoi that marked all the edges of the markets in the city. One of the reasons they were there was to prevent the encroachment of private buildings on that space. This was their way of saying, “this place belongs to the public.”

I think that the value of the public market as a public space is so ancient and so fundamental to civilization that it’s not something to be questioned.

For New York City, on the East River in particular, from Peck Slip down to Lower Manhattan, the waterfront is our agora, our forum. This is where the port was born, where the markets were born, where commerce was born. Our genetic energy is here. With all these elements coming together, a public interest in food, in markets, in public space, in the waterfront, it seems to me that we should be bringing this market, these buildings back to life, and making this place the epicenter of all of the redevelopment happening along the East River.

Pier 15
VS:

Speaking of which, here we are at the newly-opened Pier 15. How have the ongoing developments along the East River waterfront affected the market and the dynamics of the area?

RLA:

What SHoP Architects has done on Pier 15 is very compelling, it draws people, it’s engaging. And I think — I hope — it will continue to improve as a public site as tenants and uses are introduced. But design can only take you so far. The original Pier 17 was considered an “instant landmark” by the architectural critics of the day, but its content has turned off an entire generation of New Yorkers.

Dedication to fostering unique commerce doesn’t necessarily mean lower revenue. Local, independent businesses have their own particular appeal. But it also takes more energy and effort to cultivate that kind of thing. I am not suggesting that there is no place in our world for big brands. We all use them — people go to chain drug stores, we go to Staples to buy supplies. It’s a reality of how we consume things today. But I think there could be a lot more balance, and that balance would actually make the place even more compelling. When you see nothing but the same stores over and over, especially in such a unique, historic site, the banality is striking. I think all that sameness is a draw on our psyche.

The paradox of marketplaces is that they draw people, so they draw commerce, so they become coveted by and taken over by people who want to draw from that traffic, and, over time, they no longer are the places they once were. The public market as an institution may have had its highs and lows, but the fact that they are coming back in so many different guises I think means that we are wishing them back. It’s way beyond what any individual, politician, or group of people can do, but it all stems from the human will to create these spaces.

I think that we know that our whole system of commerce is wrecked. There’s no trust in markets. They’ve led to several worldwide global recessions, depressions, collapses, and so on, essentially because people are conducting business at an enormous scale and are not being watched. The function of markets should be to provide a forum where things are watched. I think, maybe subconsciously, we’re groping for how we can restart. And I think food may be the starting point because, well, we all have to eat.

All photos by Varick Shute unless otherwise noted.

Robert LaValva is the founder and president of New Amsterdam Market, and a native New Netherlander (born in New Jersey). He studied urban planning at New York University and architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He worked for ten years as a planner for the City of New York, where he helped establish one of the country’s largest urban composting programs. In 2002 he left government to pursue his interest in sustainable agriculture and found his way to Slow Food, where, among other activities, he instituted a consortium for raw milk cheese producers; worked on programs to help preserve biodiversity in crops and livestock; and managed Slow Food’s Urban Harvest festival, which he staged in 2005 as the first New Amsterdam Market. He is committed to reviving New York City’s tradition of public markets, rededicated to regional food and responsible sourcing, and to reinventing the thriving culture of the urban agora.

Comments

Gus July 13, 2012

Great to see how food systems intertwine with civic engagement, urban archaeology and the built environment. Looking forward to checking out the market on a free weekend.

Judith July 16, 2012

I wasn’t able to read the whole interview, but look forward to getting back to it. The idea of connecting farmers’s markets et al with the historical markets in some way is fascinating. I am impressed by people who work to make these connections and are not discouraged.

karen martin February 13, 2015

It was always told in my family that my grandfather, Hobart Alexander Walker, who lived in Brooklyn, was the designer
of the original Fulton Fish Market-is there any way or any records that might show if this is true or not. Thanks. My
family is coming out in April to see all the places he designed, and we plan on going there. Such an interesting
history-
Karen Martin