Downtown Alliance, August 2008

Downtown Dialogue

Live . . . work . . . thrive. . . Downtown

By Liz Berger

When Whole Foods Market opened its newest Manhattan location at 270 Greenwich Street this July, Lower Manhattan returned to the top of the culinary Ferris wheel. We’ve come a long way from the days when Downtown pioneers traveled uptown or to New Jersey for groceries.

Historically, Downtown has been a world food capital—or at least, a center for some of the most exotic food on earth, with markets full of an extraordinary range of incredible edibles.

In the 1600’s, the waters around New Amsterdam were so oversupplied with fish that fishermen routinely cast away female sturgeon, along with the roe. That’s right: they threw away caviar! The fishermen, after all, had their nets full of salmon, striped bass, perch, trout, halibut, herring, mackerel, flounder, lobster, oysters, crabs and clams.

America’s first gourmet restaurant—and the country’s most famous eating establishment—opened in Lower Manhattan in 1837. Delmonico’s, doing business at 56 Beaver Street for the past 171 years, at one point served 47 different veal dishes and 50 fish dishes. Delmonico’s is the birthplace of baked Alaska and lobster Newburg, and the place where Diamond Jim Brady would eat six dozen oysters before starting his meal.

Exotic food made its way to New York’s public markets through Lower Manhattan’s docks. In The Market Assistant (1867), Thomas Farrington De Voe described what was for sale here, back in the day: elk, caribou, reindeer, antelope, beaver, otter, badger, swan, pheasant, quail and partridge, to name a few. The "variety, quantity and quality of wild-fowl and birds,” wrote De Voe, “is not surpassed in any other city of the world."

In the 1880’s, Washington Market opened on the square bounded by Fulton, Vesey, Washington and West Streets. This wholesale distribution center for all kinds of groceries “offered everything from codfish tongues to bear steaks,” according to a contemporary guide. The market had sprawled as far north as Canal Street by the 1930’s, and was the city’s largest for a time.

But the market declined. Produce merchants left for Hunts Point, Bronx in the 1960’s, and the historic market structures were demolished in the name of urban renewal. The last Washington Market butter-and-egg dealer held out until 1998, when he moved to Secaucus, New Jersey.

That same year, the Alliance for Downtown New York decided to act on a survey we had taken of Downtown residents, who said that quality grocery stores in the Financial District were at the top of their wish list. Supporting commercial property through residential property had been the founding principal of the Downtown Alliance, so in order to improve quality of life for residents, businesses and—let’s not forget—tourists, we decided to lure a great grocery store Downtown.

The large grocery chains all said the same thing: the area now known as Greenwich South didn’t have enough foot traffic and the space we recommended for a grocery store—a 7,500 square-foot unit at 130 Cedar Street—was too small. We were undeterred. We hunted for a boutique food purveyor instead.

We found Amish Market and put the owner in touch with the Cedar Street landlord. The two negotiated a lease, but Amish Market needed help to make it happen. In the end, we received contributions from 11 buildings to help subsidize the store. Our plan was unique, since legally the Downtown Alliance, as a BID, cannot subsidize an individual entity—but because residential owners and developers supported the idea of a gourmet Downtown grocer, they agreed to a voluntary, five-year partial rent subsidy.

If this entire production sounds a bit like Klaus Kinski’s efforts to haul a steamship up the side of a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, it was, because Lower Manhattan had fallen hard from its glory days of gastronomy. But just as Fitzcarraldo got his ship up the mountain and built an opera house in the Amazon, the Alliance underwent its own struggle and ended up delivering something that made living, working and visiting Lower Manhattan more enjoyable and delicious. We had said at the start, “If you build it, they will come”—and they did. Amish Market spawned a crop of sophisticated food markets Downtown, including Zeytuna and Jubilee, as well as another Amish Market on Park Place. And, grocery stores, including the 7,500 square-foot Gristedes on Maiden Lane that opened last October, now pay market-rate rents in our community.

Downtown has reheated its culinary legacy, with an explosion of area restaurants. There’s Cipriani, Haru Sushi, Stella Maris, Trinity Place and Harry’s Steak, and Todd English’s Libertine is on its way. Les Halles and many white-tablecloth restaurants now deliver, and Fresco to Go has joined the long list of high-quality takeout choices, including Alfanoose, Sophie’s Cuban Cuisine on Chambers Street, Fulton Street and New Street and Adrienne’s Pizzabar. There are madeleines at Financier, designer chocolates at Christopher Norman and regular wine tastings at The Greene Grape and Pasanella and Sons—to name just a few of Lower Manhattan’s offerings.

Have I mentioned the greenmarkets in Lower Manhattan? You can now find fresh, local produce at greenmarkets at Bowling Green, City Hall Park and the Staten Island Ferry Whitehall Terminal. There are also greenmarkets at Cedar Street and Broadway, Broadway and Chamber Streets and Greenwich Street and Chambers Street. Consult for hours.

Will Trader Joe’s be next?

-- Liz Berger is President of Downtown Alliance

Downtown Alliance Columns:

July 2008:
Live . . . work . . . thrive. . . Downtown

August 2008:
Live . . . work . . . thrive. . . Downtown

September 2008:
Seven Years Later

October 2008:
Where Wall Street and Main Street are the Same Street

November 2008:
I’m Just Not Buying Unlawful Vending in Lower Manhattan

December 2008:
Home for the Holidays

January 2009:
Let's keep Lower Manhattan Moving

February 2009:
The Cutting Edge

April 2009:
Spring is Sprung




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