By Ronda Kaysen
Ask David Samuels why hes still selling fish from a stall on South St. and youll get an earful.
The owner of the Blue Ribbon Fish Company is fuming that a New York State judge ruled against the Fulton Fish Market and the city in a civil case last week, halting the markets move to a new state-of-the-art facility in the South Bronx.
We dont want to be Downtown, we dont want to be here at all, Samuels said standing inside his stall early Tuesday morning, surrounded by crates of fish and boxes of packaged crab meat. Were sitting on prime real estate and we dont want to be here.
But for the time being, this is exactly where the fish market will be. Laro Service Systems, the Long Island-based company that has unloaded fish for the merchants for the past 10 years, filed a lawsuit against the city and the market last month after the fish merchants were awarded a license by the city to unload their own fish when they relocate to the new market in the South Bronx.
Laro insists that by giving the fish market which will be a cooperative of about 60 wholesalers dubbed the New Fulton Fish Market Cooperative at Hunts Point rights to both unload and sell fish creates a monopoly. Harking back to an era when the fish market was synonymous with the mafia, Laro maintains that giving so much control over the market to merchants who were allegedly tied to organized crime until a decade ago opens the door for a new era of criminal behavior.
Judge Carol Edmead agreed, ruling against the city and the cooperative on Oct. 5.
Mayor Giuliani shoved organized crime out of the market soon after he came to office in 1994 by establishing stiff background checks for market workers and owners. He also offered an outside company Laro the sole contract to unload fish for the merchants.
The current administration violates city law by granting the co-op an unloading license, Laro insists. In a strange twist of city politics, the lawyer representing Laro now, Randy Mastro, was deputy mayor for Giuliani and led the fight to clean up the fish market in the mid-90s.
Im so disappointed with the mayor [Bloomberg], I cant even tell you, said Laro owner Robert Bertuglia, Jr. in a telephone interview. Hes standing side by side with them [the wholesalers] against me.
The ruling, said Bertuglia, proves that justice prevails.
For the merchants toiling Downtown, accusations of organized crime come with a sting. The workers down at the market are tired of being called hoodlums, said Samuels. Besides, Organized crime cant come back. It aint coming back. Why should it come back?
If the city accepted the judges ruling and withdrew the co-ops unloading license, the market could relocate immediately. But both the city and the co-op have opted to appeal instead. They will file an appeal with a mid-level appellate court on Friday in the hopes of overturning the lower courts decision.
The judge misread the law, said Gabriel Taussig, a lawyer for the city, adding that Laro misread it, as well.
While the case works its way through the court system, a brand new $85 million state-of-the-art facility in the South Bronx sits vacant, awaiting the arrival of the fish market, which has been based on South St. in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge for 170 years.
I cant believe were not there now. Im shocked and Im angry and Im very upset, said Samuels.
Originally slated to move last December, this recent delay marks the fifth time the markets move has been stalled. As merchants wait to move, South St. falls into disrepair. Hallway light bulbs havent been changed in anticipation of an imminent move and the stalls are in need of maintenance. The dank, narrow street, bustling with forklifts and soaked with the stench of fish, has long since passed its prime.
Everyone is quite frustrated because were all in limbo, said Naima Rauam, an artist who has been the markets resident painter since 1983. She rents her studio space, Art in the Afternoon, from Blue Ribbon Fish Company, and plans to move with the market to the new location, although she will still have a presence in the Seaport. Generally the mood at the market is everyone is just sort of spinning their wheels. Just sort of waiting for it to happen.
The delay also costs the merchants money. Already, the cooperative has hired security personnel for the 430,000 sq. ft. structure, maintenance workers and a manager. Some merchants have purchased office equipment and supplies, said Rauam and packed much of their equipment away. Legal fees have cost the co-op as much as $150,000 so far, said Samuels. The city currently pays $70,000 a month in maintenance, security and utilities, costs that would have been paid by the cooperative, if they occupied the building.
Money is what is driving this entire lawsuit, say some merchants. Its about money, what else would it be? said Frank Minio, president of the cooperative and owner of Smittys Fillet House, standing outside his stall Tuesday morning, surrounded by crates of fish.Bertuglia agrees that money drives his lawsuit. His company stands to lose about $2 million a year if it loses the fish market business. But it is also about doing the right thing, he said.
The question that comes into play is: what is the law? he said. Im ready to move tonight to Hunts Point. I have a license to unload and Im ready to unload.
But the cooperative sees the unloading business as a way to drive down costs in an industry in the midst of a rapid transformation. Its not a great time for the seafood business, said Minio, adding that overhead at the new facility will be much higher than it is now. If the market controls the unloading business, this could wind up being a tremendous boon for the seafood industry.