Volume 17 • Issue 33 • Jan. 7 - 13, 2005

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Fulton Fish Market

Seaport’s fish reflections

By Ronda Kaysen

Wednesday morning at the Fulton Fish Market was no different than any other morning in the last 170 years. A fishmonger named Stretch, with a steel hook dangling from his shoulder, packed Tilapia in ice. A journeyman, wincing from the sleet, shoved his hands into his jacket pockets, the East River gray and foreboding behind him. Soon, this will be gone.

The Fulton Fish Market, where 150 million pounds of fish change hands each year, will leave its South Street Seaport home soon and head uptown, to a new facility at Hunt’s Point in the South Bronx. The move, expected to occur before April, will be completed over the course of a single weekend. The mood from the fishmongers, neighborhood residents and business owners is bittersweet, a mix of nostalgia for the market that has called the neighborhood home since 1835 and curiosity about the future that will soon take shape.

“I’ve started bringing my camera down here to take pictures,” said Patrick O’Toole, loading boxes into a van. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like here in 10 years.” He has been working in the market for 10 years. His father and grandfather worked in the market before him. He grew up at the market, coming down with his father when he was 12 years old.

He is anxious about commuting to the South Bronx. “There’s a 12-foot wire fence at the new location, no one wants to work there,” he said. “You ever been to Hunt’s Point? It’s not very safe.”

Not everyone is as wary about the new location, however. “We should’ve moved 50 years ago. The only thing different between now and 1858 is they paved it,” said Anthony Grippa of Universal Seafood. He has been working at the market since 1972. “This place is antiquated. There’s not enough refrigeration. It’s really insufficient for the type of volume and product. Look at the garbage, all those pigeons,” he said, pointing to the pigeons hopping about the muddy, cracked pavement.

The new $85 million, 450,000-square-foot facility on 30 acres in Hunt’s Point will be temperature controlled and self contained. “This is a world class city and a world class city needs a world class fish market,” said Grippa.

“It’s going to be a godsend. I’ve seen the thermometer at the Watchtower stuck for a solid week below zero,” said Billy Bartane, who used to own his own business in the market until 1988 when he joined M. Slavin & Son. “I don’t know what it’s like to work inside.”

With a modern facility far from the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges that have stood guard over the market for generations, comes an end of an era. “There’s a certain flavor to the market and it’ll be gone,” said Robert Katlowitz, a fishmonger at M. Slavin & Son for 23 years. “When the sun rises on a summer morning, when the weather’s nice, it’s really amazing.”

One market employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed concern that the new facility may not be financially viable. He worries the cost of running the new facility will be too high. The industry, he added, is changing and moving to a new facility will not necessarily guarantee a safe future for the market. More and more buyers buy their fish from wholesalers like Costco.

“A lot of the customers, they’re not going to go up there [to Hunt’s Point],” said Vinny Salzillo, a journeyman, sitting in Fresh Salt, a nearby bar, after his shift had finished. “A lot of our customers will start buying direct.”

Just what will come of the neighborhood remains to be seen. The city and General Growth Properties, which owns the South Street Seaport, have remained tightlipped about the market’s future. General Growth has right of first refusal for the market and the Tin Building. “We haven’t begun any planning because the market is still in operation,” said Michael Piazzola, general manager of the South Street Seaport Marketplace. “The asset has to be considered in relation to the whole seaport area, it can’t be planned in a vacuum.”

Andrew Brent, a spokesperson for the city’s Economic Development Corporation, did not offer any new plans for the Seaport area. The Hunt’s Point facility is complete, he said, and the move will happen “very soon,” although he did not mention a specific date.

Marc Donnenfeld, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Civic Center/Seaport Committee expects that whatever replaces the market will face careful scrutiny from the community. “We’re going to look very carefully at what is being proposed and see how it will impact the economy and the neighborhood and Downtown in general,” he said. The board has made several recent attempts to arrange a meeting with the city and General Growth, to no avail.

The move will affect not just the people who work there — a whole marketplace that rises at midnight and shuts its weary eyes at 8 a.m. — but also the symbiotic community of businesses that serve it.

Sara Williams, co-owner of Fresh Salt, a bar and café on Beekman St., opens her doors early to serve the fishmongers. When she opened for business on Labor Day, she assumed she would be selling coffee to local residents in the morning. She did not expect the morning crowd of market workers ordering whiskey and beer. “You should come by Friday morning,” she said. “That’s their Friday night and it’s really busy here.”

She does not know how the market’s departure will affect business. “It’s New York, everything always keeps changing,” she said. “It’s always interesting to see what happens next.”

Naima Rauam, an artist who paints fish market scenes, is not concerned about what the neighborhood will be like when the fishmongers leave: she is going with them. She sublets her studio space, Art in the Afternoon, from the Blue Ribbon Fish Company. Moving to the Bronx, she said, “Will be better for the fish, but not for the painting.”

A Lower East Side resident, Rauam bikes or walks to her studio everyday. Like many of the workers in the market, she will be facing a much longer commute. “It’s going to be a schlep,” she said. “But there’s no point in getting upset about it, it’s a fait accompli.”

Some merchants, however, are delighted to see the market leave. Mike Flanagan, a co-owner of MacMenamin’s Irish Pub at Pier 17, remembers fondly the period after 9/11 when the market temporarily relocated to the Bronx. “It was great, it was fantastic,” he said. “The place was much, much cleaner… I was hoping they would stay away.” He looks forward to watching the area develop and enjoying the new customers the development might bring his pub, which suffers, he said, from vehicular restrictions during market hours, especially on the holidays.

None of the market workers interviewed suggested they would consider leaving the market when it moves. A union job with good benefits, the market is still a good job, no matter where it is located. “Hell yeah I’m going!” said Moe Zahriyeh, who left his family’s deli and grocery business on Staten Island eight months ago to work at the fish market. “I’ll leave my wife before I leave the market.”


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