Places that Matter

New Market Building

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Photo by New Amsterdam Market, 2006
Photo by New Amsterdam Market, 2006
Photo by Barbara Mensch, mid-1980s, courtesy of New Amsterdam Market
WPA-era Fulton Fish Market building
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Place Matters Profile

Written for Place Matters by Prithi Kanakamedala, July 2013

Fulton Fish Market, formerly located at the Tin Building (completed 1907) and New Market Building (completed 1939) in Lower Manhattan, was a vibrant wholesale market until 2005 when the city relocated it to the Bronx. Today, several activist groups hope to preserve and restore the empty New Market Building to its former cultural importance, one that reflects New York’s peculiar economic and gastronomic history.
The New Market Building sits on the Manhattan shoreline of the East River. The Lenape, New York’s original residents, relied on Manahatta’s East River for fish, shellfish, oysters and its rich natural resources. The East River was also paramount to the Dutch and the English colonizers who, after displacing the Lenape and renaming the land New Amsterdam and New York respectively, used the land’s easy access to water to turn the colonial outpost into an economic epicenter of the New World.
As New York transformed into a busy global mercantile port city, a vibrant public market system reflecting its cosmopolitanism opened along the East River. The Fulton Market opened in 1822. Much of the market’s produce arrived via ferry (the Brooklyn Bridge would not open for another 60 years) from neighboring Brooklyn which still remained an agricultural hinterland. The market also contained a few fish stalls. By 1838, a separate Fulton Fish Market intended for wholesale purchase opened, but its existence along the East River was always fraught. As early as 1855, New Yorkers debated whether to move the Fulton Fish Market further uptown arguing that the water near the market “was filled with maggots and black as mud.” (New York Times, May 3, 1855).
Global Fish Market – Rise and Decline
On October 19, 1869, a permanent building said to resemble a banquet hall became the center for a localized fish industry that opened at 4am and closed by late afternoon. It was located along South Street between Beekman and Fulton Streets and stood next to the Fulton Ferry Terminal that transported both people and goods across the East River. On November 17, 1878 the wooden structure burned down and a new building was erected. In 1939, the city built the New Market Building for the Fulton Fish Market. Designed by architects Albert W. Lewis and John D. Churchill (who also contributed designs for other municipal market buildings including the Gansevoort, Essex Street, Bronx Terminal and First Avenue Retail Markets), the proposal inititally called for three structures. The architecture of the New Market Building, the first and only of the three proposed units to be erected, represented the modern utilitarian style of the WPA era. By this stage, the Fulton Fish Market was central to both domestic and international markets. The market handled approximately 250,000,000 pounds of fish a year from all parts of the world: Cuban swordfish, redsnapper from Florida, crabs from Alaska, trout from Denmark and Germany, sturgeon from Canada, lobster tails from South Africa and shrimp from India. (New York Times, June 24, 1956). Like much of the stretch along the East River, the area bustled with the loud sounds and smells of pedestrians, workers, transportation, cargo, and of course, fish.
By the 1990s, the Fulton Fish Market was the largest in the country and was one of the last reminders of New York’s paramount global importance as a port city. Following the significant downturn in New York’s waterfront commerce combined with new industry standards for the storage of fish, changes in consumer choice of buying frozen packed fish rather than fresh, control of organized crime in the area, and the city’s own economic crises, the facility was deemed too much of a burden to upgrade and sustain. In November 2005, a multi-million dollar indoor facility in Hunts Point, Bronx became the new home for the Fulton Fish Market and supplied grocery stores and restaurants around the United States.
Today – Preserving and Reviving the New Market Building
Today the New Market Building, the original site of the Fulton Fish Market along the East River, lays empty. Activist groups have worked over the last few decades to restore the market to its former importance as part of general renewal in the South Street Seaport area. More recently, New York’s Historic Districts Council, Save Our Seaport, the New Amsterdam Market, and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance have formed the Save Our Seaport Coalition. The group’s mission is to preserve public space in the neighborhood, and for the New Market Building to serve local communities and draw visitors. Currently, they face competition from private developers who want to demolish the building and turn the area into luxury condos.
Reviving the wholesale fish market at the New Market Building is not simply a restoration of the past according to activists. Robert LaValva, a former city planner and president of the New Amsterdam Market, likens New York’s Fulton Fish Market to London’s Borough Market, San Francisco’s embarcadero, or Paris’ Les Halles which all contributed to urban revitalization. LaValva envisages the space primarily as a wholesale fish market, but one that is accessible to the public and as central to the city as Central Park. The proposed and restored Futon Fish Market at the New Market Building in Lower Manhattan would be a place where a growing sustainable local food movement, food justice efforts and transparent food systems could eventually converge.