New York, we’ll agree, is one of the world’s great cities with the least amount of obvious ties to its physical past—holding company with, say, Dubai and Nagasaki. Who’d ever have guessed that the word Manhattan might once have meant “island of hills”?
Look around at the soaring buildings. The gothic spire of 40 Wall Street, a seventy-story skyscraper completed in 1930 that was very briefly the tallest building in the world, now belongs to Donald Trump, who bought it in 1995 for a mere $8 million. Consider 23 Wall Street, for years the headquarters for JP Morgan, bombed to bits in 1920 by a horse-drawn carriage filled with 500 pounds of dynamite. It’s currently under construction by Philippe Starck, who plans on turning its roof into a garden and pool accessible to inhabitants of the new Downtown by Philippe Starck buildings right next door, themselves equipped with a basketball court, bowling alley and ballet studio. Or how about the Deutsche Bank building? It was condemned after the 9/11 attacks tore a twenty-four-story gash in the façade. Inside, human remains from the attack are still being recovered, along with asbestos, dioxin, lead, silica, quartz, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chromium, manganese, and other toxins directly related to the attack. Next year, who knows? I’m hedging my bets over its conversion into a new Balazs palace or hotel.
Looking at Lower-Lower Manhattan means staring change right in the face, but it takes real imagination to rewind. The birth of New York City took place at the juncture of the East and North Rivers with the construction of Fort Amsterdam in 1625 and the smelting of the cannons at Battery Park. Today, looking upwards at the vertiginous gray arrows spearing the sky, and across the water at the jagged skyline of smokestacks and blocky buildings limning Staten Island and New Jersey, those days seem more than a measly 350 years of constant evolution away. It takes a real squint of the eyes to imagine the fort changing times eight hands in battle, including the comically named “Battle of Long Island,” during which volleys were exchanged between the fort and British emplacements on Governor’s Island. (Can you imagine?)
I haven’t even finished apologizing for my lateness before Robert Lavalva launches into the history of lower Manhattan. Did I know that Peck Slip, where we’re having lunch, didn’t exist before ballast discharged by arriving ships filled the water in with land? I did not. In fact, I realize, I know nothing about the history of lower Manhattan.
Robert does. A jack-of-all-trades who worked for eight years as the director of composting for the City of New York and for two on the city’s subways, he quit in favor of creating Slow Food’s first American raw-milk cheese presidium. Robert now has a far more massive project over which to wring his hands: growing a regional, sustainable public food market in one of the South Street Seaport’s historic buildings.
Quiet and pale, with long, expressive fingers and a poet’s melancholic eyes, Robert speaks in a way that’s at once measured and impassioned. He chooses his words deliberately, but a gentle sense of humor keeps him on the pleasant side of gravity. “At first I wanted to open an all-local, sustainable food shop, but it was really just a pleasant daydream,” he explains. “I’ve learned that I’m just not at all a shopkeeper.” So he came up with the idea of the market. His background in city work, along with his partner Jill’s experience as an urban planner, fed their ambition, and they worked for several months to develop the mission statement available for perusal on their website. “It needed to take that much time,” said Robert. “Writing that was the way we figured out what it was we were doing.” The project began in earnest in September, and Robert is giving himself a year to see if he can seriously get it off the ground.
Why a public market serviced by purveyors, rather than the current system of farmers under the aegis of the Greenmarket? The value of this historic form of public-private partnership, Robert says, “allows cities to create self-perpetuating, self-enforcing standards having wide influence on the quality of food, its fairest price, and the manner in which it is bought and sold.” While this thought is pretty much irrelevant in today’s global marketplace, where big-box retailers control the price and availability and nearly every other condition of commerce, the idea is more than valid. As Robert points out, even supermarkets specializing in natural or whole foods are components of the industrial food system. “Their efforts remain at best a simulacrum,” he says, nodding at the bread pre-baked in an industrial kitchen and the “butchers” unpacking and slicing pre-cut meat sections that arrive from distributors all over the world. True purveyors, on the other hand, are “both producer and consumer, and by necessity speak the languages of both and attend to both their needs. [They] are deeply knowledgeable about what they sell, personally familiar with how and where it is produced, and able to advise their customers on what to purchase and how best to prepare it, depending on their needs and tastes.” His hands flutter for emphasis; his voice is mellifluous and convincing. I’m sold.
But why the South Street Seaport? “This is where New York City began its history as an international trading center,” Robert emphasizes. The Fulton Market was first established in 1763 and included 88 butcher’s stalls, 50 stalls for poultry, vegetables and fruit, and even four sausage stands. Smacks, or fishing vessels with an interior tank designed to keep the catch alive as long as the boat stayed in the water, moored themselves at the Fulton Market slip and kept the fish in the East River’s brackish waters until they were sold. The neighborhood was so popular that rails were built for horse-drawn carriages that transported people on a loop from the Upper West Side down to the Broadway and Fulton Markets, where they would hang out in the oyster bars “for dates and what-have-you.” By 1860, due to migration uptown, the market had been mostly taken over by wholesale vendors, and remained a wholesale fish market until the entire thing was moved to the Bronx in 2005. Ever since, the barren, cavernous space has lain fallow behind metal grates.
The neighborhood beyond the Fulton Fish Market has, of course, evolved. Compared to the buzz on Wall Street, the area below it remained relatively stagnant, with the exception of a nonprofit maritime museum that received some visitors, but whose costs kept its survival hanging in limbo for years. Constantly threatened by bankruptcy, the museum contacted the Rouse Company, a developer specializing in renewing blighted urban areas, responsible for, among other projects, the smashing success of the revitalization of Faneuil Hall in Boston, which drew 10 million people in its first year. The Rouse Company proposed reconstructing Piers 17 and 18 as glass-enclosed buildings containing shopping pavilions, what an MSU professor’s paper gloomily titled “Failed Promise” calls “approximately 250,000 square feet of leasable retail space in a contiguous commercial-cultural-entertainment complex.” After brief period of success that saw masses of loose-tie stockbrokers gravitating to the seaport for cocktails after work (in 1991, the South Street Seaport edged Central Park as the most popular tourist destination in New York), the novelty wore off, and the mall has devolved to a point where all its independent retailers sell the same stock from the same wretched mass-market souvenir distributor.
Our reedy, seven-foot waitress brings out plates of garganelli with a bolognese ragù and ravioli with spinach and walnuts. The ravioli lack salt, but with the sun streaming in through gorgeous floor-to-ceiling windows, blushing the pale wood and exposed brick, nothing feels askew. All of the new restaurants in this area look like the faces of women who’ve just inconspicuously re-applied discreet matte makeup that makes them look effortlessly pretty. This was not an aesthetic in evidence in this area even two years ago.
“It’s gentrifying like mad,” remarks Robert. According to a Time Out magazine article clamoring about “signs of the district’s new bunnylike real-estate fecundity,” where there were 13,000 inhabitants south of Chambers Street in 2000, the number shot up to 21,000 in 2006 and is expected to climb to 26,000 by next year. Because today’s corporations prefer inhabiting one massive floor of a squat building to dispersing employees over several different floors of a skinny building, many of the older commercial spaces are being turned into residential zones.
But creating a public market will take time. Lots of it. Not only is the seaport a historical neighborhood, it’s also a mix of public and private property that makes for incredibly complicated zoning—seven different maps are required. And then there are the people to deal with: community boards, the city, senators, borough presidents, community coalitions, the developers, conservation leagues. So far, so good—Big Apple bigwigs like Mario Batali, Marion Nestle, Dan Barber, and Greenmarket co-founders Barry Benepe and Robert Lewis, have professed support. But because the Fulton Fish Market building lease belongs to developers who will only give some of the space up if the city allows them to build condo towers, negotiations are far from over.
Today, the mall and market building leases are owned by General Growth Properties, who bought all the Rouse holdings, about 350,000 square feet, once they knew the Fulton Fish Market would finally move in 2005. The city still owns the buildings, but GGP holds the lease until approximately 2050.
These are the unromantic parts to the tale. But Robert, having no doubt honed his story-telling at Slow Food, has romance in droves. Historically, New Netherlands, a trading post settled by the first European settlers to hit Manhattan in the 1600s, was composed of a 400-mile circle stretching from Montreal to Virginia. “I’m interested that the region was defined once,” says Robert. “I’d rather look at history or natural boundaries than state lines.” This is the region he’d like to see provisioning the New Amsterdam Public Market: farmhouse cheese from Poughkeepsie; maple syrup from New Hampshire; foie gras from the Hudson Valley. Despite its high concentration of inhabitants, the region is willingly fecund.
Many, many years after Stuyvesant and the other Dutch fellows whose legacy is manifest only on the street signs of New York (Beekman, Van Brunt, Gansevoort), Ayn Rand wrote, agape: “Is it beauty and genius people want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see the city from my window…I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would like to throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.”
A brilliant public market the likes of which Robert envisions would do New York City buckets of good, as anyone who’s seen a market in Barcelona, Chichicastenango, Paris, Hanoi, Tokyo, or Otavalo knows the Greenmarket to be great but insufficient. Imagine surfacing from the warren of grimy tunnels at Fulton St. to peer upwards at the steel shot arrows lunging at the sky and down again to stare a head of cabbage, blisteringly red beef steak, or freshly-picked bouquet of Hudson Valley herbs right in the face. Seekers of the postmodern sublime, welcome to the New New York City.