A Critical Moment for the New Amsterdam Market at the South Street Seaport
If you've never visited the New Amsterdam Market, held since 2007 in the South Street Seaport on the site of the old Fulton Fish Market, here's an idea of what you would see there: vendors from the tri-state area clustered under the FDR Highway overpass, their tables set up with locally-made beer, honey, cheese, cold cuts, fruits, vegetables and more; shoppers from all over the city (and beyond), their bags and baskets overflowing with the day's purchases; the parking lot pavement littered with the castoffs of a bustling market: apple cores, mushroom stems, lettuce leaves. All of this activity takes place in the shadow of two historic structures: the old fish market buildings, various incarnations of which have been in place since 1675.
But now the waterfront—a vibrant market community all through New York's history, with the torch carried most recently by New Amsterdam after the Fulton Fish Market moved up to Hunts Point in the Bronx in 2005—is in danger of being converted into yet another glorified shopping mall. The Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC), the real estate developer responsible for Pier 17 in the Seaport—the suburban-style shopping mall populated with stores such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Bath & Body Works and the Gap—wants to expand its holdings in the area and develop a network of luxury hotels, condos and even more chain-store shopping.
It's not a done deal—yet. In order for HHC to develop the land in the way it wants to, it needed to ask for a rezoning of the entire area, whose current zoning doesn't allow for the scale of retail that HHC wants to put in place. Since 2012, the public approval process for the re-zoning has been working its way up through the city's public bodies, which each have to vote on the proposal. In March of this year, HHC's request finally reached the New York City Council—the one body whose vote really, truly counts. And much to the surprise of New Amsterdam's staff—who believed they had an ally in Council Speaker (and current mayoral candidate) Christine Quinn, who had made several public speeches expressing support for the future of the market at the fish market site—the City Council gave its endorsement of the rezoning when it voted on March 20th.
A statement emailed to me by Zoe Tobin, a representative for Quinn, read, in part, "Speaker Quinn is a longtime supporter of the New Amsterdam Market. While the Council's land use action in March 2013 rezoned the parcel of land where the Market operates, the rezoning does not impact the present arrangement with the City's Economic Development Corporation to operate the Market on that piece of property," a claim that might strictly be true if HHC sets aside a designated, but much altered, space for the market in its new development.
Still, this is just the beginning of the process for HHC. Its proposal needs to go through a separate process of approval that, by the time it's completed, will be taken under consideration by a new city administration. New Amsterdam Market's organizers, including its founder, Robert LaValva, remain hopeful that under a new mayor, the market might be saved and permitted to continue operating in the seaport. And the market's supporters—its many vendors and its loyal shoppers—are campaigning for the market's preservation.
The Historic Site—and What Might Replace It
The seaport is no ordinary market site—it's been one for hundreds of years. Had you stepped out on this site in the late 1600s, you would have been met with a scene very similar to the one described above. That's because the downtown Manhattan waterfront has been a market site since the early days of New York City, going back, to be precise, to 1642, when a ferry began running between Brooklyn and Peck Slip, as this little swath of land nestled between the Brooklyn Bridge and Pier 17 has been known for centuries. That ferry carried goods from the Brooklyn farms to the seaport, where customers would gather to buy not just produce, but fresh and cured meats, cheeses, and many more provisions.
Since the New Amsterdam Market moved in in 2007, it's taken inspiration from its surroundings and done its best to honor them. LaValva, a former city planner and Slow Food USA employee, says the site's history was what drew him so strongly to the seaport in 2005, after the Fulton Fish Market had moved.
"Learning that there had been market after market after market in that spot was very compelling to me, partially as an urban planner and someone who loves cities and studies their history," LaValva told me in a recent interview. "I felt like, wow, what a phenomenon to have such an ancient place."
It's clear that Howard Hughes Corporation has zero interest in preserving the area's unique history. And not only that, HHC shows little understanding of the fact that New Yorkers avoid Pier 17, which they view as an overcrowded, generic tourist trap—a model that HHC wants to expand.
"Something we've learned from New Amsterdam Market through all the years we've been holding it, is that people come from all over the five boroughs, and inevitably they say, 'I never come to this South Street Seaport, I can't stand it, I only came because of you, and now that I see it, I think it's great!'" LaValva said. "Because they see the other side of the seaport, the side that is not the mall, that is not chain stores, that is not tacky, that is not overly, stupidly commercialized, and they see that it's actually quite an interesting place. And it just proves once and again that if there's something worth going to, people will go there."
New Amsterdam Market breeds a particular kind of loyal shopper: fans of the market become passionately involved in its history, too, and have been extremely vocal about HHC's proposed plans for the area.
"To lose the historic seaport to another generic development means a missed opportunity make meaningful connections among New Yorkers through food," said Amy Osekowsky, a product specialist for Google who lives in Brooklyn.
Andrea Gentl, a Soho-based photographer and founder of the blog Hungry Ghost Food + Travel, echoed that sentiment.
"The Seaport and Lower Manhattan have historically housed markets and trade for hundreds of years," she said. "When I am down there, I can still see what life was like a hundred years ago. I fear that if the New Amsterdam Market is not allowed a permanent space in the Tin Building or the New Market Building, that this area will be swallowed up by business as usual, construction and tourists' hotels and high rises, and, like many areas in the city, all the visual history and patina will vanish in a blink."
New Amsterdam Supports Local Food in a Way that Few Other Markets Do
From the very beginning, New Amsterdam's mission has been to bring together vendors selling local foods. By the time the market held its very first one-day event at the Fulton Fish Market site in 2007, LaValva said, "The identity of the market was fully formed: that we were going to have some farmers, but also purveyors who were sourcing and reselling local goods, as well as people producing foods made with local ingredients."
LaValva added that while the selection of prepared foods available at New Amsterdam is an important part of the market's offerings, he always envisioned raw ingredients that shoppers can cook with to be the market's main focus.
"Prepared foods have always been a part of our market, but unlike something like a Smorgasburg, which is only prepared food, we always wanted to have a small percentage of prepared food," LaValva explained. "And furthermore, these foods would only be allowed if you were using local ingredients, to reinforce our mission to support local agriculture."
That emphasis on local foods means that the vendors at New Amsterdam are a carefully curated bunch. Tracie Lee, who co-owns Lonestar Taco with her Texas-born husband Wayne Surber (and who is also a developer here at Serious Eats) said that when Lonestar first started vending at the market, she found that its ethos was perfectly in line with her business's.
"All of the vendors that are at New Amsterdam Market source locally, and that's really important to [LaValva]," Lee said. "And the whole idea of the market really fits into our sort of philosophy." Lonestar Taco sources the flour for its tortillas from Farmer Ground Flour in Trumansburg, NY; its cheeses from Millport Dairy in Lancaster, PA; and its jalapenos from El Poblano Farm on Staten Island.
Scott Bridi, who launched his sustainably-sourced charcuterie line Brooklyn Cured at the New Amsterdam Market in 2010, said that he was "blown away" by the diversity and quality of the vendors at the market when he first visited.
"The food producers there were just stunning," he said. "They were bringing a whole other layer of depth and craft to the market."
The Market is a Vital Incubator of Small, Local Businesses
For new, small food businesses, the New Amsterdam Market provides a rare opportunity to get out into the public and test a concept without a huge investment or degree of risk. Time and again, the vendors I spoke with called attention to this very important aspect of the market.
Lisa Fischoff began working at New Amsterdam as a market hand in 2010, the first year that the market was held every Sunday, and later became a market steward, or manager. She later left to start her own business, Pushcart Coffee, a community-oriented coffee shop that sells locally-roasted beans at three New York locations, including New Amsterdam.
"I met a lot of different people who made it seem like a feasible thing to open a business," Fischoff said of her peers at the market. "It provided an 'in' into the food industry in New York."
"So many businesses have been launched from New Amsterdam—it's like an incubator," she said, invoking a term I heard many times. "You can get out there without putting down a ton of rent for a space."
"New Amsterdam Market was the perfect environment to launch my business," said Scott Bridi of the aforementioned Brooklyn Cured. "Just being there was critical to all the things that were to come for Brooklyn Cured."
Today, Brooklyn Cured has expanded dramatically: it sells its products at four New York City Greenmarkets and through several high-end grocery stores such as The Greene Grape, Murray's Cheese and Sahadi's, and its charcuterie is on the menus of Brooklyn restaurants including 606 R&D in Prospect Heights and Lot 2 in Park Slope.
Luckily for many New Amsterdam vendors, the market served as such an effective springboard for their businesses that the hiatus of the market, which is currently only scheduled monthly, hasn't been a huge problem.
"If this had happened two years ago, it would have been debilitating," Bridi said. "But because of our other locations, and our wholesale accounts, the impact on our business is not huge right now."
New Amsterdam's support of new businesses is no coincidence: for LaValva, it was a part of the mission from the very beginning.
"It's about building a market for small businesses," he said. "And one of the things that they need to grow, that new businesses need to establish themselves, is access to infrastructure. Storage facilities, processing facilities, distribution networks, these are all really critical things that are very hard for a very small business to establish on their own. And in the long term, this is what we envision happening at the Fulton Fish Market, that's what those two buildings could be used for," he said, referring to the two historic fish market buildings.
The Market is Good for the City Economy
The past 12 years have witnessed a real estate boom in New York—take a look at this recent New York Times article to get a very clear picture of just how big a priority building has been to Mayor Bloomberg. And LaValva says that's good: "The real estate industry has always been very strong in New York, that's what makes New York New York, and it's actually part of the city's dynamism."
But as LaValva pointed out, the powers that be need to think about what kinds of developments they want to embrace for the city, and make sure to build the right ones. Now's the time to ask ourselves, he said, "'Do you want a generic, banal development? Or do you want to maintain and preserve something that could enhance the quality of life in lower Manhattan, bring new businesses to lower Manhattan, improve the restaurant scene in lower Manhattan, bring a different quality of tourism to lower Manhattan?'" Because tourism is not always bad; "tourism of people who are interested in things like markets is great," he said.
This Decision Will Affect the Entire Waterfront—Not Just the Market
Howard Hughes Corporation has made it clear that its vision for the seaport is total: if the rezoning is approved, the entire seaport area will be built up into a corporate, Howard Hughes campus almost totally devoid of local culture. What HHC is asking for puts an entire historic New York City neighborhood—not just a market—at risk.
"Do we really want the oldest neighborhood in the entire city, the original waterfront of the city, which was there before Wall Street, which made the city what it is—it's almost all gone, this little piece of it was preserved—do we really want to see it filled with national chain stores? When it could be a showcase for everything that's really great about New York? That's the vision that we really want people to embrace," LaValva said.
You Can Help
LaValva hasn't given up hope for New Amsterdam yet: while waiting for the new, possibly more market-friendly city government to take control, he's holding New Amsterdam once a month, to keep the market in the public eye and to continue agitating for a permanent home in the Seaport. If you want to support the market's cause, the single most important thing you can do is turn out in full force for this fall's market days: they'll be held at the old fish market site on Sundays: September 29, October 27, November 24 and December 15.
Your dollars send the most important message; but you'll also find the most up-to-date information on the market's latest efforts to maintain its historic home. In the meantime, you can check out New Amsterdam's home page, Twitter page, and Facebook page.