The New Amsterdam Market was founded in 2005 by Robert LaValva, in the vaulted, open-air arcade beneath the Municipal Building. But his creation soon moved to the site of the old Fulton Fish Market, within the South Street Seaport neighborhood. There, Mr. LaValva soon gained prominence as a leader in the fight to preserve the historic district in the face of redevelopment plans. In the face of intense pressure, Mr. LaValva had to shut down the New Amsterdam Market in July, 2014. But he has remained active in the fight to protect that Seaport neighborhood that was once its home.
Broadsheet: How did you get involved with the Fulton Fish Market?
Robert LaValva: I was interested in furthering the changeover of our food system, which is presently very damaging to the environment, on one end of the scale, and damaging to human health and society on the other end. One of the keys to a healthier and fairer food system is to revive regional agriculture. And my personal goal was that the market should be a public site. The thing that interested me was this very unique institution of the public market.
Broadsheet: What sort of places inspired that idea for you?
RL: A key moment for me was when I visited the Borough Market in London. This had been a market site since Roman times, and it was set up as a public trust in the early 1800s, and it was still going strong after 200 years. In the 1990s, the trustees of the market and local businesses all thought to bring in a variety of different food vendors, who can make this into a destination for people. Parts of it are in the open air where people set up tents and umbrellas, but other parts were under Victorian awnings.
Broadsheet: Is there any equivalent in the United States?
RL: Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia; Pike Place in Seattle. And there are a few left here in New York City, like Essex Market. They preserve that feeling of Borough Market in London, that there was this very old space, which had been a market site for centuries. They were supporting local food, high-quality products, and humane animal husbandry. It was compelling to find this very new way of thinking in these very old spaces.Broadsheet: There’s a wonderful passage from “Up in the Old Hotel,” where Joseph Mitchell writes, “Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market [now known as the Tin Building] and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands in the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me.”
RL: The Fulton Fish Market was moving away to the Bronx at basically the same time that I was visiting the Borough Market. And when they moved, I began to wonder what was going to happen to the old Fish Market site. The buildings don’t look like much, just two shabby metal sheds. But these are the buildings that Joseph Mitchell wrote about. The Old Market is the Tin Building and the New Market is the New Market Building. The more I dug, the more I came to realize that there has been market activity at that same location since 1642, which is when the city of New Amsterdam created a ferry that went from Fulton landing in Brooklyn, over to Peck Slip in Manhattan. The ferry carried farmers and their products from Brooklyn farms over to Manhattan, so they could sell to the people of the City.
Broadsheet: It’s an amazing local history. But is your vision of a continuing public market at the old Fulton Fish Market site still possible?
RL: Some people said my stance was very extreme. But there is no room for compromise when you are trying to save a historic site. My stance was and is that the Fulton Fish market — the Tin building and the New Market building — needs to remain exactly where it is, not to be picked up or moved or dismantled. These buildings need to be refurbished so that they are functional, yes, but in a really sensitive way that preserves as much of their character as possible. They need to remain public, and accessible to the public, in the same way that a park is.
Broadsheet: Since New Amsterdam Market ceased operations last year, you’ve had a lower public profile.
RL: I spent eight years fighting for this, and I don’t have any reserve left. But it doesn’t have anything to do with me. And it’s not just the fish market; it’s also the South Street Seaport Museum. Those sites are public sites, which need to remain devoted to public purposes. It’s why the Seaport was created in the first place. And I’m encouraged to see many other individuals stand up and say, this is a site we need to make something out of that has a real public mission. Not convert it into housing, or another shopping mall.
Broadsheet: How hopeful are you that all of this may yet come to pass?
RL: I’m grateful and amazed to see our City Council member, Margaret Chin, and Borough President Gale Brewer have stood up and said that this is really an inappropriate development, so I applaud that.