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New Amsterdam Market at South Street Seaport Closes

New Amsterdam Market at South Street Seaport Closes

The popular New Amsterdam Market at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan has closed due to financial difficulties

A spread of of cheese and bread at New Amsterdam-- an example of some of the goodies you could get from local purveyors there.

The New Amsterdam greenmarket was one of the new features of the South Street Seaport neighborhood that re-invigorated the southern tip of Manhattan in a post-9/11 world. But this week, the new Amsterdam Market announced that they have closed, that their last market was June 21, and that the market would no longer be able to run due to financial difficulties and local city officials like Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who supported Howard Hughes’ “shopping mall” at South Street Seaport instead.

Looking for farmers' markets that are still around? Check out The Daily Meal's 101 Best Farmers' Markets in America

“Our market grew in frequency and scope while nurturing an evolving community of small businesses dedicated to sustainable food production, regional economies, and fair trade,” market founder Robert LaValva said in a written statement. “We held a total 88 markets and numerous innovative celebrations of our region's bounty; supported nearly 500 food entrepreneurs; and contributed to the creation of more than 350 jobs.”

LaValva went on to decry the decisions made in favor of big business.

“Manhattan has already lost more than one acre of beloved and irreplaceable public space and is now seeing its most precious public asset ruined by inappropriate programming and terrible waterfront design.”

Councilwoman Margaret Chin denounced the attack, saying “I was sorry to learn this morning that the New Amsterdam Market has ended. Aside from that, it would be an understatement to say that I am deeply disappointed by Robert LaValva’s email attacking me as part of his announcement of the closure.”

Councilwoman Chin said that she and the community would try to revive the greenmarket.

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Joanna Fantozzi is an Associate Editor with The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter@JoannaFantozzi

Trying to Find the Right Balance for the Seaport

For a relatively long moment in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Boston was pretty hot. Between the Preppy Handbook (which came out in 1980), the hit television series “Cheers “ (which premiered in 1982) and Steve’s Ice Cream (which originated in Boston and helped begin the national craze for fancy ice cream), all things Brahmin and baked-beany felt of-the-moment, if not exactly chic. Possibly the country was enjoying some kind of a post-bicentennial afterglow, leaving behind the messiness of the ’70s (and all that cinematic urban decay) for the kind of wholesome Americana vibe that Boston always captured so well.

All of that might explain why the City of New York seemed to think that essentially trying to replicate a successful Boston market, the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, in Lower Manhattan would be a good idea. Faneuil Hall was, and is, what its developers, the Rouse Corporation, called a festival marketplace. Take some historical charm, some wide-ranging retail, add some beer-battered shrimp, a few jugglers and mimes, put it all by the water — that’s a festival marketplace. How could it go wrong?

Indeed, the South Street Seaport, New York’s answer to Faneuil Hall, ranks as a big tourist attraction even now. But among actual New Yorkers thinking about fun things to do and where to do it, it ranks pretty close to zero. All of that tastefully enough refurbished architecture, that priceless waterfront property, has been put to the dubious service of retail chains like Express and Mrs. Fields. Exactly what sort of a festival is that?

So it should have come as no great surprise — more like a great relief — when the Seaport area’s current developers, General Growth Properties, last week announced their plans to abandon the current development on Pier 17, which is at this point little more than a mall full of T-shirt shops and mediocre food.

Some major logistical problems probably deterred New Yorkers from ever adopting the location as a destination of their own: no direct subway line, competition from the development of the World Trade Center area and the perfectly upscale shopping areas that New York already had (a challenge that Faneuil Hall and its counterpart in Baltimore, Harborplace, didn’t really face).

The Seaport Museum, which might have anchored the area with some salty New York maritime history, never got the financing it was supposed to get in a complicated deal with the developers (and it’s unclear how much of a draw maritime history would ever be). The development’s identity crisis didn’t help: Even in the dark days of the city’s history, New Yorkers weren’t likely to embrace a district that looked and felt like a watered-down version of some other city’s success story.

Finding the right, mysterious balance of grit and vitality, authenticity and innovation — that’s the elusive goal chased by all developers in New York, who’ve come close in, say, Red Hook, but are still struggling to hit it at 125th Street.

Before the South Street Seaport was developed, the harbor area was one of those funny, forgotten corners most New Yorkers never visited. But those who did found urban treasure: It was a neighborhood that still reeked of New York’s maritime past, a place where you could imagine some old Tammany Hall boss out working the wards, a place where rope and tackle shops operated even as personal computers were being sold not too many blocks north.

Until it moved to the Bronx a few years ago, the Fulton Fish Market might have been expected to provide a connection to some of the authenticity of that old historic neighborhood instead, the market never felt connected to the new development, except in the smells, mostly unwelcome, that wafted through the air.

What’s to come at the Seaport, according to Michael H. McNaughton, vice president of asset management at General Growth Properties, is a new retail area on the pier that better serves downtown residents, an open space the size of Bryant Park, and a new luxury high-rise hotel. Another gigantic luxury development shooting out of the ground — just when the country seems to be sobering up about real estate — seems like just the kind of maneuver that could feel dated within five minutes of its being built, just as the festival marketplace was by the late ’80s.

But there are also promising signs that the neighborhood might be returning to its original roots as a great market, if not in old-timey look or feel, then in function. This Sunday, not one but two green markets will be competing for foodies’ attention at the South Street Seaport. The New Amsterdam Market, run by Robert LaValva, will be operating out of the parking lot of the New Market Building (expect a lot of local cheese and high-quality bread, among other delicacies) and in the now-vacant fish stalls of the Fulton Market, General Growth Properties will be offering locally grown produce and artisanal foods.

Food markets seem like a good place to start for the Seaport — it makes sense for what’s new about the area (a lot of families who want and have the money to spend on artisanal sausage) and yet it ties the location to its past as a great nexus for food distribution. A thriving, high-quality food market there would feel, at this moment, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, organic.

New Amsterdam Market’s closing worries South Street Seaport community

The South Street Seaport that New Yorkers are familiar with continues to fade.

The New Amsterdam Market, a Pier 17 staple since 2007 and one of the area’s last connections to a centuries-old tradition of public trade, unexpectedly announced it was shutting down Monday.

Community leaders said its closure leaves a void at the South Street Seaport, which is undergoing a complete overhaul slated for 2016.

Robert LaValva, the founder of the New Amsterdam, which operated out of the old Fulton Fish market space, sent an email to supporters saying the market had its last outing on June 21. LaValva, who didn’t return calls and messages for comment, wrote that his seven-year operation not only couldn’t secure funding but also wouldn’t have room in the future development in the area.

“As a result, Lower Manhattan has already lost more than one acre of beloved and irreplaceable public space and is now seeing its most precious public asset ruined by inappropriate programming and terrible waterfront design,” he wrote.

The market had been operating weekly between May and December hosting 70 food vendors, before going monthly this year. Catherine McVay Hughes, the chair of Community Board 1 which represents the area, said every time the market was open, huge crowds would flock to the pier and pick up cheeses, vegetables, fish and other locally organic grub.

“I went to the last one in June and you bump into a dozen of your friends. People altered their weekend plans to make sure they can shop,” she said.

Pier 17, the Seaport’s major shopping center, shut down in the fall for demolition and renovation by developer Howard Hughes Corporation, which wants to transform it into a high-end commercial development with new shops and a rooftop green space. The developer is also in the early planning stages of redeveloping the Tin Building and New Market Building, both of which housed the old fish market until 2005.

Sources say Howard Hughes Corp. had been working with LaValva to provide him with space in their redeveloped area. The developer said it was surprised by LaValva’s decision to shut down his market but is exploring opportunities to open a food market both in the short term and long term, according to a representative.

“We believe a year-around, accessible food market is a neighborhood necessity and we remain committed to bringing a food market to the area,” the representative said in a statement.

Jessica Lappin, the president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, said the market’s contributions to the community, especially following Superstorm Sandy, were invaluable.

“The New Amsterdam Market was at truly forward looking market experience, appreciated by New Yorkers and visitors alike,” she said.

Hughes, however, said she is concerned with the economic state of the area since the new Pier 17 two years away at the earliest. Hughes said she was upset that LaValva couldn’t turn it around and get more funding, because he helped turn around a “forlorn area” and turn it into a prime destination.

LaValva opened the New Amsterdam market after the Fulton Fish Market moved to the Bronx as a way to preserve “one of New York City’s oldest commons,” of an open air public food trade that he said dated back to 1642 with the original fish market.

He worked with several local community groups, including the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the city to secure funding and make sure the tradition didn’t die in the 21st Century.

Some Seaport visitors said they were upset the market didn’t have enough steam to continue for the rest of the year. Jenna Agins, 29, said she thought there would some sort of shopping venue in the area following the months of construction at Pier 17.

“I was surprised to see that they’re still closed,” she said, referring to the shops on the pier.

New Amsterdam Market Plans to Return With New Leadership

The outdoor artisanal New Amsterdam Market, pictured here in May 2014, will return at some point with new leadership, the market's board said. View Full Caption

LOWER MANHATTAN &mdash New Amsterdam Market is planning a comeback.

Less than a month after the founder of the outdoor artisanal marketplace abruptly shut it down, New Amsterdam Market's board announced that it is searching for a new leader and hopes to relaunch the market this fall.

Robert LaValva, who founded New Amsterdam Market in 2005, has stepped down as president and CEO after he shocked board members on July 14 by cutting short the market's 2014 season. At the time, LaValva said the organization could not afford to keep the monthly events going through December as scheduled.

LaValva reversed himself last Friday and said that the support he had received after announcing the market's closure had convinced him that it was worth reopening the dozens of vendor stalls outside the former Fulton Fish Market buildings on South Street.

However, while LaValva will remain on the market's board, he will no longer be at the helm, said Roland Lewis, chairman of the board.

&ldquoHe&rsquos stepped down, and we thank him for his work,&rdquo Lewis said. &ldquoHe&rsquos done an amazing job and his passion for the market and the Seaport has been an inspiration, and now we&rsquore going to search for new leadership, in the hopes of moving ahead, looking to the future of the market.&rdquo

New Amsterdam Market is now looking for a new president, Lewis said.

The board is also working to bring the market back, hopefully in September or October &mdash but it might not be in its longtime home on South Street.

&ldquoWe&rsquore looking at a lot of of different possibilities right now,&rdquo Lewis said. &ldquoWe&rsquore looking at the Seaport, along with different locations in the city."

&ldquoThere&rsquos a lot of discussions going on now among board members,&rdquo Lewis added. &ldquoBut we&rsquove all decided that the market is an important institution, and we&rsquore determined to give it another shot.&rdquo

As Seaport Eatery Barbarini Remains Closed, Owners Look to Open Elsewhere

SOUTH STREET SEAPORT &mdash Like many residents and business owners in South Street Seaport, Claudio Marini, owner of Italian eatery and grocery Barbarini, was devastated when he first saw the massive damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy&rsquos floodwaters.

&ldquoEverything, everything was destroyed,&rdquo Marini said. &ldquoProscuitto, wine was swept out onto the street, and inside, it was just a mess.&rdquo

And more than a month after the Hurricane, Marini and his wife, Linda, say they still feel overwhelmed by the destruction.

Their restaurant, on a historic slice of Front Street that lies between Peck Slip and Beekman Street, remains shuttered &mdash most of their neighbors on the block, who are owned by the same landlord, a group called Yarrow LLC that's run by the Durst Corporation and Zuberry Associates, also remain shuttered. Only two spots, Made Fresh Daily and Jeremy's Ale House, are open on the street.

Because of the extensive damage to the buildings, especially the electrical system, the landlord has said the properties won&rsquot be up and running for at least six months, Marini and other local owners said.

&ldquoThey tell us they won&rsquot open one building unless all the buildings are fixed,&rdquo Marini said. &ldquoBut six months, it&rsquos too long &mdash we need to make a living, we need to survive.&rdquo

Last week, as their property continues to be renovated, the Marinis launched a funding website to help raise money for a new restaurant they've decided to call Da Claudio.

Funding sites for hurricane-wrecked restaurants and business are gaining popularity as owners continue to struggle to rebuild. Some grants have been made available, and there are loan options &mdash but many residents say it isn&rsquot enough, especially since many lacked flood insurance.

The Marinis aren&rsquot set on an exact location yet, but it will likely open in the Financial District. They also aren&rsquot giving up on Barbarini.

&ldquoWe love lower Manhattan. We want to stay here,&rdquo said Linda Marini, who lives nearby on Murray Street.

The couple opened Barbarini in 2005 with a co-owner and watched the neighborhood grow and rejuvenate over the past several years, she said. In 2009, they expanded their popular grocery and café with a larger restaurant &mdash financing everything themselves and spending nearly $1 million over the years.

The Marini&rsquos, who also own Midtown&rsquos Caffe Linda, said they are trying to join with other Front Street business owners devastated by the storm and create an association called United Front.

&ldquoWe want to bring attention to what&rsquos going on down here,&rdquo said Linda Marini. &ldquoA lot of people are still hurting.&rdquo

But she also said she&rsquos extremely thankful for the outpouring of help she and her husband have received from neighbors.

Nearby, New Amsterdam Market has offered them a spot in the market to sell whatever goods &mdash olive oils, wines &mdash they were able to salvage from the storm.

To date, the couple have raised more than $11,000 toward building Da Claudio.

&ldquoRight now we need to keep our family going,&rdquo Linda Marini said. &ldquoWe need to move to higher ground.&rdquo

Save Our Seaport: Preserving Public Food Markets in Cities

On a chilly March morning, a mass of over 100 people jostled into a beige room for a zoning meeting of the NYC City Council. When it became clear that the room and additional overflow room would not be enough, the meeting was moved across the street to the upper chambers of City Hall. There, crowds packed into the aisles and balconies, sharing copies of a Bittman editorial and waving posters emblazoned with the iconic Fulton Fish Market and the plea, “Save Our Seaport!”

We at Element Seafood are long-time supporters of Robert LaValva and the New Amsterdam Market, and believe in his vision for a year-round public wholesale & retail food market in the historic Fulton Fish Market buildings. In an area that has long been depressed and suffered unprecedented damages from Hurricane Sandy, we believe that New Amsterdam Market is an economically and environmentally robust business model that should be expanded as a permanent anchor for the South Seaport neighborhood.

Yesterday, a zoning hearing was held to discuss the future of South Seaport’s development. Hot on the docket was the future of Pier 17, located adjacent to the New Amsterdam Market site and leased by Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC). They operate a shopping mall on the pier and plan to tear down and rebuild the mall, with construction beginning on June 30th. While they have not announced any plans yet for the neighboring Fulton Fish Market site, HHC does have the option to develop or reconstruct the site, which would push out the New Amsterdam Market. This has raised many questions from community residents and tenants, and the tension was palpable as City Council members grilled representatives from HHC and NYCEDC, which leases the property to HHC.

Council member Margaret Chin expressed concern that long-time tenants would be pushed out by rent increases and forced to relocate. “What kind of rent are you looking to charge?” asked Chin. Christopher Curry, representative of HHC replied, “As much as we can get. I’m not trying to be funny.” Chin said that she spoke to a dog grooming business who had been told that they would not be able to afford the rent increases after the mall was rebuilt. Curry dismissed her questions and said, “Our leasing people are talking to our tenants, and some tenants will be coming back to our project and some won’t.” After the discussion was closed, chairman Mark Weprin joked, “Thank you, Ms. Chin. Don’t get her mad, I’ve seen it and it’s not pretty.”

After the presentation by HHC, LaValva spoke on behalf of New Amsterdam Market. He highlighted the market’s successes (bringing over 50 local vendors and 50,000 customers each year to South Seaport) and drove home the importance of today’s meeting for the market. “Some people will try to tell you that the proposal has nothing to do with the fish market site. I’m here to tell you this is not the case…If we wait until these plans are proposed, it will be too late.”

There is a pressing need for alternative distribution methods for small and independent food producers in New York City. New Amsterdam Market has proven its success as a distribution outlet for consumers, and we hope to see it grow to serve restaurants and retailers as well. The market creates substantial economic flows for businesses, supports job creation and keeps dollars circulating in our local economy. And for the long term success of the market, it needs to be housed in a permanent indoor space, where it will continue growing and attracting businesses, residents and visitors.

While it cannot be quantified, it is no less important to mention the social value of New Amsterdam Market. The market inspires a vibrant and welcoming community, where questions flow freely and education sparks new ideas and innovation. As vendors at the market, we overhear and contribute to passionate conversations among strangers. Shoppers are not passive consumers, but co-producers, taking an active interest and role in the production of their food. That atmosphere is well-worth preserving and fostering in our urban society.


The East River waterfront of lower Manhattan, which includes South Street (so named because it is on the south side of the island), played an important part in the early history of New York City and became, over a period of two hundred years, one of the most prosperous commercial districts in the city. This development of the South Street Seaport area from a small cluster of wharves in the 18th century to an important part of the leading port of the nation in the mld-19th century reflects the rise of New York City as an international center of commerce. As early as 1625 when the Dutch West India Company established a trading post at the foot of Manhattan Island, the area south of today's seaport served as a landing site for incoming boats. The Dutch constructed a small floating dock which extended into the East River from what is now Broad Street. As lower Manhattan, then New Amsterdam, became more populous, a few streets were cut through the surrounding countryside. One of the first was Queen Street (now Pearl Street), laid out in 1633, which rapidly became the core of the mercantile community of 17th century Manhattan. Queen Street ran along the waterfront until the latter half of the 18th century when landfill extended the eastern boundary of Manhattan out to Water and later to Front Street.

South Street was built on landfill in the latter part of the 17th century [1] the city began to grade and pave it in 1798, creating a 75-foot border between houses and merchants' shops, and the wharves, slips and piers that had sprung up along the street the width was necessary because the ships docked right against the shoreline, with their bowsprits sticking out into the street, giving it its nickname, the "streety o' ships". [2] In the early 19th century, South Street was created on additional landfill. South Street became the center of the city's shipping industry and water-based commerce for two hundred years although by 1810 it was getting competition from West Street on the other side of the island. [3] In 1835, the Great Fire of New York destroyed 76 of the buildings on the street, [1] but that hardly kept back the expansion of commerce along the shoreline. On one day in 1836, there were 921 vessels on the East River waiting to load or unload onto South Street, while an additional 320 waited on the Hudson. At that time, New York City had 62% of the import business in the entire country. [4]

The amount of trade kept increasing, and by 1857 Gleason's Pictorial Magazine described both South and West Streets as blocks and blocks of "sail-lofts, shipping offices, warehouses of every description, cheap eating-houses, markets, and those indescribable stores, where old cables, junk, anchors, and all sorts of cast-off worldly things, that none but a seaman has a name for, find a refuge." [5]

By the 1930s, the South Street area was depressed and the hurly-burly of its heyday was gone:

On mild sunny days the drifters sit along the docks with their "junk bags", share cigarette butts, and stare endlessly into the water. In winter they cluster in little groups about small bonfires many sleep at night in doorways with newspapers for covering. Other join the homeless men who sleep in the Municipal Lodging House, Annex No. 2, in the old ferry shed at the foot of Whitehall Street, which can accommodate about 1,200 nightly. [2]

Sometime in the early 1980s, South Street was refurbished from its abandoned status into a tourist attraction to create an atmosphere similar to places like Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Boston's Quincy Market.

The street has often been used as a location for Hollywood movies, including A Hatful of Rain, which was filmed in 1957 at Knickerbocker Village. South Street was the setting for the 1953 Sam Fuller film Pickup on South Street.

New Amsterdam Market Returns To Seaport For Sunday Only

The New Amsterdam Market returns to the South Street Seaport this Sunday but don't expect to find all the growers, chefs and food producers there every weekend, as this will be a one-day-only event. Breaking with a two year tradition that saw the market open weekends from spring through the fall, this single day affair is the first in a monthly series of food events, to announced at a later date.

Even though it has a much-abbreviated schedule, that doesn't mean they're skimping out on the eats. Over 70 vendors will attend Sunday's market, which runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on South Street between Beekman Street and Peck Slip.

On hand on the 23rd are Kings County Jerky, Luke's Lobster, Guss' Pickles and other ready-to-eat options. A dedicated Dairy Section includes milks, cheeses, ice creams and other milk-based treats from The Bent Spoon, Edgwick Farm, Sohha Greek Yogurt and more. The Local Grains Bread Pavilion III takes care of all your yeasty cravings with offerings from Hot Bread Kitchen and Orwasher's Bakery plus a special Bread & Butter stall selling sweet and savory tartines.

This could be the final season for the long-running market, with plans for two new food markets for the Seaport announced earlier this year. Now might be a good time to visit before things change completely.

Top 10 Secrets of NYC’s South Street Seaport

There are many theories as to how Pearl Street got its name. Dubbed Parelstraat by the Dutch, it is one of the roads laid out in the colonial street grid of New Amsterdam. When the Dutch occupied New York City, Pearl Street (the English anglicized the name in 1794) was the East River shoreline of Manhattan.

It is believed that the road got its name from the abundance of oysters in New York City’s waterways. It is likely that there was a large midden, a huge pile of oyster shells, on the street that inspired the name. Before the Europeans arrived and became smitten with oysters, the native Lenape people were already eating them and creating large piles of discarded shells. It is also believed that the Dutch crushed oyster shells and sprinkled them on the street as a form of paving.

A Walk to the Old Fulton Fish Market with Robert LaValva

In the mid-1990s, while working on composting infrastructure for the NYC Department of Sanitation, city planner Robert LaValva began to engage with what was then a niche world of small-scale food purveyors who were dedicated to local, responsible food production and distribution. A decade later, he established the New Amsterdam Market, a reinvention of an institution that has existed, in one form or another, since the city first began: the public market. His mission was not just to improve the public’s access to fresh, locally-sourced food he wanted to revive the notion of the public market as economic incubator, vibrant public space and source of civic pride.

The weekly New Amsterdam Market now operates in front of Lower Manhattan’s New Market Building and Tin Building, which have sat vacant since their previous occupant, the Fulton Fish Market, moved to Hunts Point in 2005. The buildings are some of the last vestiges of what was once a thriving public market system throughout New York City, driven by and centered around the city’s ports. Today, the neighborhood’s historical significance is sometimes overshadowed by its most conspicuous tenant, South Street Seaport’s Pier 17, often maligned as a tourist trap and glorified shopping mall, or by the Bloomberg Administration’s extensive redevelopment of the East River Esplanade. But this renewed attention to the waterfront and to Lower Manhattan seems to LaValva to be an excellent opportunity to bring the market buildings back to life by returning them to their original use as a public market. I had the opportunity to join Robert LaValva for a walk through what he calls the East River Market District, to talk about the tradition and history of the public market as civic space, the role of the city in shaping our food systems, and the value, to our cities and our psyches, of cultivating small and local commercial enterprises. –V.S.

Where are we starting out?

We’re on the edge of Pearl Street, which was the shore of Manhattan in what I’ve come to call the East River Market District. The word “seaport” is somewhat of a misnomer for this area. In the earliest days it was actually called “The Ferry.” It was never called a seaport when it was a port. At heart, this is a market district. All of the 19th century buildings you see in the South Street Seaport were once connected with food. They were ship suppliers, wine importers, coffee roasters, spice importers, butchers shops, grocers.

Tell me about how you’re involved with Lower Manhattan, and why your interest in the public market has brought you here.

The idea for creating a new public market came about after I had left a job as a city planner and was pursuing an interest in food and food systems. That pursuit, I think, is a civic pursuit: how we feed ourselves, how we treat the planet and people and animals. I think the public market as a civic space should be a forum for that kind of debate and discussion — public space should be inspiring it.

Eight or nine years ago, I was working for Slow Food, which introduced me to this emerging world of food purveyors and artisans who were starting to open more small businesses focused on locally-sourced food. That really intrigued me. Around the same time, I stumbled onto the history of New York’s markets. And then a chance visit to London’s Borough Market — a historic market site that had been operational for hundreds of years —made me wonder, why can’t we have this in New York? A permanent public market site in New York, where you can really feel that weight of time, but where you can also experience the excitement of something that’s growing and new, this reemerging food system.

I started New Amsterdam Market in 2005 by holding a one-day market in the covered arcade of the Municipal Building by City Hall, which I’ve always loved as a public space. The project brought together my interest in city planning, architecture, design and public spaces with my growing interest in local food systems. In my mind, those things have always gone together. Markets are places, and the place itself is as much a part of the whole experience as what is being sold.

How did you start engaging with this neighborhood? Was it the history of the marketplace, the history of the commerce and the waterfront?

There is a book called The Market Book, a history of New York markets from Dutch times through the 1860s, written by a public market butcher named Thomas DeVoe, that became a guide for me. I learned the Essex Market actually traces its roots back to 1818, and the Fulton Market back to 1822, and there had been a Washington Market where the World Trade Center now stands.

I also found out that there are a few publicly-owned historic markets still standing in New York, like Essex Street Retail Market, Gansevoort Market and Fulton Fish Market. And that some of those still-existing markets are not fully utilized. I just kept thinking about the Fulton Fish Market, about these two buildings standing there empty. When it became clear that there were no specific plans for them, I thought we should be campaigning to preserve the spaces as a market. It’s a public site and the public has a right to determine what happens there.

Which we can see at the end of this street. So, we’re standing at the corner of Pearl Street and Beekman Street…

It’s rare in the grid of Manhattan to find focal points, where you look down a corridor and the street ends in an actual thing. You have Grand Central Station you have the New York Public Library down 41st Street and you have it here, with the Tin Building and the original Fulton Fish Market. Other streets around here tend to end in views of the FDR Drive. So the building softens the effect of the highway and also becomes something that draws you down the street.

Over the years, I began to notice how the buildings around here relate to each other — the fish market building, the Fulton Market Building that was part of the Rouse Development from 1983, and then Pier 17 behind it. I’ve never loved the Rouse development. And the whole concept of the festival marketplace, while it may have had its moment, doesn’t feel like it belongs in New York. But when I strip away the content and think just about the form of the buildings, I find that they were actually quite sensitively inserted. They create a sense of cohesion that is rare in New York City. I’ve come to treasure it.

I’ve spoken with Jane Thompson and Phil Loheed, both of whom had worked for Ben Thompson Associates in Boston on Pier 17 and the entire Seaport development. Their intention was for the Pier to be an incubator for new, small, locally-owned businesses. A central public courtyard was meant to be a place for low-risk, low-rent kiosks for businesses to start out. If they failed, they didn’t lose much. But if they succeeded, they could grow and maybe occupy one of the small shops upstairs or move into another space in the neighborhood. Now that space, the very best spot overlooking the water, is a chain clothing store. Successive generations of owners of this mall have increasingly moved away from that original concept of incubating local businesses, and instead have created a very generic place that anyone could find everywhere.

Many people say that the place isn’t successful, so a new mall has now been commissioned. They are blaming the form but they never talk about the content. In the new plan, again, the content is going to be big-box retail. One has to wonder if that is the right thing to be doing here. Especially when you have a lot of energy that could be funneled into supporting local businesses. Thousands of people are drawn to Pier 17 every day, particularly the decks, which function well as public space — they are almost like a stacked piazza. But the content fails to deliver.

On Front Street between Beekman and Peck Slip, you have a place that so many people tell me they are drawn to, though they can’t necessarily explain why. And inevitably the same people say that they never walk down Front Street in the opposite direction, towards Fulton Street (which is part of the “South Street Seaport” development), that they can’t stand it. The buildings are essentially the same, but everyone prefers like the north end of Front Street because it has no chain stores. The preferred stretch of Front Street is the result of an EDC redevelopment, backed by the Durst Organization and finished around 2006, that took a number of city-owned abandoned buildings and lots and assembled them under one development parcel, making sure that the buildings fit well into the neighborhood and that they worked with small businesses. The scale of it is different than typical New York streets, and the independent businesses are appealing to people. It’s an important lesson in thinking about what this area was, what it is, and what it could be.

Tell me about your educational and professional background, and your evolution from planning and architecture to food systems and markets.

I studied urban planning and then got a Masters in architecture. But I became personally disconnected with architecture. I love buildings and design, but I didn’t find myself drawn to what most people found exciting in contemporary architecture. But what drew me to study architecture from the very beginning were cities and the systems that make cities work.

I ended up working at the Department of Sanitation with someone who was developing composting infrastructure. The whole idea of composting utterly fascinated me — organic processes of decay and how they relate to natural systems.

Being in the composting program exposed me to people who were thinking about permaculture, rooftop farms, urban farms, organic food. I saw that they were drawing inspiration from how agriculture was practiced in the days before cheap petroleum, how we used to feed ourselves before chemicals, pesticides and so on. Nobody is saying we should go back to the 19th century, but that was the last time that we were rapidly expanding the efficiency of agriculture before this present system got firmly entrenched. That inspired me to think, well, if people are looking to that century to inform ways forward in agriculture and food production, what about the rest of the food system? Back then it was a public market system, not a supermarket system. It’s not that we’re all going to begin shopping at public markets, but the public market can play a role in reshaping the food system.

I’m thinking of the public market at its roots, as a forum. It’s not simply a place to buy and sell food. It’s like a living organism. I think of it as a public precinct where private commerce, under a set of rules and regulations, is allowed to thrive by virtue of the proximity among so many small businesses. The advantage of being in a large marketplace is in attracting people in a way that a small business can’t when located by itself. That’s how these markets are set up.

Now we’re standing outside the old Fulton Fish Market. Was that how the Fish Market was set up?

If you peer inside here, you see a space with 16 bays and at the end of each bay is kind of an office space and enclosed space. These were small stalls that allowed independent fish businesses to start and grow. As they grew, many of them became established neighborhood businesses.

There have been markets here since the 1640s. There was a market at Peck’s Slip called Peck’s Market where George Washington bought his food. You had Burling Slip, at the end of John Street, which was where all the tropical fruit would come into the city. Around 1815 or so, this residential area had become quite prosperous and the neighborhood residents wanted their own public market. And so finally Fulton Market was built.

It was one of these grand markets of the early 19th century. It had 88 butcher stalls, a coffee seller, a tripe seller, produce stalls, fish stalls. About 10 years afterwards, in the early 1830s, the vendors petitioned to have the fishmongers removed from the market and put in their own space across the street, because of the mess they made cleaning and processing all of the fish. And that was the birth of the Fulton Fish Market.

Over time, as the neighborhood changed and became less residential, the market itself and the market system began to erode, to fade away. But the fish market gradually became more and more of a wholesale market and it began to grow as the preeminent fish market. So you find a real ebb and flow over the years. And of course what we dream is that now a new market can occupy what was left behind and grow into a new type of market, relevant to our needs and thoughts today.

Where does the New Amsterdam Market operate now?

Right now, we rent space in the parking lot in front of the New Market building. It’s done through a direct relationship with EDC, who has an operating agreement with the parking lot management company. Part of the larger campaign to be inside those buildings is so that we could connect to water and electricity, but it’s also about what those buildings could and should be — processing, storage and distribution, where you could have cheeses being stored and fish being cleaned and meat being cut.

Many of our vendors have identified distribution and processing as key challenges to their businesses. One of the reasons local food or regional food is so expensive is that it’s a really inefficient system. And while it won’t necessarily become cheap, it will become more affordable when the whole system around getting local food to the city, distributing it and processing it becomes less patchwork and benefits from economies of scale. Markets like ours can help facilitate that change.

How do your efforts intersect with City initiatives, and how has your experience as a planner informed your work? A number of City officials, Christine Quinn and Scott Stringer being the most vocal examples, have been active in advancing policies connected to food systems, the regional foodshed and food-related industry — your timing on this project seems to be good.

Timing obviously has something to do with these things. There’s always the element of cultural change. It used to be a very esoteric topic. Now there’s been a shift and more people are asking how to eat in a way that’s healthier for us and for the planet. The fact that these issues have entered into public consciousness has been what’s enabled our project to gain momentum.

In terms of the city, I’ll take it a step back. The New Market Building was built in 1939 under Mayor LaGuardia, a time that marked the fall of the public market system. The fall began in the 1840s in New York City, when, under pressure from immigrant butchers, an old law whereby meat could only be bought in the public markets from licensed public market butchers was overturned. In some ways it was for good reason, but it also meant that the whole public markets system began to slowly erode. But since it was an old and venerable way of doing things, it took 100 years to fall apart completely.

So, in 1939 we still had the Department of Markets in the City of New York, which existed to create rules and promote economic development. During the Depression, it had radio broadcasts telling housewives what fish was cheapest that day, it held cooking classes, it was doing all sorts of things that are being carried out by other entities today. When I hear elected officials like Christine Quinn and Scott Stringer talking about these issues, I think there might one day be a City Department of Markets again. Of course we now have the USDA, the FDA, we have federal agencies that look at the food system. But I think the City can play a role in shaping the food system as well. That’s something that will take a long time to come to be, but I think the path has been set now for that to happen.

What is that role? What do you think the city can do that a federal agency can’t?

I think that first and foremost the city can play a very active role in supporting regional agriculture. It can facilitate the growth of businesses, distributers, wholesalers, purveyors and retailers. More and more people are making food using local ingredients —it might seem a little faddish, but there are people doing this very seriously. Food businesses are very hard to start they don’t make enormous profits, nor should they. The people who are committed to this work just want to make a good living sourcing, producing, distributing and selling food that they know is healthy, is good for the planet, and that doesn’t abuse animals or workers — and they should be able to. If the City can facilitate the growth of these businesses, it will do the regional food system a huge favor and it will do itself a favor, because it will help bring diversity to the city’s economy and diversity and health to daily life.

Similar to the changing public desire for markets and for local food, there’s also a huge shift in the public perception of what public space means in the city — pedestrian plazas, shared uses of streets, the idea of using the city as your living room, and ensuring that public spaces are active and alive. What role does the public market play in the citywide discussion of public space?

That question speaks to a lot of my motivation. The public market is one of the most ancient forms of public space. Streets are another one, but long before there was such as a thing as a park, which is what most people think of public space now days, there were public markets — think of the Greek agorae. There was something about bringing commerce, agriculture and the merchants of agriculture into the public space that was very important. They had an element of the sacred to them.

One thing I learned when looking at the agora is that there were stones called horoi that marked all the edges of the markets in the city. One of the reasons they were there was to prevent the encroachment of private buildings on that space. This was their way of saying, “this place belongs to the public.”

I think that the value of the public market as a public space is so ancient and so fundamental to civilization that it’s not something to be questioned.

For New York City, on the East River in particular, from Peck Slip down to Lower Manhattan, the waterfront is our agora, our forum. This is where the port was born, where the markets were born, where commerce was born. Our genetic energy is here. With all these elements coming together, a public interest in food, in markets, in public space, in the waterfront, it seems to me that we should be bringing this market, these buildings back to life, and making this place the epicenter of all of the redevelopment happening along the East River.

Speaking of which, here we are at the newly-opened Pier 15. How have the ongoing developments along the East River waterfront affected the market and the dynamics of the area?

What SHoP Architects has done on Pier 15 is very compelling, it draws people, it’s engaging. And I think — I hope — it will continue to improve as a public site as tenants and uses are introduced. But design can only take you so far. The original Pier 17 was considered an “instant landmark” by the architectural critics of the day, but its content has turned off an entire generation of New Yorkers.

Dedication to fostering unique commerce doesn’t necessarily mean lower revenue. Local, independent businesses have their own particular appeal. But it also takes more energy and effort to cultivate that kind of thing. I am not suggesting that there is no place in our world for big brands. We all use them — people go to chain drug stores, we go to Staples to buy supplies. It’s a reality of how we consume things today. But I think there could be a lot more balance, and that balance would actually make the place even more compelling. When you see nothing but the same stores over and over, especially in such a unique, historic site, the banality is striking. I think all that sameness is a draw on our psyche.

The paradox of marketplaces is that they draw people, so they draw commerce, so they become coveted by and taken over by people who want to draw from that traffic, and, over time, they no longer are the places they once were. The public market as an institution may have had its highs and lows, but the fact that they are coming back in so many different guises I think means that we are wishing them back. It’s way beyond what any individual, politician, or group of people can do, but it all stems from the human will to create these spaces.

I think that we know that our whole system of commerce is wrecked. There’s no trust in markets. They’ve led to several worldwide global recessions, depressions, collapses, and so on, essentially because people are conducting business at an enormous scale and are not being watched. The function of markets should be to provide a forum where things are watched. I think, maybe subconsciously, we’re groping for how we can restart. And I think food may be the starting point because, well, we all have to eat.

All photos by Varick Shute unless otherwise noted.

Robert LaValva is the founder and president of New Amsterdam Market, and a native New Netherlander (born in New Jersey). He studied urban planning at New York University and architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He worked for ten years as a planner for the City of New York, where he helped establish one of the country’s largest urban composting programs. In 2002 he left government to pursue his interest in sustainable agriculture and found his way to Slow Food, where, among other activities, he instituted a consortium for raw milk cheese producers worked on programs to help preserve biodiversity in crops and livestock and managed Slow Food’s Urban Harvest festival, which he staged in 2005 as the first New Amsterdam Market. He is committed to reviving New York City’s tradition of public markets, rededicated to regional food and responsible sourcing, and to reinventing the thriving culture of the urban agora.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.

Watch the video: SOUTH STREET SEAPORT, NEW YORK CITY (December 2021).