Old Fulton Fish Market headed for extinction

New York breaks ground for a $75 million indoor emporium in the Bronx

January 14, 2002|By Evan Osnos | Evan Osnos,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - At 4 a.m., when the fish are in and the market is at full tilt, a small corner of New York can forget these are the last of the old days.

From the open-air stands of the historic Fulton Fish Market, the sick-sweet stink of fish floats up to the looming condos that are obscured by lingering darkness.

On the same Manhattan waterfront where tourists stroll during the day, fishmongers and journeymen still hold sway each weeknight, midnight to dawn, talking tough and swinging hand-held metal hooks into fish crates, in a scene little changed since the fabled market began 170 years ago.

But the old Fulton is headed for extinction.

Prime Manhattan land

After trying for decades to roust the proudly unpolished bazaar from prime Manhattan land, the city broke ground recently on a new $75 million indoor fish emporium in the Bronx.

The wholesalers - many of them the sons of sons of fish dealers - will pack up their cramped stalls in the next two years and move to the new market in an industrial park 9 miles away.

To historians, the move will signal the end of the last original outdoor market in Manhattan, an island that once throbbed with merchant ship traffic and the raucous open-air trade it fueled. To many others - from small local merchants and preservationists to many of the market's 800 workers - it will mean another step away from an old New York that is fading into legend.

"They finally got us out," said Joe "Tuna" Centrone, a mountainous, cigar-smoking fish-seller with 30 years at the market. "Kicking and screaming, but we're out."

New market in 2003

No one questions that the new air-conditioned market, scheduled for completion in 2003, will be cleaner and more modern. The city calls the move a necessary response to new federal food-handling laws. But to those who grew up or grew old in the salty, bawdy world of the old market, the move feels like an effort to sanitize more than just the fish.

"They'll probably make us wear uniforms up there," said Mike Rizzuto, 49, wearing two fish-oil-stained sweatshirts and a floppy Gilligan-style hat to shield him from a cold rain one recent morning. "It'll be like working at Nabisco."

It is unclear what will happen to the old Fulton site, two blocks of open-fronted buildings in Manhattan's tourist-friendly southeast corner. The city is not saying what it would like to put there; the developer of a tourist mall next door is mulling a movie theater or more shops and restaurants.

There is no doubt it will bear little likeness to the scene that New York writer Joseph Mitchell described in 1954.

"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," he wrote in one of many descriptions.

Mitchell's scene bore few differences from the market today - or, for that matter, from its earliest days in the 1830s, when fishermen dumped their catch right onto the East River docks.

At the time, Manhattan's streets teemed with scores of bustling bazaars, for spices and coffee beans from faraway ports, and vegetables and meat from nearby farms. Many ran all night and all day, a key ingredient in the city's storied sleeplessness.

But by the 1970s, as Manhattan property values soared and ship traffic migrated to Brooklyn and New Jersey, the street markets all but vanished.

`All the markets are gone'

"All the markets are gone. The fish market will be the last," said Andrew S. Smith, a culinary historian at Manhattan's New School University. "They were a bustling part of our history that has disappeared."

Fishing boats have not landed in Manhattan for a generation. The fish - at least 100 varieties and half a million pounds each day - now arrive by plane and truck.

The semis arrive around midnight. The catch is loaded onto forklifts, which speed through the narrow market streets bearing giant headless swordfish and bushels of crabs. The bounty lands at designated sellers, where it is auctioned off in a flurry of deal-making.

With $1 billion in annual sales, Fulton is the nation's busiest fish market - and for many years, one of New York's firmest anchors of organized crime. Beginning in the 1930s, Mafia bosses ruled Fulton and its unions. According to prosecutors who targeted it in the 1980s, the mob used extortion to manage the loading and unloading of fast-spoiling seafood, as well as old-fashioned "tapping" to skim fish from individual crates.

New York's then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani sought to undermine the mob's influence in the mid-1990s, by imposing licensing and background checks on workers and squeezing more than a dozen companies out of the business. More recently, Giuliani expressed his delight that the market will be leaving a piece of real estate he would like to see developed like its neighbor, the South Street Seaport.

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