New York is a constantly changing, breathing, heaving beast. Its people are its bloodstream, the sidewalks and subways its vessels and arteries. Buildings are bone and muscle. But the heart of New York has always been its business, ever since the Dutch Colonialists landed in 1624 and announced they were starting a shipping colony called Nieuw Amsterdam. NYC’s neighborhoods exist as different parts of the body, working energetically then emptying out. In the last 40 years a pattern has emerged wherein many former industrial hoods have successfully swept away their scuzz factor and transformed (whether they like it or not) into a boutique residential and commercial paradise. Everyone loves to hate gentrification, unless, of course, they’re directly benefiting from the rise in land value.
But one of the more fascinating and original urban landscapes this city has is the Fulton Fish Market. Not for long. Some Friday soon in the not-distant future, this 184-year-old lumbering, stinking and godforsakenly beautiful dinosaur of New York’s industrial and open-market history will scale its last blue fin, fillet its last salmon and move to a gleaming state-of-the-art, climate-controlled facility in Hunts Point, the Bronx, in a move that has been mandated by the FDA. When the market goes, it will take with it the last vestige of Manhattan’s gristly blue-collar, seafaring industrial history.
Since 1820, Fulton Street has been a full-blown market, with its own version of Coney Island’s carney pitch: hundreds of extraordinarily loud men, hollering, sometimes in rhyme, their foodstuffs for sale: German butchers sawing off legs of lamb and racks of beef at wholesale prices; Italian vendors hawking fruits and vegetables; and Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian open-air fish markets. The butchers were the first to go, sent to indoor meat markets by the mid 1800s, and the fruit and vegetable sellers moved up to the Lower East Side, because the abundance of immigrants flooding the tenements meant a surer sale. The Fulton Fish Market had to stay: schooners and sloops were delivering fresh fish daily right off the water. The Fish Market moved into a permanent building in 1869 and as refrigeration and express railroad became the established norm across the country, fresh fish was soon delivered via land from all corners of the continent, as well as Europe and the Mediterranean.
Fulton Fish Market has always been a locus for New Yorkers of various strata: old Irish housewives arguing over the price of whitefish, Chinese merchants buying in bulk for a family of 30, restaurant buyers figuring out the freshest pick for their blue plate specials, all between midnight and 9am. During the Depression, the WPA sponsored radio programs live from the Market that opened with a cheery “Good Morning Housewives!” and concluded with tasty and affordable dinner recipes featuring the catch of the day. Fulton was the largest fresh fish market in the country and one of the largest in the world, the incoming source for more than 75 percent of the city’s restaurant supply of fresh market fish up until the early 1990s.
The energy and exuberance of the Fulton Fish Market was and still is legendary — a story best told through the voices of the fishmongers: huge men with outsized personas developed over years of hard outdoor work through every season, from blistering cold to sweltering heat.
Joe Tuna, one of the more boisterous and corpulent of the mongers, sits on his hi-low, a mini-forklift capable of lifting 3,000 lbs, and a staple of the market. Joe’s worked here for 26 years, 14 of them spent on the streets. Before him, his father worked the market. He is both welcoming and wary of the upcoming change. “The new facility is climate controlled, is cleaner, is better for the fish. No more fuckin’ freezing nights on the East River.” But Joe Tuna isn’t all business. Chewing around his two-dollar cigar, he declares, “I’m a sentimental asshole. I’m gonna’ miss this place. I’ve got a wall of pictures, put up 14 years ago. I started taking them down. There are 40 pictures of 40 people that aren’t here anymore and there are pictures of everything: the day you sold the most fish, the day you sold the biggest fish, the biggest profit, the craziest thing you ever saw. It takes all of those things to make a full life. It’s hard work, some say it’s all cream, it aint. Some days were black days. I saw the planes hit. I snuck in here on September 12th and drove my forklift full of ice to Ground Zero for the boys. After four weeks, still the smell of death. We were here those black days. But we came back stronger. Always stronger.” And Joe Tuna’s favorite kind of fish? “It’s fuckin’ tuna!”
Not all the fishmongers are looking forward to the new facility. Another man, less rotund than Mr. Tuna but more pensive, a fishhook slung over his shoulder and smoking a cigar, declined to give his name. But he said he was a lifer at the market. “Been here 50 years. My father before me, his father before him. Been here generations. This market shouldn’t move at all. We’re gonna’ lose people. Who walks around the Bronx, who’s gonna’ walk into the new building? It’s all government bullshit.” Growling, he continued. “It’s secluded, it’s inconvenient. You got people coming down here, you got people who look for this place. It’s the safest place in the city at this time of night. I love the hours, they’re the best. This new building’s gonna’ end it, the price of fish’s gonna’ skyrocket.”
Eddie Bones, a burly man in a Mets muscle-T and a lifting belt over jeans spattered with fish slurry, has no reservations about moving north. “Good for the fish. Good for the clients. Cleaner, warmer in the winter, colder in the summer. Brand new digs for us. When you dwell in the past you lose sight of the future.”
Fulton Fish Market’s eventual demise has been postponed, first from January to June, then July, August, and now October, due to city bureaucracy and red tape. But the delay can’t last forever and eventually, it will all be gone, all the cardboard and styrofoam packages bursting with seafood, the cigar smoke, the nicknames and voices, the hi-lows, the tough attitude, and one day, even the pungent smell of fish will fade into history.