Seaport nostalgic as fish market may swim away this weekend


By Ronda Kaysen

Talk this week that the Fulton Fish Market might actually leave the South Street Seaport after nearly a year of successive delays stirred bittersweet feelings in the community that has housed the market here for almost two centuries.

The market may move from the cobblestone streets of the Seaport to an $85 million facility in the South Bronx as early as this weekend. A series of setbacks delayed the move — originally scheduled for last December — which has been in the works since the Giuliani administration.

Most recently, a lawsuit filed against the merchants by Laro Systems, the company that unloads the fish, blocked the move indefinitely. But the merchants, a cooperative called the New Fulton Fish Market Cooperative, and Laro were close to settling the dispute late Wednesday afternoon, clearing the way for the merchants to move this weekend.

“My corporate brothers and sisters have finally wrestled the last semicolons in the negotiations,” William Kuntz, II, the lawyer for the cooperative, said Wednesday.

Laro sued the cooperative and the city after the city gave the merchants the okay to unload their own fish. A judge ruled against the city last month, stalling the move for the foreseeable future. But the city, merchants and Laro are close to an agreement to extend Laro’s contract as the sole unloader for the next three years, Kuntz said. After that, the cooperative, Laro and outside companies will be able to bid for the work.

Once the way is cleared for the move, the merchants must pack their businesses and set up shop in the Bronx over the weekend in order to open for business on Monday. “You’re excited, you’re a little nervous, you’re a little frustrated. It is such a stressful process. I’m not going to say it’s Pollyanna time,” said Kuntz. “There’s a sense of nostalgia. It’s a historic market that’s being moved.”

The Seaport has been home to the outdoor market for 170 years. Harking back to another New York, each night, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, mongers hawk fish to buyers from around the city.

“The fish market obviously was just such a presence down here for so long,” said Paul Goldstein, district manager for Community Board 1 and a Seaport resident. “Some people loved having them around. It gave a real sense of history to the neighborhood and authentic New York.”

“We’re terribly sad and somewhat depressed about the prospect of the fish market leaving,” said Gary Fagin, a 20-year Seaport resident and member of the Seaport Community Coalition, which helped rezone the neighborhood in 2003. “The last vestiges of real waterfront history is leaving behind a big hole.”

But with the history came the realities of a market established long before refrigeration made an indoor market possible. Every night the cobblestone streets fill with sludge, the stench of fish inescapable. For residents in the immediate vicinity, the market’s departure means the end of late-night noise, a nightly stench and vermin.

“I’m going to miss the aroma of the fresh fish everyday, but I am really looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep,” said Terry Harlow, a Front St. resident. Every night, merchants drive their forklifts along the cobblestone street in front of her apartment, waking her up at 3 a.m., she said.

The repeated delays have taken a toll on the merchants, many of whom are exhausted from the lawsuit and the repeated delays. “Everybody’s kind of worn out because of all the false starts,” said Naima Rauam, an artist who has been the market’s resident painter since 1983. “Everybody’s dazed and tired and I’m dazed and tired. I don’t think at this point there’s going to be any celebratory parties.”

The merchants aren’t the only ones holding back the champagne. Some in the neighborhood are skeptical the move will really happen this weekend. “Given the fact that it’s Wednesday at 4 o’clock and they haven’t moved yet we’ll believe it when we see it,” said Michael Piazzola, vice president of the Seaport Market Place, a division of General Growth Properties.

The Economic Development Corporation, which is orchestrating the move, was also reluctant to cheer too soon. “The fish wholesalers have said if they don’t have the final signed agreement they’re not going to move,” said Michael Sherman, an E.D.C. spokesperson, on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re certainly hoping the fish market moves as quickly as possible. We’re hopeful but it’s just not finalized.”

The end of the market means the beginning of a new era for a neighborhood that has been on the brink of significant change for a long time. General Growth Properties, the company that owns the Seaport’s mall, has indicated it intends to exercise its right to develop the Tin Building and the fish market stalls, although it has not unveiled what it plans to do with the property.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens,” said Goldstein. “We’re all waiting for General Growth… and they’re moving at a slower pace, but we’re used to that by now.”

The New York Post reported on Wednesday that developer Joseph Sitt was in negotiations with General Growth to buy the mall from them, an assertion General Growth representatives dismiss. “That isn’t true,” Piazzola told Downtown Express. “To the best of my knowledge, the Seaport isn’t for sale.”

The Seaport Community Coalition is mobilizing neighborhood residents to play an active role in what becomes of their neighborhood. The Department of City Planning is planning a $150 million renovation of the East River Waterfront, which will also greatly impact the neighborhood. The coalition would like to see the Seaport avoid the fate of the Meatpacking District, another neighborhood that recently underwent tremendous change. The Westside neighborhood has transformed into a nightspot with long lines of club goers waiting behind velvet rope all nights of the week. Greenwich Village, on the other hand, is a neighborhood that has managed to strike a balance between historic character, tourism, residential development and industry, Fagin said.

“We’d like to see a working waterfront continue, not just a destination for tourists and not just a failed marketplace,” said Fagin. The fish market is “not necessarily a clean place but it’s a unique place that will engender what will happen here.”

With reporting by Daniel Wallace

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