After a years-long adieu, the last major food exchange in lower Manhattan has disappeared. The Fulton Fish Market is no more, moved lock, stock and barrel this past November to a barren industrial park in the East Bronx. A site that nourished our souls for generations has vanished. The loss in incalculable.
No longer will New Yorkers have in our midst that most visceral of connections, the wholesale trade in carcasses headed for the dinner table. One morning last November the big white trucks sprayed and brushed the fetid South Street curbs and gutters for the last time, wiping away a precious palimpsest of nineteenth century life. Mounds of fresh fish once awaited buyers’ inspection, ogled by casual tourist eyes. It’s all disappeared, now hidden in sterile warehouses in a gated compound, miles from the nearest subway stop. The sensory and psychic wonders that were so readily available in lower Manhattan are now reserved for those in the trade, inaccessible to our daily lives. Only vacant window sockets and shuttered loading doors greet pre-dawn visitors to the short blocks that fed us riches to for over a century and a half.
My visits to South Street were always magic, traversing the porous border between reality and dream. Jolting awake at 4:45, I’d gulp a cup of coffee, then clamber downstairs into a cab for the quick ride down the East River Drive. The sun not quite risen, its promise shimmered off the City’s silent, pink-brick face as we sped downtown. I’d climb out at Fulton and Front streets, and make my way quickly towards the waterfront commotion. There under the blackened highway trestle, a hundred delivery vans clogged the rough pavement. By dawn the huge semi-trailers were already gone, having delivered their cargos from Maine, New Brunswick and points even more distant. Boxes and pallets lay everywhere, and the stench of fish and brine hung heavy. Warehousemen and handlers bustled about, their grappling hooks flashing, moving boxes from curb to van in one swift thrust.
Gleaming steel ripped into damp cardboard as the men lugged cartons onto dollies and handcarts, each box smeared with a wax-penciled address-cipher. Motions came swift and forceful on these streets. The violence that shone in the giant, death-dulled eyes of the sea-monsters found its voice in the rough-hewn swaggering and curse-laden speech that surrounded me. A heyday for Mapplethorpe, I’d think to myself: buck solid and erect, the tallest struck pose after pose, daring an on-comer’s timid gaze. A drunken specimen would lurch towards me through the aisles. I’d gave him a wide berth and made no eye contact. Clad in rubber chest high waders, shoulders thrust back and hips akimbo, he’d be bent on trouble I need not know.
Fulton Market’s scaly goods were dragged through foul gutters, sometimes taking a dainty dip in a pool of filth en route to the most expensive eateries on the east coast. Everything was done in en pleine aire. Forklift prows heaved giant tuna broadside along the lanes. I saw others, lugged by hand by two burly men, one at either end of a 12- foot long carcass, their hooks dug deep into the beast’s rich flesh. Flounder the size of gigantic bath mats lay in cardboard vats of ice alongside red snappers, each large enough to feed a banquet. Straw and seaweed-filled packing boxes spilled over with squirming crabs in rainbow hues. Crenellated conch and six kinds of oysters, twenty varieties of clams, skate, mullet and catfish: all burst from giant wooden baskets and decorate mountainous frozen beds. Filet men worked with deadly accuracy over gorgeous salmon, slicing into the rich coral flesh through the silver-black skins that shine like the finest Tiffany silver. East Asian buyers and sellers have been ubiquitous in recent years, reflecting a massive change in the demographics of New York. Fully thirty percent of the buyers hale from China and adjacent lands, and the wholesalers have adapted to their desires. Headed for Elmhurst banquet halls, ribbon-fish lay like limp sabers, glistening in the early morning light. Surely the twenty-pound sea turtles were not intended for western palates.
A special breed worked the refrigerated bays that back onto South Street. These sad-eyed fellows are a dying race. Resentment hung heavy in the air amidst knowledge of obsolescence. The death-grip of the mob, though broken years ago, lingered silently, its code of complicity part of the ether. Fear shown in the eyes of the older denizens, witnesses to threats carried out long ago. Everyone seemed to know one another, and the bonds that kept the system rolling echoed in the curses and raunchy greetings that filled the air as I walked the clogged, filthy streets, eyeing saltwater creatures whose names are unfamiliar in any language.
Fulton Market was a place of primitive exchange. Men, and men only, stepped in time to the beat of commerce unaltered from the past century. Though boats have not landed fish at South Street for many decades, the work was conducted much the same as it was in 1900, on slips of paper, out of tin cash boxes and through the grimy windows of dispatchers’ shacks. With grizzled mugs and potbellies the size of stoves, these major generals sat outside on camp chairs, holding court in their redoubts. Telephone technology’s early years lived on the market: Walking gingerly by a trimmer brandishing a razor sharp knife in the “modern” market stall building, I startled as a metal-boxed phone mounted on a column rang with an eerie, dull report. I half expected the trimmer to answer through some brine-encrusted speaking tube leading down to an unseen ship’s hold. The yelling, the hoarse crudeness, the brutality in the air hearkened back to days I know of only from Melville and Dos Passos.
Place matters: its eradication can neither be reversed nor the sin atoned. No book, no film can ever restore what dies inside us when the wrecking crews descend. The removal of the Washington Street produce markets to Hunts Point in the early 1960s, the slow death of the adjacent butter and egg district, the vivisection of the Gansevoort and Manhattanville meat markets, the closing of the East River banana pier at the southern tip of Corlear’s Hook: each act somehow made our souls narrower and poorer. These markets represented a tie to the plethora of storehouses and manufactories that once lined Manhattan’s downtown blocks, their goods naming streets like Beaver and Pearl. What we wore, what we ate, and what we drank: all were brought downtown by ship and barge, by wagon and rail, in bushels and hogsheads, bales and burlap, lining the stalls and sidewalks for New Yorkers to smell and taste and feel on their way to business and back homeward.
Remnants of the meat markets remain, and Tribeca’s stylish patina does not completely cover the butter and egg warehouses. Sadly, though, construction of a gigantic housing complex and college campus on the site of the Washington Market obliterated any trace of its former life. Once upon a time, draymen’s whips cracked the air on Vesey and Greenwich Streets, and barrows heaped with Kings County produce filled the odoriferous blocks. Gone forever are rows of warehouses and tin-roofed loading docks where fruits and vegetables were sold in bulk for the city’s tables for 150 years. Today, a sterile moonscape is all that greets the eye. Order prevails, but at what price? Each of these acts laid waste our history and squandered our inheritance.
What will remain of Fulton Market’s past, and who will remember? To have the seafood business conducted in the same place as it had been for over a century made us feel whole and connected, susceptible to the whims of God and nature and forces of evil. Surely the mall stores and yuppie bars, the million dollar condos and shellacked museum boards will provide little solace. Now the noises and smells, the overnight clamor is far away. Will anything worth saving be preserved? Will chewed pencil stubs and greasy notepads still keep the accounts between these men as they move through the sterile aisles of the new market? No laptop ever made it down to South Street, but something tells me that flat screens and styrofoam shipping containers will deaden the melodious beat of commerce in the new digs.
Despite its uprooting, for a few decades (and upon payment of the requisite market entrance fee) I’ll still be able to visit a simulacrum of the market I knew and loved, embodied in its storied speech. Fish markets are renowned for their wealth of dialect. From London’s Billingsgate to the Yiddish philologist Karpinovitch’s Vilna vignette, generations of funnel-eared scholars have walked ice-bedecked rows, trying hard to seem like small-time buyers, engendering the music of native accents. Accents and diction die slowly unless murdered en masse. It’s my guess that Fultons Market’s fancy fruit will live on in Hunt’s Point for a good thirty years. Plums of diction like “I goddawifeathome” and “Ayl buy youse a nice lobstuh-dinnuh nekstimewemeet,”, will be nourished and inbred among those now headed north with the only living they know. Language is culture’s body, and its South Street fins and magnificent tails are being packed into a barge of littoral barrels. A few casks will fall overboard on their way up the East River; others will clatter to the pavement and burst their ripe contents onto the new asphalt of Hunt’s Point. Some will be inadvertently left behind, their contents to molder and turn to linguistic dust. By and large, though, the syllabic migration will be a complete one.
Stories of South Street’s glory days make for good reading, but sadness envelops me when I sample them. When the mood strikes, I still imbibe from Joseph Mitchell’s South Street paean, Up in the Old Hotel, but it’s not enough. The epigrams are beautiful, but ultimately insubstantial. I want to go there, to be there, to travel back in time, to smell, to hear, to touch the continuity of this life. Fulton Market has been real for me, a place I could visit and make a quick leap, standing in today’s streets but feeling 1880 all around me. As I made my way down cobbled Peck Slip one last time, a scurrying solitary creature warned of the coming quake. A tank-topped jogger crossed my path, sweat streaming from her young brow. The girl’s daring pass through a gauntlet of heated stares foretold the doom. It wouldn’t be long before all I saw sublimed in her wake.
South Street has been precious to me, but why I can’t be sure. It has something to do with basics, with feeling the clatter of life’s wheels turning fast, propelling us all forward, rich and poor, the educated and the unlettered, crammed together. Little is needed to qualify one for grips of a hand-truck, or to wield a grappling hook. Life remained as-is at Fulton Market, reduced to its least common denominator, simple to see and easy to feel. Moving this market away from us, out of sight and out of mind, was an act of misanthropic segregation, one more way to separate us by education, by class, by function and by social background. In doing so, our spiritual lives have been beggared.
I tore myself away, trying not to look back, and headed up the East River footpath from the edge of the market stalls. Pilings topped with bonsai forests injected miniature landscapes in the midst of my harbor view. Atop one set of lashed timbers, two seagulls raised their rude necks towards the sunrise, screeching a raucous lament for all that will now perish. Tears filled my eyes and choked my throat. The aged, sagging South Street storehouses will quickly become yet one more piece of that so-called modern, ever-more impoverished life, the one I hate to call my own. Slowly and somberly I made my way inland, up John Street, stepping in time to a silent dirge, not really knowing how I could cope with this loss.
Luck’s blessing struck me with a quick blow of mercy, though. A giant street trench gaped in front of me, laying bare a tangled weave of ancient mains and hoary pipes. The giant hole blocked my way. I took a deep breath as salvation appeared. Though Fulton Market would soon be shuttered and gone, the old City’s whale-boned corset lies here yet, sleeping beneath the surface. And suddenly I know not to be so sad. In years to come, I can still journey down here living in that place called memory. Con Ed will ever be at work, wielding time worn picks and shovels in these crowded lanes. Rivulets of fishes’ blood and streams of mongers’ raffish speech will settle through the cracks in the weathered Belgian block, mixing with the City’s rich soil, forming clods of history to be uncovered and celebrated, over and over. I will come here yet, closing my eyes, dreaming on as if nothing had changed.
© – 2006 – Benjamin Feldman