On Friday, April 24th, The Final Mile began, fittingly, at the crack of dawn. Starting at 3:45 AM, thirty bleary-eyed New Yorkers gathered at Open House New York’s offices in the Flatiron District and climbed aboard a bus bound for the New Fulton Fish Market, located in the Bronx. The market, which famously moved from its huddled, historic quarters along the East River in Lower Manhattan in 2005, is at its peak in the wee hours of the morning, long before most of us wake up. Starting just after midnight, vendors, buyers, jobbers, truckers, and market managers venture up to the Hunts Point peninsula to buy and sell seafood sourced from every coastal state from New England to the Gulf of Mexico in a massive, quarter-mile-long market shed. It’s exactly as impressive as it sounds.
On the ride up, the group learned about the history of the fish market—and the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, of which it is a part—from Julie Stein, a Vice President of Development with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which serves as the landlord for the entire Food Distribution Center. Stein, who works with markets and food businesses across the city, helped to provide context for what the group was about to see.
The fish market was actually the last of the city’s major public markets to move to Hunts Point, following the creation of the Hunts Point Produce Market by vendors previously located at the Washington Market (on the present-day site of the World Trade Center) in the 1950s, and the Hunts Point Meat Market by vendors from the Gansevoort Meat Market (from which the Meatpacking District garnered its name—and its once gritty reputation). The city’s three public food markets serve as the main nodes within a 329-acre campus at Hunts Point, which supplies an astounding 50% of the city’s produce, meat, and fish. The Food Distribution Center is the source of 8,000 direct jobs, and many more thousands of indirect jobs in food-related businesses clustered in the surrounding area. “New York City has a really unique food system,” Stein explained, “because we place more emphasis on public markets, whereas vertically-integrated supermarket chains are more dominant in other areas.”
Upon arriving at the New Fulton Fish Market, the group was greeted by Market Manager George Maroulis, the man in charge of the day-to-day operations of this critical link within the city’s food system. Maroulis was quick to reiterate Stein’s point about the important role that public markets play in the local food economy: “In New York City, a lot of things are very expensive—housing, transportation, etcetera. But you get the best bang for your buck for food here, and the best quality for the price.”
Maroulis led the group from the loading dock at the building’s northeastern end into the main market shed, a cavernous, single room that houses thirty vendors that directly employ about 750 people. The room was remarkably pungent, given the size and temperature; the entire facility is kept chilled, like a giant refrigerator. If it ever lost power, the market could lock its doors and seal the facility, keeping the seafood inside safe for 36 hours.
The group arrived around 5:00 AM, with the market in full swing. Buyers haggled with vendors up and down the two seemingly endless rows lining either side of the shed. Forklifts zoomed along the central aisle, transporting pallets stacked high with every imaginable type of seafood: gray sole, blue crab, John Dory, snapper, bass, whiting, lobster, oysters, escargot, squid. Given the newness of the facility, there was a surprising sense of history in and around the market. The customs and relationships that evolved over centuries on Fulton Street were still evident, despite the change of scenery. There was a great deal of familiarity amongst the vendors and buyers on-site that morning; workers leaned casually against crates full of ice and fish with huge fish hooks slung over shoulders, their wooden handles showing years of intensive use. Under the industrial-scale steel roof, the sense of community was still strong.
While the vendors all share one building now, they still operate as independent businesses. All three of the public markets within the Food Distribution Center are operated as co-ops, with the city serving as the landlord. Of the fish market vendors that made the move up to the Bronx in 2005, a full 70% are still in business a decade later. These vendors are subtenants, and they set their own prices, they maintain their own relationships, and they handle all transactions directly. Buyers don’t have accounts with the market, but work directly with the vendors themselves, who compete with each other on price and quality, just like in the historic markets around which the city grew in the 18th and 19th centuries. Maroulis, when asked how this system functions, had a simple answer: “They’ve established trust.”
In the age of automation and vertical integration, it’s interesting to see how much our city’s food system still relies on personal relationships. Maroulis noted the role of face-to-face interaction at the fish market in lowering the cost of fresh food in the metropolitan area. Having lived through the market’s move, he also recalled the impact of the shift from the dense, mixed-use fabric of Lower Manhattan to the more modern, isolated facilities at Hunts Point with a mix of emotions.
“There were positive and negative aspects…psychologically, it was a huge adjustment. In Manhattan, these guys were working in the streets. It was very hard on the individual. You needed a lot of stamina to do that, and it also wasn’t very good for the product itself; it deteriorated very quickly. Now, there’s much better visibility for the buyers; vendors are selling fresher fish, and the buyers are getting a better price. It’s a wonderful climate for the consumer,” Maroulis noted—though he quickly acknowledged that the physical enviroment of the old market, while it presented challenges, also had its charms. “In terms of what’s challenging—they don’t have the pleasure of [working in the city], either.”
As the group neared the back of the market shed, Maroulis shrugged, smiled, and announced, “So, this is it. Fish!”
For all of the complexity of the vast food system that has evolved over centuries to feed New York City, it all still comes down to buyers and sellers haggling over the price of a pound of fish. That amount that can fluctuate based on myriad factors in regions across the globe, from the climactic to the socioeconomic. A strike in China or a storm in Brazil can have big impacts on New York’s food system, but public wholesale markets like the New Fulton Fish Market, by putting vendors and buyers face to face, help to support New York’s uniquely diverse food economy by helping to control the cost and quality of the food that we consume.
Open House New York thanks the New Fulton Fish Market for welcoming participants into their facility for this tour. OHNY also thanks NYCEDC for helping to arrange the tour, and joining the group to provide context on the bus ride up to the market.