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Fulton Market

by Kathryn Burke

The Fulton Market has a long history spanning the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. The history began in 1822 with the opening of Fulton Market, which supplied customers with their daily meals. The Fulton Fish Market, which grew out of the Fulton Market, is the only aspect to survive into the 21st century. Throughout its long career, the Fish Market continued to thrive with a historic charm in the middle of a bustling modern city.

The Beginnings

Since the 1820's, the Fulton Market had been a central part of life in lower Manhattan. The area of land that held the Fulton Market did not exist until landfill from 1737 to 1756 extended Manhattan.i On January 24, 1821 a major fire burned down most of the buildings on Front Street between Fulton Slip and Crane Wharf. Brooklyn and Manhattan residents clamored for a new market to replace the older market deemed unfit for a growing city.ii This area was perfect for a market because it was close to the Fulton Ferry, which carried people to and from Brooklyn. The proximity to the East River provided an opportunity to sell fresh fish. The municipal government responded to demands after the fire and rebuilt the area with the Fulton Market, which opened in 1822. The Fulton Market began as an all-purpose market with an array of products. The east side of the building was designated for the fishmongers while the rest was divided between butchers, sausage venders, and sellers of fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.iii At the market families bought their meals in a time before refrigeration, when everything had to be bought fresh. Pushcarts sold snacks, while some stalls were for lunchtime crowds from the growing financial area. Oyster stands became popular places to grab a quick bite to eat. There were several oyster stalls at the Fulton Market. Merchants also sold coffee, shoes, stationary, books, ice cream, pistols, and various other items.iv Only later did the market become devoted to the wholesale fish business.

The market provided a functionary role in society. The array of food that could be bought at the store was sure to find its way onto the plate of a nearby resident. The market sold the fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish to feed most of the city. The location of the market was convenient for households in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Customers could hop onto the Fulton Ferry with ease and take there purchases home where they would be consumed within the day. The Fulton Market provided a place for social interaction and the completion of daily errands. This clientele varied from that of sailors, prostitutes, and other subcultures, to businessmen from the growing financial district to the north, which gave varied kinds of social contact. Wherever there is trade, the exchange of goods facilitates the exchange of ideas. The Fulton Market could be a place to share opinions on any topic. The market freed people from social restraints and divisions, in a sense. Wealthy merchants and poor sailors rubbed elbows at the oyster stands, while women of every social standing shopped. All classes mingled together at the market, which gave the market an equalizing quality.

Becoming the Fulton Fish Market

Soon after the market opened, marketmen began to complain about the fish business taking place in the Fulton Market. They complained of the smell, the mess on the floors, and the water damage to the walls and ceilings of the building. The floors were in constant need of hosing down. The butchers headed a petition to get the fish stalls transferred to another building across the street. A shed was constructed in 1831 to hold the new fish market. The Fulton Fish Market was thereafter referred to as a different entity from the Fulton Market. Business at the original Fulton Market then began to decline. As a result, in 1843, the same butchers who had just rejected the fish market petitioned to return the fish market, hoping to revive business. The fishmongers refused, but eventually expanded to both sides of the street. v

The Fulton Market Declines

As other business at the market began to decline in the late nineteenth century, the fish business boomed. Butchers moved away from the Fulton Market and set up their own shops elsewhere, taking business with them. With the advent of iceboxes and refrigeration, it was no longer necessary for households to go to the market everyday for meals. The demographical changes in the area also led to the non-fish business decline. The waterfront was once a fashionable place to live, but the upper classes began to move uptown to new districts. With the shipping boom and growth of the city northwards, merchants moved from the piers once they had made enough profit to do so. By the late 1800’s the neighborhood around the market was left vacant, so poor immigrants moved into tenements there. With the newly-built Brooklyn Bridge nearby, the need for the Fulton Ferry decreased, and eventually the ferry closed. The Brooklyn Bridge’s pedestrian walkway let out at Centre Street, several blocks west from the market. Shoppers now had to makes a conscious effort to go out of their way to buy from the Fulton Market.vi With the decrease in traffic around the market came a decrease in business. Non-fish business struggled until 1910, when all the stalls were taken over by fish firms. With the decline of non-fish business came the decline in retail fish selling and switch to wholesale at the Fulton Fish Market. For the same reasons as the decrease in other businesses at the Fulton market, the retail fish business decreased. Refrigeration negated the need to buy fresh fish everyday so fishmongers became wholesale providers. By switching to wholesale for restaurants and hotels the Fulton Fish Market was able to prosper. The all-purpose Fulton Market had died, to be replaced with the Fulton Fish Market.

The Buildings

The first market building was on South Street between Fulton and Beekman Streets. The fish were sold on the east end of the building, until the fish market was moved to the riverside of the street, to a new building. In 1831, a 195- foot one-story shed housed the newly independent Fulton Fish Market.vii In 1847, a new wooden shed was built, similar to the one before, but with an extended platform in the back for fish cars. In 1869, the Fulton Market Fish Mongers Association formed as an organization of fish firms, and raised $123,000 for a new wooden structure, with two stores, a loft, and a tin roof, called the Tin Building.viii The first floor was open, with iron columns to separate the firms and support the second floor, which held the private offices of the fish firms. This building burned in 1878 and was rebuilt in the same way. The Fish Mongers building opened in 1907 and was 85 ft by 208 ft. Precautions were taken to prevent fire. The steel frame was covered in iron. The floor was made out of concrete, which slopped for easy cleaning. The building had a private power house nearby. On March 29, 1995, a mysterious fire, later found to be deliberately set, gutted the second storey of the 1907 building. Funds were allocated to fix the building.

Fishmongers who did not have room in the Tin Building constructed new market buildings. Some dealers spread back into the old Fulton Market building, rebuilt in 1883, after the produce dealers had moved to the Washington Market on the West Side of Manhattan.ix In 1909, a new building was built next to Pier 18 and was used primarily by dealers of freshwater fish. It operated from 1909 to 1936 when a 125 ft section fell into the East River. Mayor Fiorelle La Guardia replaced the building with a new, modernized building emblazoned with the words, “Fulton Fish Market” in classic art deco style. The new building was equipped with state of the art sanitation systems and had a clean, streamlined, white facade to match.x This building is still standing at South Street Seaport today, although the market moved to Hunts Point in 2005.

Business As Usual At The Fulton Fish Market

In the Fulton Market, fish was sold retail, but after the move to the new building in 1831, there was more room to sell more fish. Given an entire building, the fish firms were able to increase in number and size. The fishmongers began to sell wholesale with larger quantities of fish. Along the piers, the fishmongers built fish-cars, which were boxes that held fresh fish in the East River. These boxes had open slits around all six sides that let water flow in and out in order to keep the fish alive. This ensured that all fish caught would be sold and that the consumer would get a fresh product.

The Fulton Fish Market became a strictly wholesale business that sold a minimum of ten pounds per order to fish retail stores, restaurants, and hotels. The daytime activity became nocturnal work. Procedure stayed basically the same throughout the market’s long career. Fish was unloaded from starting at midnight and selling began at 3a.m. on Monday and 4a.m. Tuesday through Friday. Fishermen were paid for their catch before it was sold. However, this would later cause a problem when fishermen began looking for other markets with constant prices. Under the lights, Fulton Fish Market workers rushed down aisles with hand trucks full of fish. Sellers set the price of fish according to the quantity brought in, but bargaining occurred. The trust relationship between buyer and seller was very important. The customers, mostly male, wandered around the stalls looking for the best price. When the sale was made, the customer got a number to take to the cashier. Then workers loaded the fish into a truck in order to transport the fish. By 9 a.m., the sale was over, the floors and sidewalks were hosed down, and the market was empty until midnight when the process started again. Inspectors sometimes wandered the premises making sure sanitation codes were followed.xi

The Fulton Fish Market created a family of workers where employees and employers worked closely. Workers usually remained working at the market from the start of their career. Some jobs pass from father to son; firms often stay in families, some that go back a hundred years. All the wholesale companies were privately owned. The work was considered unskilled, because it did not require any training. The Fulton Fish Market became a place where male immigrants and even criminals could find jobs. The working conditions were harsh and physically hard in all weathers. The owners and workers dressed the same way: in high rubber boots, flannel shirts, wool hats, and aprons.xii

Few changes occurred in the process of selling fish. When changes did occur, they were often superficial. Fish originally arrived on trucks in wooden boxes, which were replaced by cardboard cartons, which were replaced by Styrofoam to keep freshness. Both old scales and new digital scales were used throughout the stalls. Columns were painted and lights changed; the market grew and shrunk. Restaurants originally catering to sailors and fishmongers grew up around the vicinity. For most aspects of the job, the Fulton Fish Market was static.xiii

A drastic difference from the 1800's to the 1900's was the change in transportation of fish to and from the market. Before the 1930's, fishmongers waited at the docks to unload fish from the fishing boats that docked at the piers. With improvements in land transportation, trucks became more efficient than boats. In 1924, 5 percent of saltwater fish was transported by trucks; by 1957 truck deliveries had increased to 85.9 percent. In 1970, trucks and airplanes delivered 98 percent of the fish to the market.xivThese new transportation methods negated the need for the market to be by the water.

The Fish

“If it swims, we handle it.”xv Many outside factors, including weather, international problems, and immigration patterns, affected what fish may have come to the market. Stock in the Fulton Fish Market reflected the tastes of ever-changing immigrant groups.xvi The sale of certain fish types expanded and contracted based on tastes; others were staples of American diets. In 1880, the top ten fish sold were cod, bluefish, mackerel, halibut, haddock, porgies, lobsters, weakfish, flounder, and eels. During the next hundred years, these fish retained their popularity. During times when meat was scarce, such as war time, fish intake increased. Species of fish sold at the market varied greatly. The Fulton Fish Market carried 300 varieties of fish and shellfish. The firms handled 140 million pounds of fish a year. Since the fish was brought in mostly by land transportation, the species of fish came from all over the world. Fish from Alaska, New Orleans, and various other places found their destination at the Fulton Fish Market. The quantities of fish were great. In 1871, the average annul business was $140,000.20, and the firms handled 144 tons of fish daily. By 1947, the gross earnings of the market added to $85 million.xvii

The Mob

The market has been plagued with extortion and racketeering since the 1900's. At one point, fishermen from the South Shore of Long Island refused to deliver their catches without a police guard.xviii Corruption was rampant at the market because it was part of New York’s underworld. Fish firms hired men with shady pasts and criminal backgrounds. The exclusive atmosphere of the market provided a breeding spot for crime. Personal loyalties and comradely within firms and the market as a whole insured fishmongers’ protection of each other. Authority involvement with business was resented and seen as an encroachment on the market’s territory. Crime was able to take hold in the market because it provided a suitable atmosphere for corruption.

Organized crime in the Fulton Fish Market is traced to Joseph “Socks” Lanza.xix As a young man Lanza worked in the market and organized the United Seafood Workers Union in 1919. Lanza kept the market running smoothly, but ran outrageous rackets. A truck shipping fish from out of state could be charged up to $2000 just for the right to deliver its cargo; most of Lanza’s revenue came from this. A dummy organization called Fulton Market Watchman and Patrol Association collected $40,000 in order to keep the market safe, but no such patrol actually took place.xx In order to keep people paying the rackets, the mob used violence and threats. An investigation started in 1926, and by 1933 enough evidence had been collected from less than reluctant witnesses to charge Lanza with racketeering and extortion. In 1938, Lanza pleaded guilty to operating a racket and was punished with two and a half years in prison. From jail, Lanza continued to run his rackets. Once released, he was again elected union president. As a result of pressure from the American Federation of Labor and a new trial in 1941, Lanza was forced to resign and was sent to prison again. Although Lanza was involved in major rackets, he was viewed as a kind of “Robin Hood” at the market.xxi Extortion continued to be a force at the Fulton Fish Market, but authorities turned a blind eye.

The mob at the Fulton Fish Market was ignored by authorities until the 1980's, when a new investigation commenced. U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani accused the mafia of controlling the fish market through the Genovese family since the 1930's. An investigation ensued, but it was hard to accuse anyone because market workers kept a code of silence and resented the presence of authorities. The investigators looked for extortion, income tax evasion, and tapping- the practice of stealing fish from boxes unloaded at the market. Carmine and Peter Romano were convicted of labor extortion in 1982. That same year, five fish handlers were also charged with tapping.xxii When Giuliani became mayor of New York City, he led a second investigation in 1995 that shut down some firms, but made no convictions.xxiii

The Legacy

The market endured for over 180 years, shifting from all-purpose market to fish specialty. The history of the market spans the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, several major wars, and the rise of the automobile. The harbor’s central position brought a diverse selection of goods to the market, making it the largest in the Western Hemisphere. New York’s early success as a commercial center linked to the success of the market. For many, the Fulton Fish Market has lived on in memory of a less complicated time in New York City.

Endnotes:

  1. Philip Lopate, Introduction: The Fulton Fish Market, South Street (New York 2007) 2
  2. Ibid.
  3. Priscilla Jennings Slanetz, “A History of the Fulton Fish Market,” The Log of Mystic Seaport (28 1986) 14
  4. Philip Lopate, Introduction: The Fulton Fish Market, South Street (New York 2007) 7
  5. Priscilla Jennings Slanetz, “A History of the Fulton Fish Market,” The Log of Mystic Seaport (28 1986) 14
  6. Philip Lopate, Introduction: The Fulton Fish Market, South Street (New York 2007) 10
  7. Priscilla Jennings Slanetz, “A History of the Fulton Fish Market,” The Log of Mystic Seaport (28 1986) 14
  8. Priscilla Jennings Slanetz, “A History of the Fulton Fish Market,” The Log of Mystic Seaport (28 1986) 16
  9. Priscilla Jennings Slanetz, “A History of the Fulton Fish Market,” The Log of Mystic Seaport (28 1986) 18
  10. Priscilla Jennings Slanetz, “A History of the Fulton Fish Market,” The Log of Mystic Seaport (28 1986) 18-19
  11. Priscilla Jennings Slanetz, “A History of the Fulton Fish Market,” The Log of Mystic Seaport (28 1986) 21
  12. Philip Lopate, Introduction: The Fulton Fish Market, South Street (New York 2007) 20
  13. Philip Lopate, Introduction: The Fulton Fish Market, South Street (New York 2007) 13
  14. Priscilla Jennings Slanetz, “A History of the Fulton Fish Market,” The Log of Mystic Seaport (28 1986) 21
  15. Philip Lopate, Introduction: The Fulton Fish Market, South Street (New York 2007) 15
  16. Philip Lopate, Introduction: The Fulton Fish Market, South Street (New York 2007) 16
  17. Priscilla Jennings Slanetz, “A History of the Fulton Fish Market,” The Log of Mystic Seaport (28 1986) 22
  18. Priscilla Jennings Slanetz, “A History of the Fulton Fish Market,” The Log of Mystic Seaport (28 1986) 23
  19. Philip Lopate, Introduction: The Fulton Fish Market, South Street (New York 2007) 22
  20. Ibid.
  21. Priscilla Jennings Slanetz, “A History of the Fulton Fish Market,” The Log of Mystic Seaport (28 1986) 23
  22. Philip Lopate, Introduction: The Fulton Fish Market, South Street (New York 2007) 23
  23. Philip Lopate, Introduction: The Fulton Fish Market, South Street (New York 2007) 24
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