From the Archives: Fulton Fish Market

by Ruth Spear Photographed by Enrico Ferorelli
Thursday, December 14, 2017

This article originally appeared in the April 1981 issue of AVENUE.

There is almost no traffic at the south end of Manhattan at three-thirty in the morning and, for the most part, the downtown streets are so quiet that the noise of one car going over a loose culvert rends the night air like an explosion. The few vehicles there are seem to funnel into one place – the foot of Fulton Street, where the good parking places have already disappeared and huge trucks line up to disgorge their packing cases onto the street in front of the Fulton Market. Men move back and forth with hand trucks, now full, now empty, and greetings and friendly jibes fill the air. In contrast to the mute gray of the surrounding streets, the activity and stark bright overhead lights of the market are slightly surreal, as if one had stumbled in sleep upon Rip Van Winkle’s bowlers.

These are wholesalers, however, not 10-pin bowlers, who have arrived at about 3:00 a.m. They are busy now with their crews, unpacking the red snappers from Florida and shad from North Carolina, uncovering great tubs of slithery, silver smelts from Michigan, fresh scallops from Long Island, stacking up green-netted sacks of mussels from Maine. Most importantly, they are establishing the day’s prices, in anticipation of the buyers – fish store owners, restaurant suppliers, individual restaurateurs – who will arrive a bit later.

Some take their breakfast in Dirty Eddie’s bar, where the cash register sits on a blackened stove and tired Christmas festoons still drape the bar. Resting on every shoulder or dangling from the wrist is the steel hook used in the Market as an all-purpose extension of hand, to haul a bug fish up out of its packing ice, flip it over for examination, dislodge a wooden packing case from its place in a stack. Fish are cold and slippery, with fins that tear the flesh, so the buyers use the hook to toss their daily choices into the scales as they roam the isles of the cavernous building.

Erected in 1907 on piles driven into the muddy river bottom, this market replaced an earlier wooden structure built in 1868, the fourth successive effort to meet the need of the growing metropolis. In those days, fish were brought up river by boat and kept alive in floating fish cars, a practice that had to be discontinued when mounting pollution began to poison the merchandise and the short-haul fishing smack became obsolete. The 92 varieties of fish and shellfish now purveyed here arrive in huge trucks, the booty of ports all along the eastern seaboard from New Brunswick to Florida. Today, most boats go out for a week in the wintertime, often longer in better weather – the only way to justify the expense of crew and fuel. They don’t come back until the hold is full, or else the trip is not profitable. The bigger the boat, the longer it can stay out. Even the few small two-men ketches try to stay out for two or three days, their fish bringing a premium price among dealers who have the trade to support it.

Obviously, the bottom of the catch of a large boat, and even the middle, is older than “top of the catch.” Knowledgeable dealers know the difference instantly; the fish is a little dull of eye, soft, and retains a depression when pressed with a thumb. Not bad. Just not premium. (They say the middle and bottom of the catch only comes into Fulton when fish is extremely scarce, as in bad weather, or fierce min-winter, and otherwise goes to less discerning markets.)

Very little hard sell goes on here. The cruising buyers usually know what they need, can spot the specie and quality they seek in a wink of an eye. By law the minimum purchase is ten pounds. At the larger dealers, prices are shouted through a bullhorn system to accountants who sit behind glass cages to the rear. The prices are often in code, so that a more advantageous price given for a larger bulk purchase will not be seized upon either by other dealers or by the next prospective buyer seeking only the minimum. Though many buyers have running accounts, cash is the name of the game, and it is not unusual for $10,000 in cash to change hands at one establishment in the first hour of buying.

On a busy day at Fulton, when a lot of fish is on hand – typically a Friday – the atmosphere is volatile, electric, reminding one of the floor of the Stock Exchange. But in spite of the pressure, the exchanges are friendly, the put-downs without bite. Though their ranks have been swelled recently by the city’s Korean merchants, most of the buyers have been around for years. Like George Morfogen, assistant manager of the venerable Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant. Morfogen can be seen here every morning around 4:30, checking out the selection of oysters for which Grand Central is famous, the bluepoints and belons from Maine, Chincoteagues, Cotuits and Apalachicolas from Maryland. Before he leaves he will also add to his menu catfish, finnan haddle, shark, tautog, ling and Lake Winnipeg goldeye, as well as the more usual cod, scrod and lemon sole.

In many ways the Fulton Market is an anachronism, reflecting business practices of a bygone era. That supply and demand is the basis of its commerce is not unusual, but the daily fluctuation of prices makes everybody, from the fishermen to the retailers, worry about protecting himself. The fishermen, who rarely have deep cold storage facilities and must move their catch as soon as possible, argue that the Fulton Market has a stranglehold on their economy. Because the market will only handle fresh fish (though some shellfish does come in frozen) the fishermen must sell at the offered price or risk being stuck with a perishable commodity. A catch of, say, cod, might bring a thousand dollars on day to a Long Island fisherman, only half that the very next, if there’s a glut on the market. The money barely covers his operating expenses. Or, he might be faced with having sold in a hurry only to find cod bringing four times as much later on.

The wholesalers respond by pointing out that their risks are considerable, too. They must inventory a perishable commodity that may or may not be sold the day it is received, for reasons ranging from impending holiday closings to lack of demand and uncompetitive pricing. “You make your money an hour before you open up,” explains one. And retailers, who feel they must have certain popular fish their clientele expect, will frequently offer such a fish, whose price has skyrocketed, at cost or less, just to “keep the customers happy,” hoping to cut their losses if and when the price lowers. Says on dealer: “If we took a legitimate markup on everything, we wouldn’t sell any fish.” This explains why bargains that result from momentary fluctuations are rarely passed on to the consumer.

Dealing with a perishable is a demanding business, often a primitive one. The men still use a shovel to load their zinc-lined display bins with the essential ice, and their hands, thanks to the hook, to pick up and move fish. The fish are packed in wooden crates which are nailed shut and hand-trucked to the waiting delivery trucks; because of the short selling time, the narrow aisles, the crowded street and the fact that there is essentially only one side to the market for all activities, no better ways than these have been found in 75 years.

Not that people haven’t tried. In the fall of 1979, an agreement was reached in principle between the city’s Urban Development Corporation, the nearby South Street Seaport Museum and the Rouse Corporation of Columbus, Md. to create a major commercial complex within the historic seaport district, to transform the area into a preservation-merchandising complex similar to Boston’s recently restored Faneuil Hall. Part of the plan was to consolidate all food wholesalers at the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx by moving fish men there. To sweeten the move, developers promised increased freezer space to accommodate perishable wares – and no traffic jams. Revenues from the plan (which called for three new buildings at the seaport complex that straddles Fulton Street, including an eventual hotel and office building and restoration and stabilization of many of the older structures) were to be shared by the city, the state, the museum and the Rouse Corp. Despite the obvious improvement of city real estate, the plan was criticized in some quarters as being too oriented toward “tourist trade,” violating the rights of the present tenants of the buildings and roundly scored by the fishmen themselves, who found the thought of moving to the Bronx unappealing to say the least. Listed among their objections were the great traveling distance (most market personnel live in the adjacent areas) and the fear of the necessary passage through the Bronx For Apache district, with its history of violence and muggings. Though the City desperately wanted to oust the fishdealers and their antiquated way of doing business, the move was effectively blocked by the resignation of 57 dealers from the Fulton Fish Market Cooperative, the real estate entity with which the city, as landlord, deals. So the market area development program will proceed, but it looks like the Fulton Fish Market and its tenants will stay.

At 6:30 a.m., when the first pale fingers of sun reach over the East River into the South Street stalls, and the last moments of sleep are being enjoyed in bedrooms around the city, the business day at the Fulton Market begins to wind down. The retail store tricks are packed and pulling away; an emergency trucking service stands by, in case anyone has a breakdown. Around 7:00 a.m., a straggle of buyers appears, frankly looking for bargains, for now the best is gone, and what’s left will be priced lower accordingly. Then, after putting up orders for shipment out of town, the wholesalers turn to the tedious daily washing down and packing up. At the same time uptown, dealers are busy filling the day’s orders for private dining rooms and restaurants whole helpers are busy laying out rows of glistening fish in anticipation of early customers. At noon, when the fist plates of fresh-grilled sole emerge from kitchens of the town’s myriad restaurants, the Fulton Market is silent and deserted.


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