For as long as most of us can remember, South Street Seaport was no man’s land for chowhounding New Yorkers, a place best left to tourists slurping shakes at Johnny Rockets. The only subway was another outpost of the sandwich chain, and the mall on Pier 17 was strictly for out-of-towners. And in 2005 even the infamous Fulton Fish Market decamped to a gleaming new facility in the Bronx.
But for 300 years, this stretch of waterfront had been home to one of the city’s essential food markets, a source for pristine fish but also, in the 18th and 19th centuries, a glorious array of local flora and fauna, from beans and buttermilk to bear steaks. Six years ago, it seemed lower Manhattan’s longtime role in city food history had finally ended its run.
Until a visionary city planner turned non-profiteer came along, determined to reinstate the Seaport’s locavore legacy through a trailblazing food market appropriately called New Amsterdam—albeit a place that stocks lamb-olive sausages and Long Island littleneck clam chowder instead of eel and venison.
For the past five years, Robert LaValva—a New School professor and a Harvard grad who ran the city’s forward-thinking urban composting pilot—has curated a collection of local butchers, bakers, sandwich makers, charcuterers, cheesemongers, fishmongers, farmers, foragers and picklers on this storied spot, conceived years before the birth of Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Flea. Now each Sunday they arrive to set up their stands on a shaded stretch of South Street blacktop at Peck Slip, and, like their market forebears, they sell local bounty: perfect pink-streaked eggplants or big, briny Salt Pond oysters direct from Rhode Island; rounds of crusty miche made from Hudson Valley grains and North Fork grape must, baked in a 100-year-old oven on the Upper East Side. They offer bowls of chile-flecked tomato soup given a glug of local pumpkinseed oil; butter-soaked Maine lobster rolls; soft, runny rounds of Calkins Creamery’s brand new Noblette, a curd rarely seen outside Pennsylvania farm stands; or grilled cheese layered with ale-washed Vermont cheddar, hard-boiled eggs and pickled celery sourced from Queens’s only remaining farm. And it can all be eaten on the spot, at tall tables set up between the stalls where She Sells Seaweed offers packs of hand-harvested, air-dried Atlantic kombu and kelp, Bellwether pours samples of cherry cider and Black and Blanco sets out their perfect little sugar cookies laced with crushed seeds, their rustic lusciousness due in part to local rye flour.
At a little market-run table stocked with locavore literature, you’ll learn that the name New Amsterdam—a term by which New York was known until the Brits won the city from the Dutch in 1665—was selected by LaValva for reasons beyond its olde appeal. The term wasn’t just an early-17th-century moniker for lower Manhattan, he’ll tell you, it was the capital of a grand foodshed, a region that offered everything from cheeses made in what we now call Vermont to the crustaceans crawling the Hudson, back when even town shoppers knew that good onions come from up there and better butter from over here.
“It was once a concept, this northwest region,” says LaValva, tracing his finger on one of the reproductions of 17th-century Manhattan maps that hang in the Front Street headquarters where he and a few full-time staffers now work during the week, calling politicians or hunting down grassfed gelato. “Now,” he says, looking up from the streets of the old city, “everything’s been disconnected.”
New Amsterdam Market’s goal is to bring it all back together.
True, like the Fleas and the Fairs, the place is food-u-tainment. It’s a see-and-be seen happening perfect for making Missed Connections, an affordable edible excursion for those from the Upper West Side or the East Village, the pretty people sporting tank tops and flip flops. But while more recently sprouted markets pursue pure hipster hedonism—the next bacon-chile-chocolate bar or Szechuan duck belly bun—this market has a mighty mission.
LaValva doesn’t just regard the stands as some sustainable Smorgasburg by the Sea. “I see us as an economic development engine, an incubator,” he told Community Board One this spring, noting that several now-successful businesses, like Scott Bridi of Brooklyn Cured, made their name at NAM.
“I rolled up to New Amsterdam Market in September 2010 with no investors, no partners, just a cooler of sausages and pâté, some business cards and a piece of chalk to write out the product list,” says Bridi, who now has accounts with dozens of local restaurants and groceries for his bratwurst, andouille, pastrami or hickory-smoked bacons made from regionally sourced meats. After that first day selling—subsidized by LaValva, who let the startup rent the space for just $25—Bridi says he was “immediately legitimized. I was getting wholesale inquiries at the market before I even thought about wholesaling.”
But LaValva doesn’t just want to foster edible artisans—he also says our city deserves its equivalent of the world’s great food hubs, a regional center dedicated to culinary commerce. “Market halls,” reads the project’s first brochure, written back in 2005, “have long served as the meeting point between the country and city, and in so doing create and foster true community.”
If that sounds like a similar mission to the one set forth by the Greenmarket, it is. In fact the city’s farmers market system collaborates with LaValva several times a year on special markets designed to showcase local farmers. But while the Greenmarket has been selling turnips and tomatoes on city sidewalks since the 1970s, until NAM hit the South Street Seaport, there was no place where the forward-thinking nosher could nibble at stands offering Sungold gazpacho, nectarine-shiso sorbet or barley honey lollipops, all as carefully sourced and well-prepared as any farm-to-table restaurant plate.
Yet New Amsterdam is a different kind of market not just because you can buy a porchetta sandwich or a handmade wooden butcher block. Greenmarket’s rigorous grow-your-own rules stipulate that participants may only sell what they personally grow, raise, catch and bake. LaValva’s market features a few farmers, but most important, he’s curated a collection of both artisans and purveyors, the people who source serious specialties from small farmers or fishermen, food-sellers like Morris Grilled Cheese Truck and People’s Pops, or “fruit hunters” like Flying Fox’s Maggie Nesciur, who drives up and down the East Coast to source peak harvests of rare and heirloom fruits like huckleberries, elderberries, beach plums, Sweet Sunshine watermelons and Pennsylvania pawpaws from small farms, taking tips from friends and growers on where she might find some rarely seen variety of apricot or sweet Sicilian figs grown in New Jersey.
For now, the only real rules about what can and can’t be sold are in LaValva’s head: It’s all small-batch and sustainable, and almost entirely local, but a Brooklyn winemaker sells CSA shares for the wild salmon he and his family catch in Alaska. And later this year, when Maggie Nesciur drives down to Florida for canary-yellow Duncan grapefruits grown by a third-generation citrus grower, we’re going to be able not just to buy them at New Amsterdam, but will be encouraged to stick around and eat them there.
“In its very organization,” says LaValva, “it’s meant to be a place to gather and talk and socialize.”
If LaValva has his way, it might one day join great food and shopping halls like Eastern Market in DC, Ferry Plaza in San Francisco, Boqueria in Barcelona or London’s Borough Market, the last of which sparked his Seaport dream in the first place.
This was in 2003, a year after LaValva, a longtime New Yorker with Italian roots, had left a 10-year stint as a city planner in the composting arm of the sanitation department to pursue some kind of career in sustainable foodways. He was working at Slow Food, toying with the idea of opening an all-local grocer. But after spending a single day of research at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London—a shop focused solely on reviving the region’s cheese traditions—he realized that working a counter wasn’t for him.
What was sat just across the street: the famous, generations-old food market, a collection of riverfront stalls that had been home to pasty bakers, cabbage growers, butchers, cheesemakers and beer sellers since 1851. It had a taste of place, it brought country to city, it drew tourists and locals alike, and for LaValva, it was life-changing. He’d seen food halls before—and had even lived in Rome—but this time he realized it wasn’t just a collection of edible delights, but an economic-development engine.
“Why don’t we have any market,” he thought to himself, “like this in New York City?”
He came home determined to make one. The first New Amsterdam Market debuted on October 2, 2005, a pop-up trial held as part of a Slow Food festival—and featured 55 vendors from Laughing Duck Farm in the Champlain Valley to Tiger Spuds out on Long Island’s East End. They all gathered under the tiled arcade in the old city municipal building picked by LaValva, who earned a master’s in architecture from Harvard, for its oft-overlooked beauty.
But that was just a one-off, and after a few false starts—he courted the Battery Maritime Building and Essex Street Market, both landmark sites that appealed to LaValva’s particular passion for city infrastructural history—he focused squarely on the Seaport. Specifically, the two rickety, 1800’s-era waterfront structures that had housed the Fulton Fish Market for almost 200 years. The city wouldn’t even let LaValva inside, but he was dogged and, eventually, with backing from the community board, he was given approval to hold a one-day market on the adjacent asphalt in an under-awning bike path, just before Christmas in 2007.
Despite a blizzard the night before, shoppers packed the place, helped in part by the presence of Mario Batali, whose porchetta sandwiches with salsa verde sold out, even in the snow. That first day’s lineup may have been small, but it read like a primer of what would soon become de rigueur in the NYC food world: high bush cranberries, wild cress and lily bulbs foraged by a couple in Vermont; a slab of Inside Park’s country pâté served on a crisp of bread with housemade jam; and fat squares of olive-oil-soaked focaccia from an immigrant-empowering startup called Hot Bread Kitchen. Some guy from Francestown, New Hampshire, was selling a handful of rare heirloom apples; there were brisket–horseradish cream sandwiches from Marlow & Sons, which was just beginning to stock local goods at its tiny storefront in Williamsburg; ridiculously flavorful beef from a then-unknown upstate butcher shop called Fleisher’s Grassfed and Organic Meats; and pressed pickle panini from a brand new cheese shop called Saxelby.
In our opinion, those pork-packed Batali buns were the least exciting option on the pavement.
In the five years since, the market has grown from once a season to once a weekend from May to December, a place for jalapeño-cantaloupe agua frescas and maple-bourbon pickles or goose or live Jonah crab. And, should you stop by on one of the special Sundays when the market’s organized around a single special ingredient—a Dairy Fair, perhaps, or a Bean Market or the Hard Cider Revival—you’ll be privy to goods that you won’t find anywhere else: tiny-batch cheesemakers in town to host a stall for the first and only time, food trucks tasked with making tamales from sustainably sourced carnitas, maybe a new seafood CSA that announces its initial offering with scallop ceviche served on the half shell, their makeshift plates sprinkled with a kiss of chile and lime. Not to mention the occasional stall for a bookstore, vintage hand-built bike stand, wind-energy nonprofit, seed-saver or compost collective.
But for LaValva, it’s an incomplete success—he still regards the restoration of the old Fulton Fish Market buildings as part and parcel of New Amsterdam’s mission. “Here you have New York City’s oldest public spaces,” he says, “just sitting empty.”
Such a sentiment is what sets LaValva and his market apart from seemingly similar startups. He’s in it not just for flavor, but for farmland, the environment and the economy, and moreover he’s smitten with the idea of reinstating this once-working waterfront as a center that feeds both city stomachs and souls. He is, after all, a history buff who keeps an office copy of The History of Public Markets, an 1862 opus by a Jefferson Market butcher named Thomas DeVoe. In its ultimate expression, he envisions New Amsterdam Market with a permanent space where agrarians, artisans and enlightened eaters convene as they did in 1823, to slurp down a few oysters steps from the sea.
“It should be commercial, educational, cultural, interesting, inspiring,” says LaValva. “It should be beautiful.”
Plenty of others now share his vision. “This could be the place,” agrees Roland Lewis, the president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, speaking at a recent community board hearing packed with farmers, residents and food justice advocates there to testify on behalf of LaValva’s plans, “people go when they come to New York.”
It was that for centuries. And thanks to LaValva, it already is again.
Photo credit: Sari Goodfriend and Paul Wagtouicz