Amid mountains of fish, signs of changing times

After 170 clamorous years, a fish market is moving - another sign of lost history near South Street Seaport.

By day, South Street Seaport could be any other waterfront development in any other city. That means the Gap. Pizzeria Uno. Victoria's Secret. And hordes of camera-toting tourists.

Come back at midnight, though, with harsh lights glancing off cobblestone streets, and you'll hear the cries of fishmongers and the sound of metal hooks dragging through boxes of ice and pogy fish - noises that have filled this neighborhood for the better part of two centuries. Forklift trucks piled high with crabs and bluefish, flounder and shrimp, race from delivery truck to wholesaler.

Even the air here changes at night: It's so thick, so permeated with the smell of sea creatures, that a sip of coffee seems laced with shellfish.

For 170 years, the Fulton Fish Market has brought these sidewalks along the East River in lower Manhattan to noisy, odoriferous life. But as winter ends, the stalls will come down for the final time, the cacophony will cease, and the market, with its 600-plus employees and the entourage of chefs, retailers, and distributors who wander among its mountains of fish five nights a week, will move north to an $85 million state-of-the-art facility in the Bronx.

Many here will welcome a move that will shield them from snow, slush, and sea gulls, and, they hope, give business a boost. But like others who tour the iconic neighborhood or call it home, they lament that one more vestige of 19th-century New York could be replaced by the endless march of chain stores and luxury condominiums.

"I guess we have to advance ourselves," says Ronnie Breyer with a wry smile, sifting through order slips. It's 3 a.m. and snow is drifting down, settling on wool hats, canvas aprons, and the glistening scales of thousands of swordfish and sea bass.

On nights like this, modern conveniences like controlled temperatures might be nice. But for Mr. Breyer, a veteran of three decades in the market, a hooded sweatshirt and the propane heater behind him suffice.

"I like the old ways," he says.

It was in the 1800s that the seaport, tucked between the financial district and the Brooklyn Bridge, was transformed into a public food market for local residents and workers. Throughout the past century, the Fulton Fish Market grew into the largest wholesale fish market in the country.

Much has remained unchanged, as far as the buying and selling go. But gone are the days when shrimp and lobster arrived by boats sailing in from the Atlantic. Now the catch is delivered by refrigerated trucks, their shadows stretched like giants under the South Street lights.

For decades, New York City has been pondering the move. But it was former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani who announced in 2001 that the market would move to Hunts Point, a decision propelled in part by stricter food-safety regulations.

"There's no reason for them to be there," says Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman at the city's Economic Development Corp., which is overseeing the move. "They haven't received fish by the sea in many, many years."

Many fishmongers agree. As Herbert Slavin of M. Slavin & Sons puts it, pointing to wet sidewalks: "It's the most filthy environment in the world."

Mr. Slavin, wearing a knit hat and thick jacket as he strolls among his wares, has spent 65 years here, fighting cold weather, cascades of water from the highway overpass, and low-flying sea gulls who hover, flap, and leave unsavory souvenirs. "Years ago these things didn't matter," Slavin says. But now, he's ready to go.

Still, there are those who find romance even in the dreariest, messiest, most pungent nights. And though proponents of the move say it will bring a welcome boost to the fishmongers' sales, many here are taking the decision hard. Some complain that they're getting pushed out to make way for developers, eager to lay claim to the up-and-coming neighborhood.

No one seems to know how the space will be used, but Breyer guesses the land must be worth "zillions." And while he says he'll move north, albeit grudgingly, others will simply retire instead.

And so in the market's final days, many have turned to local artist Naima Rauam for one last memento of their family shop and their lives near the piers. She's painted market scenes for four decades.

The fishmongers may seem gruff, barking at one another into the night on these city streets where rumors of mob ties run as strong as the tidal smell of fish. But Ms. Rauam says they're a sentimental lot, too. "They have a tender spot in their hearts."

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