In Public

by by Marguerite Preston

We have not always shopped in grocery stores. We have not always pushed shopping carts down fluorescent-lit aisles, past shelves and shelves of bright packaging and brand names. Up through the 19th century, until industrialization, the rise of long-distance transportation, and all that which constitutes modern consumer culture, every city had a public market. The public market was a place of activity and abundance. It was full of shouting and the reek of fish, full of unwashed heaps of vegetables and cuts of meat darkening in the air. Every food producer and purveyor in the region—farmers, butchers, bakers—came to the public market to sell their goods. Each vendor had his own stall and in the biggest cities, like London, Paris, New York, and Seattle, these stalls could sprawl for blocks, making up an entire market district. Markets usually were held near waterways, next to bridges and ports, and on ferry landings. The market was where the city rubbed shoulders with both neighboring farmland and traveling merchants, and where city dwellers could congregate to buy everything they needed. The cities oversaw the public market, but much of the regulation came from within. With so many merchants, competition was fierce and customers picky, keeping prices low and quality high. The social nature of the market also established trust between buyers and sellers. You bought vegetables from the man who grew them, meat from the man who butchered it, and bread from the man who baked it.
But with the rise of the supermarket in the 1920s, the public market all but disappeared. What had once been farmland became suburbs, and what had once been brought to the city by farmers was brought by train. People began to buy their food the modern way, in packages and in stores. They no longer put their trust in the familiar faces and knowledge of their local producers, but instead in the familiar lettering and enthusiastic advertising of name brands. In certain cities, however remnants of the market districts have remained, even to this day. Borough Market in London has been in existence at the south end of London Bridge since 1756. Pike Place Market in Seattle, La Boqueria in Barcelona, and Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia are also still standing. All are versions of their former selves, some closer than others to what they once were. Many are mainly tourist attractions now, and cater more to visitors seeking souvenirs and photo-ops than to residents seeking groceries. For the most part, these once-sprawling, chaotic epicenters of economic activity are smaller, more streamlined, more commercial. They are no longer a place where an entire region congregates to do business with the city. Instead they are a place where the city does business with its visitors.
Recently, however, some public markets are returning to their old form. Borough Market, for example, began renovations in 2001 that have restored focus on regional vendors. It provides more real, basic foods than specialty items. In recent years the market has become a bustling center of activity for farmers, artisans, locals and visitors alike. This growing interest in revitalizing public markets is emerging out of the same roots that have seen the explosion of farmers’ markets in recent years. It is hardly news by now that the local food movement is rapidly gathering speed, and that our current food system, from its regulation to its safety to its accessibility, has been subject to deeper and deeper scrutiny by the public. If farmers’ markets pose at least a partial solution to some of those problems, public markets can do so even more. The public market offers what the farmers’ market offers—a direct connection between farmer and buyer, an assurance of responsible, sustainable production practices—but in a broader scope. The farmers’ market only allows farmers, but public markets include distributors as well: people like grocers and butchers who may not grow the food themselves, but can be just as integral to responsible food sourcing. By allowing the same access to these people who supply the rest of our food, advocates say a traditional public market offers a more complete alternative to our current food system.

This, at least, is the idea driving one new public market, New Amsterdam Market, which is now emerging in New York City. The market itself is not new—a market took place in 2005, followed by monthly markets last winter and this past summer. But this September it became a weekly market, and will now take place every Sunday until the middle of December. Despite its newness, New Amsterdam Market has its roots firmly planted in the historic public markets that were once active across the city. Robert LaValva, the founder of New Amsterdam Market, calls it a revival. To him, this market is more of a continuation than a beginning, an effort to sustain an institution that was an integral part of both culture and economy for so much of the city’s history.
LaValva is tall and thin, with a Mediterranean complexion: dark hair and deep-set eyes under heavy eyebrows, olive skin, and the kind of beard so dark it leaves a five o’clock shadow even freshly shaven. His family is Italian and he grew up in a market culture, visiting relatives in Rome and shopping with his grandparents at little Italian delis, groceries, and bakeries on the Lower East Side. It would be easy to say that LaValva is simply immersed in the history of the public market, invested in creating a market the way it used to be. He has a soft, almost childlike voice, and can talk at length with clear reverence about old New York. He has stacks of images from the nineteenth century showing engraved scenes of the market. He has books that catalogue the contents of the market, and maps showing Brooklyn as farmland. He is also very particular about keeping the market true to its origins. Not only has LaValva established the market in a historic market district, and given it a name that recalls the original Dutch colonists who traded there, but he also insists on an old-fashioned uniformity in the market itself. He supplies the merchants with unimbellished materials to furnish their tables, forbidding the vinyl signs and displays that appear at many farmers’ markets. He also discourages synthetic packaging and tries to get vendors to use wooden crates and baskets instead of plastic boxes. But it is not simply aesthetics and nostalgia that drive LaValva. More than his love of the history, he sees real value in the public market alternative as a way to reinvent the system for the present day and to create a more sustainable, equitable, and accessible alternative to the current food system.
New Amsterdam Market takes place at South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan, where the East River opens up into New York Harbor and the Brooklyn Bridge crosses over the river at its narrowest point. Close to the ocean and what used to be farmland, it should be no surprise that the seaport sprang up where it did, and that where it sprang up there has almost always been a market. In the nineteenth century, the seaport was home to Fulton Market, one of New York’s great public markets, where farmers, producers and merchants from the surrounding region gathered every day to sell their goods. The Fulton Fish Market, a wing of the original Fulton Market, lasted until very recently, but in 2005 this final remnant was moved to the Bronx. Now the fish market building stands abandoned, and the seaport’s main attraction is the enormous mall built over parts of the old market. Most of the visitors are tourists coming to eat a hamburger and shop at Abercrombie & Fitch. With New Amsterdam Market, LaValva hopes to revive the Seaport as a destination for the city itself and for the region immediately surrounding it. He envisions market-goers coming from Wall Street and Tribeca on one side of the market and from the low-income housing on the other. Vendors will come mostly from the fertile Hudson Valley, Connecticut, New Jersey, Vermont and Massachusetts. None will be beyond 500 miles, and most will be from within 100 miles.
A public market is essentially a local market. Historically, of course, this was by necessity: food could only travel so far and still remain fresh, and there was enough diversity in the farms and producers that surrounded the city that there was no need to travel far. Now it takes work to keep the market regional. LaValva has to turn away vendors who come from too far away, or who use ingredients that do, whether that is smoked salmon or chocolate chip cookies. “You can get so much around here,” he says, “and if you can get it from here, why would you get it from somewhere else? Why do you need to make chocolate chip cookies? Why can’t you make some sort of fruit pie instead?” Though it’s not always easy to turn people away, or even define the criteria for the vendors, LaValva is dedicated to building a local food system that will support the growth of small businesses and the development of the regional economy.
The public market could provide significant support for small businesses. The way a public market is structured, vendors can sell their products with very little investment. Instead of having to pay for a storefront, they can pay just a small fee for a stall for the day. In the case of New Amsterdam Market, vendors pay a stall fee that varies depending on how valuable the product is (farmers pay the lowest fee, restaurants selling prepared food sell the highest). The fee goes toward things such as renting the parking lot where it’s held. In return, each vendor gets two tables, one in front and one behind, as well as a sign with their name and a chalkboard to use. All they have to do is show up.
Better than the stalls themselves, however, are the market crowds. Thousands of potential customers show up to see the market. The public market is as much about interaction as it is about making money. It gives customers a chance to meet and talk to the people who produce their food. “Different vendors keep saying that the crowds here feel different,” LaValva says. “The people who come here are really interested in learning about this stuff.” Customers can feel comfortable knowing not only where, but also who, their food is coming from, while vendors can use it as an opportunity to teach as they sell. Shopping turns into conversations, like “how are you supposed to cook this kale?” or “what kind of cheese should I get?” or “what exactly is kimchi?”
LaValva is careful to emphasize where a public market differs from farmers’ markets. “The Greenmarkets here in New York only allow farmers. You can’t sell anything there if you haven’t grown it yourself. But we have distributors as well as farmers.” The distributors at New Amsterdam Market are still from the region, and they still only sell regional products, but they help bring a greater variety to the market. They also help bring products that might otherwise never make it to customers in the city. Plenty of farmers and small producers don’t have the time, resources, or desire to make the trip to New York to spend all day at the market. But if a distributor can take their products for them, they can still reach thousands of potential customers.
LaValva is dedicated to building connections like these, and to creating a community out of the public market. Right now the market is still new. It is just gaining its footing as a weekly market, and still has no permanent location--only a parking lot that LaValva rents for the day. But one day LaValva envisions it becoming a complete system, the way public markets used to be. He hopes to eventually move into the old Fulton Fish Market building, and to become a permanent fixture at the seaport. “I want this to be a market district,” he says. The market itself would be the center, with everything from farmers, cheesemakers, and butchers to grocers, bakers, and other artisans. Branching out from here would be wholesalers, shops, and restaurants. “It would be a destination market for the entire city,” LaValva says, “and it would be accessible for everyone.” LaValva considers the market a “public asset,” a place that fosters culture and community as well as commerce. And though its success remains to be seen, LaValva’s hope is that this and other public markets will reemerge as a viable alternative to the food system we are now in.

Marguerite Preston B’11 spent this past summer interning for New Amsterdam Market.