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Interview: Robert LaValva and the New Amsterdam Public

Nov. 16, 2007

Ever looked at a market like San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Market and wondered: how did this get here? What did it take to bring this to fruition? All over the country farmers markets and other food markets are popping up. Robert LaValva, former Slow Food USA National Office staff member, has been working for nearly two years now to establish a permanent , public and sustainable market at New York City’s South Street Seaport, called the New Amsterdam Market. Robert spoke with us about his process, and shared some of the challenges he has faced.

Q: Can you describe for us your vision for the market?

RL: The vision is to create an indoor permanent public market where all the vendors are people who are sourcing sustainably produced food from the region (500 miles from New York City). Our premise is that bringing together purveyors who represent farmers, will help jumpstart or create a new wave of sustainable food production. There are many interconnections that these purveyors can make—if you have a butcher and a greengrocer and a cheesemonger in the market, they can band together, bringing food down to the area on one truck. As a result, they will realize efficiencies. Farmers' markets were the beginning of this return to regional food and are one component of such a food system. Next there were chefs sourcing from local people, and now—the third wave—shops sourcing locally.

Q: How long have you been working on this project?

RL: I’ve been thinking about it ever since I started working for Slow Food USA 5 years ago. I saw an emerging need and Slow Food was definitely instrumental in helping shape my feelings about all this. In earnest, I began working on it in 2005, about a year and a half ago. I produced a Slow Food event called Urban Harvest and called it New Amsterdam Market —that was a test run of the idea. I put it in a magnificent civic setting: the vaulted arcade of the New York City Municipal Building, a Beaux Arts masterpiece. It was done in tribute to sustainable, regional food, and the people who grow and produce it, and those who cook and sell it - it’s a broken system, and these are all real pioneers in its recovery. After that, I needed to think more thoroughly about what this market would be and think about the site that made the most sense. I began working with a friend - Jill Slater - giving a lot of thought to what the challenges would be and selecting the site of the Seaport, specifically the Fulton Fish Market, and creating a non profit – New Amsterdam Public.

Q: Where are you in the process now?

RL: We are at a stage where we have discussed the project with all of the stakeholders of the neighborhood—local community groups concerned with what will happen to the neighborhood, up to the elected officials and leaders in the sustainable food movement, and also various civic minded groups. Our main interest and concern over the past year was to walk all the political and elected representatives through these ideas. Knowing how NYC works, oftentimes people have great ideas but haven’t garnered the proper support from that level, so ideas can’t move forward. Now we are going forward to gather public momentum, One thing I’ve learned studying public markets is that they don’t happen on their own, there has to be a public demand for them. Our next step is a one-day event at the Seaport in front of one of the old fish market buildings that we think should be a venue, bringing together purveyors from all parts of the city, and for one day giving the sense of what this market could or would be like. Besides creating a great event, we will be using it as a showcase for this vision.

Q: Does the city own the space?

RL: All the buildings along Fulton street and the pier holding up the shopping mall are owned by the city, but they are on a long term lease to a suburban real estate developer whose business model is to fill them as much as possible with chain stores. Our belief is that the empty fish market buildings were built to be markets, and the Seaport District hosted a constant succession of public markets since 1642 - which by all measures is a pretty long time! These markets have evolved and change according to the needs of their day. Just because the Fulton Fish Market outgrew its space doesn’t mean that should be the end of markets in that neighborhood - which is a true public market district. It’s just a matter of a new kind of market coming in. We feel it’s the most appropriate use of that property. We want the city to understand that in this case it’s a continuation of its original use.

Q: There are so many places in the country where public market buildings have been shuttered as public markets and are now turned into to condos, retail shops, etc. Cannery Row, as one example–do you know of any others? Is there a precedent for this kind of marketplace in NYC? In the country?

RL: The precedent I tend to cite is from London, where there is a market called Borough Market, because it has many similarities to what we’re trying to do. It was a 200 year-old wholesale produce market (in its latest incarnation)—south of the Thames but in the heart of old London. About 10-15 years ago a lot of the wholesale traders and sellers had left so the stalls had begun to empty out. The people who run that market felt they didn’t want it to die down and disappear so they began holding food festival events there. Those events grew in size and became more and more frequent and eventually transformed it into a new kind of market. It’s about building momentum to build the market itself. You don’t build it overnight–you have to build momentum, attract future possible purveyors, look for farms and suppliers we want to work with, etc. We are learning what is needed and what is problematic, and how to deal with those issues in an organic fashion that will lead to a solid foundation for the market itself.

Q: What have been the greatest challenges?

RL: Our greatest challenge is this: the Seaport has been a neighborhood in search of itself since it was first created as a public resource in the 1960’s. Its buildings and streets are the last remnant of maritime 19th century New York. Everything was being torn down, and this little fragment was saved because it was a vital component of the city’s history—the shipping history that made NYC what it is. Public markets are just as much a part of the Seaport’s history as wooden ships. We believe we have a very good, viable, and appropriate vision for the Seaport—appropriate to the history, appropriate to what people are looking for in food now, and appropriate in being an incubator for small businesses for whom it has become harder and harder to survive. In the same way that farmers' markets helped save farms, we would like to save traditional professions like butchering. Our challenge is that we would like the City of New York to appreciate this vision for what it can do for New Yorkers and region, how it will provide real economic development which is never achieved via a “bottom line first” viewpoint. New York as a major world city should have something like this—there are much smaller cities that have fantastic public markets. We should have a market befitting our size and stature and if the city wants to be a leader in sustainability, this would be a logical choice.

If you are in the NYC area, please join Robert and Jill at their Wintermarket event on Sunday December 16th. For more information, see www.newamsterdampublic.org.

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