Fulton Fish Market Prepares for Move

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The colorful and smelly world of New York's Fulton Street Fish Market is moving from Manhattan to a different planet — the Bronx. Robert Smith sends an audio postcard from the South Street seaport.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Attention, diners in New York restaurants: Before you cut into that striped sea bass, you might want to say a silent thank-you and farewell to the Fulton Fish Market. For more than 170 years, the slimy, decrepit strip of South Street along the East River has been supplying the freshest seafood to New York's four-star restaurants and clam shacks alike. Soon the market will pack up and move to a modern facility in the Bronx. NPR's Robert Smith went to say goodbye.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

New Yorkers who get all nostalgic for the fading charm of the Fulton Fish Market probably haven't been awake at 3 AM to see the place. Any possibility of falling in love with the market disappears the first time a careening forklift splashes you with a dark muck that you will still be able to smell the next day.

(Soundbite of forklift)

Mr. SANDY INGBER (Chef, Grand Central Oyster Bar): It's not romantic. I would not call this place romantic at all.

SMITH: Chef Sandy Ingber buys fish for the Grand Central Oyster Bar every morning at the market.

Mr. INGBER: It's been here for so many years. It has its flavor. You know, it's a city alive while everybody's sleeping.

SMITH: Ingber darts into the chaos between pallets of flounder and grouper and monkfish, and it's all I can do to keep up with him.

(Soundbite of whistle)

SMITH: The market is a deathtrap of swinging grappling hooks, slick pavement and those insane forklift drivers.

(Soundbite of forklift horn beeping)

SMITH: But Ingber is focused on the deal.

Mr. INGBER: Louie(ph), how much on the black grouper?

LOUIE: 4.50.

Mr. INGBER: 4.50? Too high. How about the red grouper?

LOUIE: Those are 3.50.

Mr. INGBER: 3.50? That's better.

SMITH: In a Manhattan that seems to be getting more upscale by the day, this is still a place of tough guys; tough negotiators, tougher skin. A fillet cutter rolls up his sleeve to show me one ugly arm.

"BOBBY CREAMCHEESE" (Fillet Cutter): I have plenty of scars. That's from when the bone was broken. The knife came across like this and went right down to the bone.

SMITH: They call him Bobby Creamcheese because his legs that poke out from under his apron are blindingly white. His partner, John the Mustache, pulls a long blade down the backbone of a salmon.

"JOHN THE MUSTACHE": You do it long enough, you know where the bones lie, you know where you gotta put your knife.

(Soundbite of knife being sharpened)

SMITH: With that, he lowers his blade to crotch level.

"JOHN THE MUSTACHE": The bone lies right here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: The market is filled with obscene jokes and foul language. It's one of the few workplaces left in the city where you can still see pinups of naked women on the walls. Oh, there's plenty to clean up at the Fulton Fish Market. They've been trying to reform the place pretty much since it started on the East River in the 1830s. There have always been complaints about the smell and the corruption and the distinct lack of refrigeration on a hot night. Still, John the Mustache doesn't want to trade the squalor for a clean, cold facility in the Bronx.

"JOHN THE MUSTACHE": You think anybody down here really wants to move? You think customers want to travel all the way up to the Bronx? Not on a bet.

SMITH: The joy of the present location is that it is such an anomaly. After they hose the fish juice off the street in the morning, the seaport fills up with stockbrokers and tourists. They sit at expensive restaurants, unaware that a bunch of cigar-smoking, cursing tough guys spent the night on the same strip of pavement turning out a sublime cut of fish. That's why Chef Ingber comes down when it's still dark, looking for a jewel in the ice.

(Soundbite of market activity)

Mr. INGBER: That's the fish. Beauty. Still in rigor mortis. OK, I'll take that.

SMITH: At the new market in the Bronx, the quality of the fish may be even better, but Tim Wilkison, a fourth-generation dealer, says one thing will be left behind.

Mr. TIM WILKISON (Dealer): In a little bit, when the sun starts to come up, you should go out on the dock over there, and you can see the sun rising over the Brooklyn Bridge. It is an amazing sight. It's hard to believe New York can look that nice.

SMITH: But Frank Cucuccilo(ph) isn't buying the nostalgia.

Mr. FRANK CUCUCCILO: Sentimental? I don't have time to be sentimental. We're always busy.

SMITH: And when the new facility is finally ready, he'll just pack up his knives and grappling hooks and move to the Bronx. The sun will rise there over Rikers Island prison, and the only thing left of the Fulton Fish Market will be the smell.

Mr. CUCUCCILO: I think if they use Clorox, the smell will be gone in a couple days, you know.

SMITH: Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

LUDDEN: This is NPR News.

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