Here's the best way to start a visit to New York City's New Amsterdam Market: a small nibble of a hearty Finnish Ruis bread round, made with rye from Upstate New York and topped with a slice of locally made cheese. From there, you might sample some dishes by a chef promoting his latest cookbook; grab a loaf of “multi-ethnic” bread made by Hot Bread Kitchen, a social enterprise designed to empower its minority and low-income employees; snack on locally made grass-fed beef jerky; and wash it all down with Brooklyn-brewed kombucha.
Since 2005, every Sunday has seen the parking lot of the former Fulton Fish Market site at Lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport transformed into a bustling agora selling artisanal foods made with locally sourced ingredients from sustainable farms -- all this, beneath the roar of an interborough highway.
Those who come -- a small but dedicated group, about 50,000 annually -- not only love to shop locally and organically, but also appreciate the history of the site. As far back as the late 17th century, the South Street Seaport was a place for Long Island farmers to sell their produce, and over the course of 200 years it became a main port for fish and seafood. The Fulton Fish Market building, now vacant, was built by Mayor LaGuardia in the 1930s.
But now, the New Amsterdam Market is likely facing its last summer at the Seaport. In its place, the Howard Hughes Corporation plans to build a complex of luxury hotels, high-rises, and a concert venue. The city council, which recently voted to approve the company's plan for the Seaport, is calling the development a victory for local food, but while the Hughes Corp has plans for some kind of “food market” that uses local and regional ingredients, the organizer of New Amsterdam will likely not be involved, and it is unclear if any of the current vendors will, either.
Perhaps it’s not news that real estate is king in New York, or that the city’s government will always go with big money and big development over small business. But what’s new here is that the city and its business partner have co-opted the language of the local food movement in promoting their development visions.
At a time when local food boosterism is growing in mayor’s offices across the country (Seattle and L.A. recently passed general local food ordinances, and Chicago is launching an urban ag program), New Amsterdam Market is a lesson that other cities can learn from. If they want to hang on to their foothold in the urban environment, small businesses in the local food world are going to have to cultivate relationships with city governments, and anticipate encroaching development, as part of their business strategy.