Fins ain't what they used to be: after 180 years, New York's fish market moves out

You don't need Herb Slavin to tell you that conditions at the Fulton Fish Market are a few fillets short of sanitary. A film of grey slime covers the street that runs down the middle of the chaos of vendor's stalls with glints of silver where a herring or hake has accidentally fallen. The smell of guts invades the nostrils and ravenous seagulls wheel above in the night sky, not caring where they drop their marks.

This is mostly why the market, the last link between modern Manhattan and its maritime past, is shortly to vanish for good. Next month, Slavin and all the other vendors here will up sticks and move to a gleaming new enclosed hangar, with air-conditioning and showers for the workers, far away in the Bronx.

It will be a change as wrenching as the relocation of Billingsgate from Thames Street to Docklands more than 20 years ago. Gone for good will be the history and the romance of a market that first opened in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1822.

Nobody knows more about what will be lost than Mr Slavin, who has been primping and shifting fish at Fulton, from about midnight to eight in the morning without a break for the past 65 years. Now 74 and the owner of his own wholesale company, Slavin & Sons, he was only nine when he started working here with his father.

"I admit I am starting to get nostalgic," Mr Slavin says, counting down the days to the move. But, unlike some others here tonight, he does not disagree with the logic of leaving Manhattan and this jumble of stalls and historic brick edifices, its atmosphere juiced with virility and grit. Smaller than it used to be, it once extended up the side streets and on to adjacent piers now occupied by shiny shops and restaurants. "I am the one that instigated the move. This is a dirty, filthy environment and 180 years is enough working out in the street with seagulls making their mess and the winter cold and sun on the fish in the summer. New York is entitled to a clean and modern market," he says. Despite his age, he has no intention of taking the chance to retire. "I would die if I wasn't working. The fish are in my blood."

For many reasons, the new Bronx market will work better for the men down here. Aside from the comforts of an indoor space, it will be closer to the other main produce market in New York, also in the Bronx, and much more accessible for the fleets of lorries that arrive every midnight crammed with every possible variety of creature found in the sea.

"The move will be like falling asleep in the 19th century and waking up in the 21st century," promised George Maroulis, who will be responsible for the smooth operation of the new facility, which measures 400,000 square feet, about the size of three American football fields. It will, in fact, be the largest fish market in the western hemisphere.

Yet the change will take away one of the last memories of the way Manhattan used to be. There are few sights in the city that compare with stumbling across the market in the early hours of the morning, illuminated by bright arc lights that only shut off when the glow of the rising sun hits the brick buildings along South Street, the elevated FDR Drive casting the morning's first shadows.

Bohemia has abandoned the West Village, smut has been cleared from Times Square and now the grime of gills and scales will be swept from Lower Manhattan for good, memorialised only in photographs, the memories of these men and, if you must, in frames from Splash, the 1984 film partly shot here that made Tom Hanks, John Candy (who played brothers who were vendors here) and Daryl Hannah famous.

"It's really a shame, they will rip all this down to make way for shops and tourists. I think it's disgusting," protests another wholesaler, Ron DiGregrio, whose own business is adjacent to Slavin & Sons. "There is some kind of magic down here and it's all going to be gone."

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