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The Last Days Of The Fulton Fish Market
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It’s 4:30 AM in the morning. Freezing, cold wind blasts off Manhattan’s East River. The last of New York City’s drunken revelers are sauntering home, but Mike Cioffi, braving the chill in a bomber jacket, fingerless gloves, and carrying a one-foot steel fishhook, has work to do. He is a fishmonger at the Fulton Fish Market in downtown Manhattan. Like many of the men at this market, Cioffi has worked in the same spot where he now stands for 35 years. "It was like I was born here," he says.

At 184 years, the Fulton Fish Market is America’s oldest. Every morning from 2 AM until a little after 9 AM its cobblestone streets are bustling with speeding forklifts, white delivery vans, crates of fish stacked five high, and fishmongers like Cioffi. Ships once docked directly at this port, but today fish is delivered almost exclusively by truck.

Soon the stalls, the men, and of course the fish will be moved into a sprawling, new location at Hunts Point in the Bronx. What won’t be moved are the market’s rough charm and the deep-rooted sense of history that this place engenders. "I hate to see the market move because of the history. It’s progress I guess," says Ronni Di Gregario, who has worked at the market for 32 years.

The city is quick to advertise the new 400,000-square-foot facility’s modern refrigeration, increased loading space, and executive offices. They have been less clear on development plans for the evacuated market on Fulton Street, but judging by its proximity to the tourist-heavy South Street Sea Port and the sky rocketing value of Manhattan real estate, an expansion of the Sea Port’s shopping malls, restaurants, and residential complexes seems likely.

Some at the Fulton Fish Market are excited about the new location, anticipating increased business from being next to Hunt’s Point’s meat and vegetables markets. "I am looking forward to the move," says Michael Driansky, who put two kids through college on his 28 years of service at the market. "It’s going to be one-stop shopping."

"It’s going to be a better environment," agrees Patrick Grosso. "After 28 years outside, I feel like a weathered fence, even though I look good for my age."

Still most of the men – there are no women on the market floor and few in the upstairs offices – seem morose over the move. "This is part of us," says Mike Rizzoto, spreading his arms out to the frenetic bustle of forklifts, steel hook-carrying men, and deep, blue, morning sky.

It’s now 6 AM and dawn is breaking across the water, spreading warm tendrils of orange light through the spires of the Brooklyn Bridge and lighting up the top half of the market’s two-story buildings. A few yards away, a group of men gathers around a metal trashcan. Spent fish crates and driftwood are burning inside of it, sending huge flames and smoke into the air. Pat O’Conner, who has lived on the streets around the market for 16 years, is among them.

Thumbing an open can of Mustang malt liquor only half hidden in his winter coat, O-Conner details the names of the loading bays by the water: Coal Chute, Pier 20, and Stephanie. A red brick building behind him, now prime real estate, was once a brothel, he explains. He puts his hands forward and warms them over the small inferno inside the trashcan. Three Korean men huddle near, keeping themselves warm and adding driftwood to the burning pile.

Despite not actually having an official job at the market – sometimes he helps move crates for a few dollars – O’Conner plans on leaving with it to Hunt’s Point. "Down here it’s more like a family," he says of the deep camaraderie at the market. "I think the people here, they are going to miss us."

– Work Magazine

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