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Smells From the Past: The Fulton Fish Market

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Ed Note: This post originally appeared on The Urban Ethnographer, where it was selected as a ResearchBlogging Editor’s Selection. It has been slightly edited for posting here. It was chosen for publication in The Open Lab competition.

It’s been a very hot summer here in New York City. And the city smells. It’s more than the smell of baking asphalt, exhaust fumes, and lack of deodorant—these smells are around all year. The heat has awakened older smells.

Around midday, if you happen to stroll down by the South Street Seaport you can pick up on the smell of fish in the air. If you can manage to follow your nose—which really isn’t all that hard to do—it will lead you right to the old site of the Fulton Fish Market. It has been closed since 2005, but if you close your eyes while you stand outside the gates of the old market building you can smell the day’s catch and just hear the bustle of fishmongers at their trade.

In the early 1800s, a large open air market was set up on Fulton Street. The market sold the staples of everyday life, including coffee, shoes, stationary, books, ice cream, and pistols, as well as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Located near the East River, its proximity to the water also meant plenty of fresh fish, but at this time, the fishmongers were only a section of the market. The market’s location also meant plenty of customers: the Fulton Ferry could steam residents over from Brooklyn to add to the trade. It was important that the market be as convenient as possible because refrigeration technologies had not yet been cleared for home and consumer use, so folks needed to purchase their meat and produce as freshly as possible. It was also place to get a meal. There were several pushcart vendors and oyster stalls that served lunchtime crowds. Market days were a regular feature of social life, as research completed by Fordham students tells us:

The Fulton Market provided a place for social interaction and the completion of daily errands. This clientele varied from that of sailors, prostitutes, and other subcultures, to businessmen from the growing financial district to the north, which gave varied kinds of social contact. Wherever there is trade, the exchange of goods facilitates the exchange of ideas. The Fulton Market could be a place to share opinions on any topic. The market freed people from social restraints and divisions, in a sense. Wealthy merchants and poor sailors rubbed elbows at the oyster stands, while women of every social standing shopped. All classes mingled together at the market, which gave the market an equalizing quality.

In 1821, a fire swept through the neighborhood. Because the market was a vital part of the neighborhood, it was rebuilt by the city in 1822 and the fishmongers were assigned to a side of the new building. However, other vendors—particularly the butchers—began to complain about the fish sellers, claiming that the smell was bad for business. They petitioned to have the fishmongers moved, and were successful: The fishmongers were moved to a shed, but they took a good portion of business with them. Housewives continued to frequent the market for fresh fish and shellfish and sought out the fishmongers, while they spent less for the assorted sundries that were sold there.

The fishmongers expanded rapidly in their new location and the Fish Market began to take shape as sellers purchased other lots, and the Tin Building was built:

In 1847, a new wooden shed was built, similar to the one before, but with an extended platform in the back for fish cars. In 1869, the Fulton Market Fish Mongers Association formed as an organization of fish firms, and raised $123,000 for a new wooden structure, with two stores, a loft, and a tin roof, called the Tin Building. The first floor was open, with iron columns to separate the firms and support the second floor, which held the private offices of the fish firms. This building burned in 1878 and was rebuilt in the same way. The Fish Mongers building opened in 1907 and was 85 ft by 208 ft. Precautions were taken to prevent fire. The steel frame was covered in iron. The floor was made out of concrete, which slopped for easy cleaning. The building had a private power house nearby.

The Fish Market thrived long after other vendors began to feel the effects of shifting neighborhood demographics. First the wealthier classes moved away, and traders soon followed. The completion of the Brooklyn Bridge brought an end to the Fulton Ferry, and the pedestrian’s walkway positioned potential customers several blocks away. People still came for fish, but there was no guarantee that they would need anything from the other vendors. The fishmongers continued to build and expand. Some of those who could not fit in the Tin Building moved back into the old Fulton Market, which had been rebuilt in 1883. In 1909, a new building was added to Pier 18 and was occupied mainly by freshwater fish retailers. It was in use until 1936 when a 125 ft section of the pier fell into the river taking a fair portion of the building with it. Mayor Fiorelle La Guardia replaced the building with a new facility with a state of the art sanitation system. It is to this building your nose will take you today.

When the last of the general vendors were replaced by fish sellers in 1910, the industry shifted to meet wholesale needs. Refrigeration was becoming popular, although still not readily accessible, and it was just harder for regular folks to make their way down to the waterfront. La Guardia’s modernized building provides the setting in which the mob infiltrated the fish market. Under the watchful eye of Joseph “Socks” Lanza, a fine tuned racketeering operation was executed forcing delivery men to pay exorbitant rents for parking to unload products, and then to pay for a sanctioned group of men to actually unload the fish. Blake Royer of The Paupered Chef writes,

If a seafood delivery company did not properly pay or bribe the unloading companies, the workers at the unloading company would purposely slow down, causing fish to warm and deteriorate.

Royer also makes mention of the practice of sub-leasing space to multiple vendors, which made for very cramped quarters. The Fordham project reports:

At one point, fishermen from the South Shore of Long Island refused to deliver their catches without a police guard.

The neighborhood was largely ignored until the 1980s when Rudolph Giuliani became the Attorney General. However, his attempts to clean up the area were largely unsuccessful and organized crime retained a strong presence. Post 9/11, the market, which survived the attacks, was temporarily relocated to the Bronx. This allowed Giuliani, then mayor, to bring the fish market under tighter government regulation. Citing the cramped conditions, dated facilities, and demand for residential real estate in place of the market, Giuliani was successful in getting the market moved to the Bronx.

This abbreviated look at the rise and fall of the sea market provides us with a glimpse of the social shifts in New York City over this period of time. What’s remarkable is that we are talking about a fairly recent history and as a result, traces of that past are still somewhat readily accessible. The building replaced by Mayor Fiorelle La Guardia still stands. But there are other traces that can stimulate other senses—particularly the olfactory system on hot summer days. But is it still a memory if you have no knowledge of the history of the place? How does the Fish Market take shape in the minds of those for whom its existence is not a recent memory? Can an odor be that powerful as to conjure an image of something you haven’t actually seen yourself?

The connection between odor and memory isn’t very well understood, from what I can gather. A study from Cann and Ross (1989) proposes that odors seem to have a powerful influence on our lives and can attract or repel us, creating associations to people, places, and things that can linger for the individual and even possibly be transmitted via social learning–that is to say, we can pass on the meaning of a smell (91). Previous studies (e.g., Laird 1935; Rubin, Groth, and Goldsmith 1984; and Gibbons 1986) have linked odors with emotionally charged memories. For example, Laird (1935) reported that 80% of males and 90% of females had odor-revived memories (N = 254).

Cann and Ross report that odor-revived memories are usually linked to complex images or experiences, which suggests that odors provide a general context within which material can be retrieved (93). They tested this in an experiment that required male college students to rate the attractiveness of women pictured in a sample drawn from a preliminary test on attractiveness completed by their peers. The rating was done against the background of a pleasant and unpleasant odor, as well as no odor. A few days later, they were asked to perform a recognition task with the slides and odors again. With the olfactory context, recognition testing was improved overall (Cann and Ross 1989: 100).

In this instance, perhaps the fishy smell allows visitors to recognize the purpose of the area. For those who have experienced the physical presence of the Fish Market, they are able to recognize the purpose of the area, and for them the memory of the bustling marketplace may be strong. However, for others who do not have the experience, but perhaps have the knowledge of a fish market, they are able to conjure an image that can help them “create” a memory tied to the place.

What would the fishy smell mean to the individual who followed it? It would be a personal experience surely depending on what the smells meant to that person. Recent research by Djordjevic et. al. (2004) suggests the odor imagery, or the memory that olfactory stimulation can evoke, depends on the individual’s willingness and ability to connect the memory to the stimuli. So in this case, the smell of fish must willingly be linked to other experiences when the smell was strong–perhaps at other markets. Can you have a memory without the stimuli? Sure, but the stimuli seems to enhance the memory, making it more powerful and lasting even if it is a weak one. So for individuals who already experienced the history, the odor enhances their memory of the place. While for others, it helps shape their perception–having no real “memory” with the place, they are drawing on other associations to form a connection. Djordjevic and colleagues tested this with a task that asked participants to correctly identify an odor with its associated image. In one test, they exposed participants to a smell (rose or lemon) and then asked the participants to imagine the smell. Afterward, a group of participants were asked to recall one of the images and then exposed to a weakened version of a smell. Other participants were just exposed to the smell. For participants for whom the image they imagined matched the smell, they perceived the smell as stronger. The researchers determined that odor image in the right context can enhance weakened smells:

Subjects were more likely to detect weak odors when the imagined and the presented odor were the same (matched) than when the two were different (mismatched) (Djordjevic et. al. 2004: 146).

So, though the Fish Market is a relatively recent historical presence downtown, it’s possible that any number of visitors have no memory of the Fish Market. However, if they are given an image of the Fish Market—and there is certainly no shortage of available images as the Seaport tourism group has insured that the Market is recognized—then the slight smell of fish wafting through the streets by the Brooklyn Bridge can help stir a sense of a memory.

Cann and Ross help explain how the Fish Market may be actively remembered, but Djordjevic et. al. show us a way in which its memory may be socially inherited or invoked. The lingering smell of fish provides the context that visitors can use to help shape their experience to the Seaport area. For visitors for whom the history and perhaps the place itself are known, the smell of fish is a direct link to the past. For others however, the smell of fish can connect them to other imagery that they can use to shape a memory about the area. I’m not quite sure if I want to call this a “constructed” memory, but the idea that I am leaning toward is that visitors to the neighborhood who do not know that this is where the Fish Market stood can associate the smell of fish to any other fish market they may have encountered. Aided by “tells” from around the neighborhood, they can form an image of what they believe to be the content of the market thereby creating a “memory” or image in their minds of their own devising. In time the smell may fade completely—it may become nothing more than an imagined scent—but for now, it seems that this piece of history is inserting itself into daily life.

Cited:
Cann A, & Ross DA (1989). Olfactory stimuli as context cues in human memory. The American journal of psychology, 102 (1), 91-102 PMID: 2929788

Djordjevic J, Zatorre RJ, Petrides M, & Jones-Gotman M (2004). The mind’s nose: Effects of odor and visual imagery on odor detection. Psychological science : A journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 15 (3), 143-8 PMID: 15016284

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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