After only two of my five recent months in Berkeley, I had come to notice and enjoy the youthful history of the place, a past of energy and resistance that confronted me at every corner. As I wrote in February, the history of Berkeley seemed to factor into every event I attended, every classroom I entered, every street I walked upon. So many of the people I met in California had an extensive knowledge of, or even experience from, the local past that lent them a stabilizing sense of place, a curious pride in where they lived. They spoke of it in conversation, painted it in murals, and counseled it in their daily lives.
I wondered at the way my life in New York had never seemed to include such a community-based, personal appreciation of the city’s history. New York’s past had only spoken to me in what I’d considered the rather monotone voice of Ken Burns’ documentaries, or through the words of historical novels like Kevin Baker’s Paradise Alley. The books and the movies spoke of an invisible time, of buildings I could no longer see, and landmark city squares long since torn up and redeveloped. The Onion Tours of Manhattan neighborhoods seemed to primarily highlight historically prominent buildings or businesses commemorated merely by a plaque, if they were visibly remembered in any way at all. As New Yorkers, I thought, perhaps we are proud enough of our city without needing the past to lend substance to our pride. We need no historic “sense of place” here to feel the history-forging energy pulsing in our people.
Back in New York, just a few weeks into working for the New Amsterdam Public Market Association, I have begun to realize what we are missing here, what it would be like were our history even just to echo from the remaining cobblestones, to sound from the horns of the boats on the river, and to ring round a commerce revived in the now vacant market halls of the Seaport. Such an historical presence might still be brought to life in New York, and would not only lend a (perhaps superfluous) sense of place and pride, but would potentially do something much more powerful, and perhaps necessary: it would inform the change and action we require, in our age of global warming and agricultural crisis.
As New Amsterdam Market’s Robert Lavalva can explain in much more passionate depth and detail than I have yet absorbed, the Seaport is a unique neighborhood in part because it was saved from development by the City in the late 1960’s. Barbara Mensch captured in photographs the local livelihoods that were soon to disappear, but there was more to the area than her “old timers.” The Seaport was considered a neighborhood of an historically small scale, commercial prominence, and cultural legacy that merited preservation, where New Yorkers might learn of the City’s past, and experience something of what it was like, without any need for tacky recreation or reenactments. The landmark district was extraordinarily preserved from destruction and redevelopment, yet rather than foster relevant, historic businesses, museums, markets, and open spaces, the area digressed from this purpose, and surrendered itself to commercial enterprises and fast-food chains. Today there remain two, currently vacant, buildings, which the New Amsterdam Market would preserve from this same unfortunate, impending fate. The Market would in fact return the buildings to their original use (!) as market halls.
What I find extraordinary about the Market project, in this context, is that the sort of wild and agricultural commerce to be encouraged is at once historically appropriate for the Seaport neighborhood and particularly relevant to the City today. Our food system is in crisis, and we must embrace the practice of skills and businesses that thrived before cheap energy became a necessity, and before industrialization enabled anonymous factory-style production of our food. Energy is no longer cheap, and industrial agriculture is debilitating not only our health, but that of our land.
We, of the City, require what the Market identifies as true purveyors – grocers and butchers, cheesemongers and foragers – whose sources are personal, whose knowledge and expertise we can trust, whose growth will depend upon our support rather than our oil, and whose friendship we deserve. As it is envisioned, New Amsterdam Market would be the oft advised, rarely taken step into the future with an eye on the past. The steps towards our future food system require this attentiveness to historic practices, and the Seaport neighborhood, with its own history in this work, is a perfect place for these steps to begin.
The essentially agrarian ideals of the Market may be accused of catering to nostalgia, but there is more than sentimental value in the past the Market would embrace. If the New Amsterdam Market were to be allowed to bring the Seaport market halls back to life, it would bring life back to the history of New York as well, utilizing, of course, the history-forging energy that I have always known to pulse within this city.