Though it seems it was just yesterday, rather than three months ago, that the New Amsterdam Market returned to the South Street Seaport, the last market of the year will take place this Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Though it’s been a whirlwind of a season for the market’s director, Robert LaValva, he’s already deeply entrenched in plans for next year: “We haven’t worked out all the details with the city, but we know they’re supportive of the idea,” he says. “We’ll start the season earlier, sometime in the spring. There’s no exact date yet.”
Aside from an earlier start date, there are other changes in the works, LaValva says. “We’ve seen the market gain in support and are preparing to launch a membership program.” The cost of membership will be a “very low rate…as a way of encouraging as many people as possible to support us” — LaValva’s guessing it will be around $25. He’s hoping that a membership program will work in concert with a formal market committee that will “help create the rules of the market,” so that members can also have a say in its development.
Having paying supporters will also provide the market with a more formalized support base, LaValva believes. “If you pay, you’ve taken the extra step to really identify yourself as someone solidly behind the idea,” he says. “That’s the most important aspect of the whole program — we have x-many thousand of paid supporters, hopefully, who want to see this happen. We know this type of market will succeed if it has a real support base.”
Looking back on this season has provided LaValva with ideas about how to help the market evolve. Initially, when the market was “still a bit of a festival,” prepared foods were some of the biggest sellers, but as it became more of a regular event, “we saw vendors selling whole foods like meat and cheese begin to start selling out; patrons began to treat it as a market and were buying ingredients for cooking at home.” One request those patrons made repeatedly was for more produce, so LaValva says that will be a more prominent feature of next year’s market, while prepared foods will be de-emphasized. “We want to keep it very balanced,” he says. “We always want to have [prepared foods] there — they’re part of what makes the market a place to visit — but to be conscious of limiting that so it never loses its identity as a market.” More generally, he wants to keep working with all of the New Amsterdam’s vendors, who “by and large are embracing the philosophy of the market.”
Although the market’s lack of entry and exit points make it difficult to gauge its attendance levels, LaValva estimates that each one has drawn 5,000 to 7,000 people. Much of that estimation is based upon how much food vendors have sold out of, but one thing that’s certain is the effects of the numbers on neighboring businesses. Independent shop owners “tell us that their business quadruples every market day,” LaValva reports. “People are going to places like Jack’s Coffee or Bowne Printers; these little shops are being rediscovered or discovered for the first time, which shows the potential that this market has to generate economic activity in that part of the city.”
Although such spikes in business take a long time to have any substantial or official effect on a neighborhood, there’s plenty of historical precedent demonstrating the ways in which markets can change their surrounding areas. “When you look at the history of the city and how it grew, there were often markets in places a teeny bit out of the way,” LaValva says. “Since food was something people would be willing to go to, they would initiate these traffic patterns; the city would grow around the market. In terms of the built city, it’s not going to grow that way necessarily, but the retail and business sector all around a place can change. As we often see in new York, an entire neighborhood can change over five to 10 years. It’s not just gentrification; it’s businesses too.”
While LaValva believes that the area around the market has all sorts of potential for new food shops and other small businesses, he cautions that growth is “always very incremental. What we’ve done with this project is to never to go too far beyond what we want to do — we’re just going from market to market.” So he’s concentrating on the more immediate tasks of putting together this winter’s second annual oyster shell fundraiser and figuring out next season’s logistics.
One thing he’s sure of is that the market won’t be going anywhere. Although LaValva and his team are considering the idea of at some point having a market site somewhere along the East River waterfront, for now he feels that it makes more sense to focus on developing the market in its current home. “It’s been a great place for us. It’s undercover and we have a view of the river,” LaValva says. “And there’s all this history surrounding us.”