UNVEILING THE UNSUNG HEROES: ROBERT LAVALVA

Robert LaValva, photograph by Robin Riley.
This election year, politics has been parading in a particularly sexy manner—but in day-to-day practice it is anything but, especially on the local level. The changes that are made or not made, the historic sites that are preserved, and the construction projects that are prevented—all of this is the result of the tireless hours of unglamorous and often unrecognized work put in by (formerly) anonymous faces. These fighters are the few in a city of millions who attend weekly rallies at city hall, spend countless hours in meetings organizing campaigns and stand up to injustices. These are the few who fight for the underdog. They are activists, and whether you agree with them or not they are standing up for their political beliefs, and often doing so without fame or acknowledgement from the communities for which they so diligently fight. It’s time to unveil them.  
 

Robert LaValva

Robert LaValva grew up in central New Jersey and also spent some years in Rome, Italy.  He attended New York University as an undergraduate, where he studied urban history and planning.  After obtaining a Masters in Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, he worked for the City of New York, Department of Sanitation as a planner for nearly ten years, where he helped design and implement one of the nation's most innovative and extensive urban composting programs.  He left government to pursue his interest in food systems and regional development, and worked briefly for the international Slow Food organization, whose US headquarters are located in New York.  There, he he instituted the nation's first consortium for raw milk cheese producers; worked on programs to help preserve heritage animal breeds and heirloom fruits and vegetables; and managed Slow Food’s Urban Harvest festival, which was held as the first New Amsterdam Market on October 2, 2005.  Robert has devoted most of his efforts towards this project since then; he also teaches a yearly course (on observing the urban environment) at New York University.
 
As a civic organization, New Amsterdam Market is dedicated to providing an alternative to the present industrial food system, which is increasingly recognized as damaging the natural environment, wasteful of natural resources, and deleterious to public health.  Its mission is to reinvent the 19th century purveyor's market - once prevalent in New York and other American cities - where butchers, grocers, mongers, and other vendors will commit to sourcing regional ingredients and thus promote rural and urban economic development.  New Amsterdam Market has met a total three times - most recently at the historic Fulton Fish Market site at the Seaport, in Lower Manhattan, where it drew thousands of enthusiastic supporters.  In 2009, New Amsterdam Market will begin meeting once per month and grow incrementally until it is ready to occupy a permanent site.  The organization is now in conversation with the city about locating a public site where the monthly market can take place.
 
 
How long have you been politically active?
I don’t really consider myself an activist in the traditional sense.  But for as long as I can remember, I have been civic minded. I like to think of the city as the vessel of civilization; it is our privilege - and duty - as citizens to invent culture, foster the arts, establish and maintain economies.  This process has been ongoing for thousands of years; but we veered off track in the 20th century by diffusing so much energy, so many resources to the auto-based suburbs, which have proven to be a dead end.  This type of land use and lifestyle is completely unsustainable, and is a major cause of the economic collapse now unfolding, though nobody seems to want to admit it.
 
Though I grew up outside of the city, I often came to New York to visit my grandparents and cousins, and I knew even as a child that I wanted to live and work here. My first real job was for the city, working as a planner, and I was thrilled to consider myself a civil servant! 
 
I think of that as activism because in those days (it was the early 90’s) nobody I knew wanted to work for the public sector; it had a bad reputation, and was looked down upon as mediocre, which is a shame, since city government is the highest calling.  That’s been a great achievement of Mayor Bloomberg - he has attracted many young, bright, creative people to work for New York city government.
 
I became more directly active about four years ago, when I launched my project - New Amsterdam Market - which has a mission to recreate the 19th century public food market as an alternative to the industrial food system.  The project has taken on political dimensions because it’s not a traditional commercial enterprise; we’re seeking to establish a civic institution, which requires a public site and political support.
 
Why?  What drives you?
I believe in the power of cities to effect change.  They do so by creating markets - whether for food, manufactured goods, arts, culture, etc.  This has always been the role of cities.  To make our way out of this collapse, we need to reexamine and re-evaluate the ability of cities to create economic development and sustain regional economies. 
 
For example, in agriculture - right now, there is a lot of talk about reforming the USDA, because it has become the servant of truly damaging - and dangerous - forms of agriculture and food production which are also compromising public health, on an enormous scale.  The growing obesity and diabetes epidemics, and the billions of dollars in government spending that is required to deal with their aftermath, are the direct result of our present food system, which itself has long been receiving huge public subsidies.  So this food system is not just bad for us and the environment; it’s draining resources that could be put to far better use.
 
President Obama is under a lot of pressure to change these corrupt systems, and he has been taking many, very positive firsts steps.  But these entitled business sectors can’t survive without public subsidies, so they’re not going to back down easily; not to mention the President has other matters to deal with - the war, the economic meltdown and every other mess he inherited from the previous administration. 
 
As the nation’s most powerful city, we can’t just sit in the sidelines; the city is the traditional consumer of agricultural goods, so it can take up that role again.  What we need to do is to create markets for the alternatives we espouse.  For us, that would be food grown by independent farms, using methods that build back the soil and that don’t damage the environment or abuse workers and animals.  New Amsterdam Market will be a showcase for another way of thinking about what we eat.  New York attracts attention; what we do here inspires other cities.  That is another way to create change.
 
I find this truth extremely compelling and inspiring; that is what drives me.
 
What were your biggest political fights?
I have to say, I have not had any real political fights to date, and nor do I plan to.  My aim is to work with city government, and not against it; that is the only way to make New Amsterdam Market become a reality and have the impact it needs to succeed.
 
Which were most successful?
Again, I have not had any political battles per se.  I was happy to cooperate with the City and the Economic Development Corporation to stage our last two markets at the Seaport, in front of the historic Fulton Fish Market buildings.  This area has always been a food district - the Fulton Fish Market was only the last in a long series of waterfront markets at this location.  At least 5,000 people attended each of our markets, even though we’re such a new organization, and despite pretty severe weather on both dates.  Visitors came from many neighborhoods in all five boroughs, from Jersey City and Hoboken, and from as far away as Boston and Philadelphia.  The mystique and allure of the Fulton Fish Market buildings definitely contributed to the success of both markets.  People are attracted to what is real.
 
It was important to me that the Seaport be seen in this light.  Most New Yorkers haven’t been there in years, which is understandable because it has been commercialized to the point of losing its soul.  This is a shame - the Seaport is one of New York’s most significant, and most interesting neighborhoods; its buildings on land and water reflect our entire history as a city. But the only way to feel this history and its import is by infusing the district with real uses, which in this case means “made in New York City” small food businesses (such as butchers, grocers, fishmongers, and other entrepreneurs), and not suburban facsimiles - whether high end or cheap, those chain stores are all the same -  because they sell things that you can find in any mall, anywhere, anytime.
 
What was your biggest defeat?
Well, I had really hoped to stage these markets inside of the empty Fulton Fish Market buildings, rather than just outside - but I have not yet convinced the City to let me do so. 
 
I really think the public deserves to see and experience these buildings as market buildings - the public does own them, after all. There are fewer and fewer structures like this anywhere, and even fewer that are as old, or which trace back to such a deep tradition - there have been public food markets on the East River shoreline since 1642, when Pearl Street was paved in oyster shells and New York was still called New Amsterdam.  Where else can you find such a continuum of use?  This is the meaning of something “authentic” - something that simply can’t be duplicated, faked, or recreated anywhere else.  When cities celebrate - rather than demolish - irreplaceable resources like this, these become genuine destinations, which create economic impact on many, many fronts. 
 
Ten years ago, the City of London revitalized an old wholesale food district called Borough Market, which is physically and historically very similar to the Seaport.  They held a series of festivals to reinvent this space as a retail destination. It’s now a thriving, permanent marketplace which draws more than one million Londoners and visitors every year, and has made the whole neighborhood one of the city’s most visited sites - it’s becoming known as a world class food mecca.  The same thing will happen at the Seaport, but only if the historic market buildings are preserved and remain in public hands; that, more than anything, is what makes Borough Market special and worth returning to again and again.
 
What does your neighborhood mean to you and why is it important to fight for it? 
The Fulton Fish Market buildings, along with the entire Seaport, have just been recognized as one of the seven most endangered historic sites in New York State, by the Preservation League of New York State.  So their preservation is now mandated.  Many, many New Yorkers hope both buildings will be restored, and reused as markets to support regional agriculture. 
 
By preserving and reinventing the Fulton Fish Market site, we will create something incredibly unique.  Think about it; no other city has two market buildings like this, and with such a long and interesting history.  If we can continue using these buildings as intended, as public markets, we will add something to the identity of New York City.  So it’s not just about a neighborhood, it’s about the city as a whole.
 
These are the kind of projects which should be funded by stimulus money.  First of all, it is a good idea to spend public money on public sites and properties, especially historic sites, whenever possible - besides providing jobs and improving the quality of our shared resources, such transparent use of government resources helps restore the public trust.  Second, preserving these buildings as markets dedicated to regional food will help build a new infrastructure to spur business development and create jobs in the city and upstate. We need to start building more local economies that are not only about Wall Street.  This is one way to do it.
 
 
What are you working on now?  Why is it important?
Right now, we plan to begin holding New Amsterdam Market once per month.  This is important to our mission because making the market is an incremental project; everything happens at its proper time; sometime we go for months and months without activity, until the right moment comes.  Now we have enough vendors, coupled with enough interest from producers and consumers, that we know the market can begin sustaining itself.
 
Our most pressing need - besides raising money, which is true of every civic organization - is to find a public site.  This market has always been held under cover, in a public area; first under the vaulted arcade of the Municipal Building, across from City Hall; and subsequently at the Seaport, under the awning of the New Market Building.  So we hope to find a similar site downtown or nearby, and we’ve been talking with the City about possibilities.
 
Please comment on what you believe are the public’s current views and attitudes towards community boards and downtown elected public officials. 
Now that I’ve become more involved, I hear both good and bad about all of them and have some sense of where each of them stand; but I have to say that by and large, the public is not very informed at all about their local government.  Very few people can even name all their elected officials or their local districts.  I think we focus way too much attention on national elections, and have lost involvement with where we actually live.  Whether we agree with their positions or not, these politicians work incredibly hard, juggling and ultimately balancing so many different and opposing demands.  For this too, they deserve more recognition and respect.
 
For more information on the New Amsterdam Market click here.