South Street: Photographs by Barbara Mensch

south-street1979, an artist/photographer walks into a bar at the fish market at 4am, and a big man walks up to her, with an icy stare, and orders her out The neighborhood was the Fulton fish market area, a men-only zone, and hostile. She did gain the trust of some locals, but others remained suspicious. After looking at the author’s photos, and reading her account of the area, I can see why.

Barbara Mensch was one of three kinds of people who you’d see in the vicinity of South Street and the Fulton fish market. You had the Wall Street financiers, then the artists in the lofts, and finally the men who worked on the docks. For over 100 years the area was a seaport, and even after the seaports moved to New Jersey and Philadelphia, the fish market stayed. Towering glass office buildings hovered over the rotting piers, where men in bloody overalls loaded fish for the wholesalers. The industry was controlled by the mob, and the workers, on top of their backbreaking night shift work, had to deal with mob shakedowns. The place was dirty, smelly, and rough.

Mensch has some photos that she (discreetly) took of the bar’s daytime customers, against the advice of the barkeep and some jewelry-wearing guys. In the grainy photos, a salty-looking old white man in a sailor’s peaked cap sits with two scrawny leather-clad black women, most likely prostitutes. According to her, the guy was English, possibly came as a sailor on one of the boats that used to dock there, and stayed on. He may have lived in one of the filthy tenements of the area, or even above the restaurant Sloppy Louis’, whose location appears in the classic Up In The Old Hotel. I might add that the South Street area was not a tourist attraction in the late 1970’s, but a filthy, rat-infested, dangerous place. It’s mentioned in the French Connection, where in the early 60’s you could find nasty dive bars from there up to Pike Slip.

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The photos aren’t exceptional, they’re mostly the same pictures of rough, dirty white guys, few blacks worked on the docks. Unlike most photos that can’t give you much other than the image, Mensch’s photos give you a five-senses feel, so much that you can almost smell the fish! You also get a sense of how the men ached from the cold, and in the summer they must have been assaulted by the smell. Mensch writes that the dock workers weren’t happy about having to answer to the mob (on top of all their other problems), but at the same time they didn’t like government interference. They had a “where were you all those years” kind of attitude, and viewed the authorities as strangers who’d never been there for them. Almost all of the workers were Irish or Italian, and some of them lived on the Lower East Side, which at the time was also a hellhole.

The place had its own laws, everything was based on trust (not as violent as you’d think) and the rules were simple; if you screwed up you never worked their again. It was a great place for ex-cons and illegal aliens, lots of Englishmen who came here as sailors. However, right after these photos were taken, the fish market was reduced. Thanks to the increase of high-priced real estate in the area, and the fact that the seaport was becoming a tourist spot, the city stepped in and regulated everything. Trucks had to be out of there by 10am so as not to bother the suit-wearing Wall Street guys. There’s a funny photo of a guy in an expensive suit and carrying a briefcase, walking briskly past guys in overalls unloading crates, and he looks like the sort of Italian American who in another decade would’ve worked at the docks. Another shows high-heeled yuppie chicks strutting past the men with crates. Good thing they didn’t need to use the bathrooms, because the walls were covered in nudie pics.

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There are other books about old New York, and I’ll name a few; The City That Became Safe, City of Disorder, Selling the Lower East Side. These books are scholarly, but they lack what this book has, and that is the primary source. Mensch not only includes photos, but also her words. She writes a firsthand account of her experience there, from someone who watched it all unfold up close

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