For over 70 years, the Essex Street Market has been feeding the Lower East Side. This dynamic market has evolved with the neighborhood over the years, representing the ever-changing demographics of one of New York’s most vibrant quarters. Now, because of the SPURA redevelopment project, that could all change.
SPURA stands for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, and is primarily comprised of a string of empty lots on the south side of Delancey Street between Essex Street and the Williamsburg Bridge. These lots were cleared for development in 1965. For over 40 years, the fate of this land has been hotly contested by city planners and neighborhood residents, with no solution found.
Recently, the community board (CB3) approved a set of guidelines to move the redevelopment process forward. The redevelopment zone now includes all city-owned property in the area, including the Essex Street Market. In their guidelines, the city proposed demolishing the current Essex Market and moving it to a ‘superior location.’ If the Essex Street Market were to move, it would not only lose its historic context, it would lose the soul and spirit of the place, an intangible but real thing created by merchants and customers over the past seven decades. We need your help and support to save the Essex Market!
Built by mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1940, the Essex Market was originally intended to get pushcart vendors off the street. The Lower East Side was always a neighborhood of immigrants, a veritable patchwork quilt of different cultures and nationalities all struggling to make a life for their families. To walk the streets in the early 1900’s was to navigate dense arteries of commerce, with merchants setting up shop in pushcarts selling everything from clothing to fresh meat and produce.
The city decided to build a series of indoor markets for these merchants to do business. These markets were built all over the city, but there was a large concentration on the Lower East Side. Their goal was twofold: to give these merchants an opportunity to do business in a proper market with more amenities, and to clear crowded city streets to allow traffic to pass. Of all these markets, only three remain today: Essex Street, La Marqueta in Harlem, and the Moore Street Market in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
These markets are historic places that deserve to be saved. They hearken back to a time when the city built public markets to uphold communities, when the market was considered not just a place to buy food, but a community space to gather and exchange news.
For the vendors these markets also represent an opportunity to start and build a small business, which is a very egalitarian thing indeed, especially in a city like New York.
Since 1940, the Essex Market has seen many different stages of life. The 1940’s through the 1960’s were booming years. The Lower East Side was a thriving shopping district, known for good value and good products. The 1948 film ‘The Naked City’ depicts the Essex Market in its heyday, with throngs of people clamoring to buy fruits, live poultry and live fish from market vendors. In the 1970’s the advent of the supermarket drew shoppers away from the Essex Market, but the vendors persevered through the hard times and continued to do business.
In the past 10 years, the Essex Market has undergone yet another change, with new vendors moving in alongside the old, proving again that the market evolves with the neighborhood. The vendors may change, but the market is still a bastion of community, full of vibrant unique small businesses serving the needs of a diverse clientele… just as Mayor LaGuardia intended it to be.
What can you do to help save the Essex Street Market? Please sign the online petition, or attend the next community board meeting on May 25th at the University Settlement on Eldridge Street to speak your mind. With your support, we can preserve a New York institution, one that I am extremely proud to be a part of!