Essex Market 1818-2018
We’re about to celebrate Essex Market’s 76th birthday with a blowout block party bash (Save the date! May 21st is fast approaching!) but this week’s post is here to tell you that Essex Market has been a Lower East Side institution for far longer than its 76 years in its current home.
Records of Essex Market date back to 1818, when food shopping in NYC was quite a different scene. Groceries did exist – but they were all located uptown, not downtown where most of the population was quite poor. There were ‘grog shops’ on the Lower East Side, but they were places where working men would go for provisions and a hard drink, so as one could imagine, the emphasis was not really on the food.
The Essex Market’s first home was actually in the center of Grand Street between Essex and Ludlow. Though no photographs of the early incarnations of the market exist, we can surmise that like other markets in the city, it was likely an outdoor covered shed, meant to give just enough shelter for vendors to sell their wares. It eventually moved to a proper brick building that is now the site of Seward Park High School. It’s also notable to say that back in that day, the market being run by the ‘city’ meant the market was actually run by Tammany Hall, and consequently home to much corruption.
Most of the residents of the Lower East Side in those days were poor immigrants, either single men working to earn a living and start a family, or families struggling to get by. Either way, in that era, it was the men who were supposed to do the provisioning for the family – and a good thing too because as mentioned before, a Tammany market hall was probably no place for most women to hang out. Suffice it to say that the market in those days was mostly full of butcher stalls – the majority of these working men wanted a grilled piece of meat and a drink, and that was that.
As the ranks of the Lower East Side swelled with the huge waves of immigrants arriving in the late 1800’s and 1900’s, merchants took to the streets and sold their wares from thousands upon thousands of pushcarts. The pushcarts were basically the city’s form of welfare at that time – not technically legal, but selling cheap food for the poor, and so the city turned a blind eye and did not get in the way. And the pushcarts did not only sell food – pretty much any kind of goods you could imagine could be bought at a pushcart.
The pushcarts also allowed for something not typically done at other types of markets – haggling. Back in the day, when an extra penny meant being able to buy some other crucial item for the family (milk for the baby, medicine, etc) haggling ruled the day. In those days most of the shoppers were women, and they were expert hagglers. Adam Steinberg, chief educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, recalled the tale of an Italian-American woman living on Orchard Street who made it a point to be the first in line each morning at the pushcarts. Not only would she have the pick of the best merchandise, but the merchants – being superstitious – would do anything to get the first sale of the day, thereby affording her the best bargains.
As time went by, the pushcarts came to be seen as a blight on the city – a symbol of the squalor and poverty on the Lower East Side. They clogged the streets, were not properly regulated, and lacked basic sanitary measures to ensure the products that they sold were safe. The reformers, progressive people who wanted to assimilate the immigrants into American life and lift them out of poverty through government programs, settlement houses and the like, wanted the pushcarts abolished. By the 1920’s and 1930’s, the rise of the automobile gave the city one last bit of ammunition to get rid of them – the traffic in New York was abominable.
In 1939 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia opened the Essex Market with what was called the shortest dedication ceremony of all time. Contrary to other public market dedications that were quite grand – the opening of the Fulton Fish Market was a stark contrast with banners and flags and speeches and public officials parading about – the market’s beginnings were humble. After all, it was the poor immigrants’ market, not a beacon of civic pride like the Fulton Fish Market.
Due to the building of the IRT line (now known as the F train) a number of buildings were demolished along Essex Street – leaving a long thin parcel of land on which to build Essex Market. The market was originally four buildings – One between Broome and Delancey – the future site of the Essex Market slated for completion in 2018, the current facility between Delancey and Rivington, as well as another two other buildings between Rivington and Stanton. The original market was home to 475 stalls selling everything from meat to fish to socks and undergarments.
Throughout the 1940’s the market prospered. There was even a weekly news show on NYC public radio hosted by Frances Foley Gannon and the NYC Department of Markets called ‘the market report’ to advise housewives on how to shop and cook thriftily in New York’s thriving public markets. There were kosher cooking classes and canning classes to encourage housewives to put up fresh fruits and vegetables during the second World War. But the rise of the supermarket combined with the economic woes of New York City in the 1960’s and 1970’s left the market in hard times.
Despite all the hardship, the market managed to weather the storm, always an anchor for Lower East Siders in search of affordable fresh food. In the 1990’s the market was taken over by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) who continues to manage it today. In addition to Essex Market, there are three other LaGuardia-era public markets that have survived through the decades – Moore Street in Brooklyn, Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, and La Marqueta in Harlem. These public markets are true gems that hearken back to a different time and place in New York City, when markets were representative of civic pride, and seen as a necessary public service. They are also TRUE markets. In New York City today, when a new food hall seems to be popping up around every corner, these markets are the genuine article – fresh food sold by mom and pop businesses.
Now to Essex Market’s future – which also is intricately woven in it’s history. In 1967 in the name of urban renewal, swaths of tenement buildings were razed on the Lower East Side to build newer, affordable housing for New Yorkers. The scale of the neighborhood was forever changed – you can see the towers of large, blocky housing that was built stretching along the East River all the way from the border of Chinatown up to Stuyvesant Town on 14th Street.
The vacant lots on the south side of Delancey Street stretching from Essex all the way to Clinton Streets – the Essex Market’s future home – have been vacant since 1967 – deadlocked in a neighborhood battle over what should be built there. The residents were promised affordable housing, but many development proposals that came and went over the years were anything but.
In 2008 Mayor Bloomberg, eager to see this unused land turned into something more useful for the neighborhood, worked with Community Board 3 to pass a set of guidelines as to what the neighborhood wanted in a new development. Luckily for Essex Market, the neighborhood rallied behind it and demanded that a new home for the market be included in the new development. In 2012 an RFP was issued (city speak for requests for developers to submit proposals) and in 2013 Delancey Street Associates was awarded the contract to build Essex Crossing.
Which pretty much brings us up to the present day – the market is slated to move across the street in 2018 (to a former Essex Market building site – what goes around comes around!) to a new, state of the art facility almost twice the size of the current market. The current Essex Market building will continue to be open and serve New Yorkers until the new facility is completed. And when it’s time for the move, the plans call for it to take just a few days, so there will be virtually NO interruption in business for vendors.
For nearly 200 years, Essex Market has been a pillar of the Lower East Side’s economy and cuisine. We look forward to beginning the next hundred years of business in Essex Market’s new home!
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