Elie Levine, ‘16
The first thing many of us BHSEC students see when we get out of the train station every day is Essex Street Market, but we often fail to recognize its significance in the history of the Lower East Side. The market, a valuable piece of the neighborhood’s history, is a testament to many of the socioeconomic changes that have shaped the population and culture of the Lower East Side throughout the 20th century. Today, it continues to be an important presence in the neighborhood. But the market is now faced with a change of its own: it is being relocated.
In the early 20th century, the Lower East Side teemed with diversity. Pushcart peddlers clogged the city streets, selling goods to the working class. The government considered pushcarts a public safety threat because they made it difficult for police vehicles and fire trucks to squeeze through the congested streets; as a result, in 1940, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia opened Essex Street Market and other indoor markets throughout the city in an attempt to bring business indoors. Early merchants and shoppers at Essex Street Market were Jewish and Italian immigrants who lived in crowded tenements. Not only was the market a place for these immigrants to stock up on various foods and sundries, but it also served as a meeting place and social hub for the diverse population of the Lower East Side, merchants and shoppers alike.
A new influx of Puerto Rican immigrants swept the Lower East Side in the 1950s, again reshaping both the culture of the neighborhood and the atmosphere of Essex Street Market. Puerto Ricans brought with them demands for new products, and again the market changed to fit the needs of the neighborhood. Starting in the 1960s, the Lower East Side began to gentrify rapidly. Wealthier people moved in, and their living conditions contrasted sharply with the extremely impoverished lives of the Puerto Rican immigrants. In the 1980s and 1990s, business at Essex Street Market crawled. “It was very hard to get people inside,” said Ron Budinas in a recent New York Times article. Budinas is a fish vendor who has worked at the market since the 1970s. “Things were dark and dreary.”
The Essex Street Market has been in the same dimly lit, utilitarian building for seventy-three years, but it has stayed true to its history. The market itself offers a wide selection of various unique and hard-to-find products. Each booth has a distinctive character. Some stalls sell clothing, religious goods, and Hispanic products; others offer fish, meat and produce; and newer eateries sell artisanal and gourmet foods. Cuchifritos Art Gallery, located in the market, seeks to bring attention to underrepresented Lower East Side artists. Santa Lucia Religious Goods offers a wide selection of feathered dream catchers. There is even a unique barbershop with an extensive collection of clocks on display. Essex Restaurant, at one end of the market, still works to preserve the rich Hispanic and Jewish history of the neighborhood by offering an appetizing mixture of Jewish and Latin cuisines.
Today the market balances old with new. It contains decades-old bodegas alongside more modern, artisanal food stores, such as Brooklyn Taco Company, that have appeared in recent years. Shoppers at the market come from a variety of demographics; the dichotomy of old and new within the market is paralleled in the surrounding neighborhood. On the Lower East Side, arguably more than anywhere else in Manhattan, the city’s poorest and the city’s richest live side by side. New high-rises are rapidly springing up in close proximity to run-down housing projects.
Some believe that the relocation of Essex Street Market will destroy the unique cultural dynamic of the market that has been cultivated over a number of decades. The proposed new building, Essex Street Crossing, will provide a 30,000-foot space for Essex Street Market with improved infrastructure and a supermarket. The building, according to a recent New York Times article, will also house 1,000 housing units for families who earn anywhere from $31,000 to $133,000 per year. There are plans for a museum, a rooftop farm, and office space. The current vendors have been promised that their rents will not rise in the new space, but some vendors are concerned that rents will rise anyway. Last year, concerned Lower East Siders created a petition to keep the market in its current location, claiming that many of the market’s current vendors “could not exist outside Essex Street Market” and could not “survive such a move.” Optimists hope that Essex Street Crossing will succeed in building upon, not eradicating, the unique neighborhood culture Essex Street Market has helped to cultivate on the Lower East Side. “I hope we’ll have more street visibility,” said Emilie Frohlich, a meat vendor at the market. “This isn’t a very beautiful building.”
But Ira Stolzenberg disagrees. Stolzenberg, owner of Rainbo’s Fish and Tra La La Juice Bar, has worked at Essex Street Market for 38 years. He said that since the Lower East Side has become exposed to “higher-end people, people who are going to pay more rent, people who prefer better quality,” the neighborhood has lost some of its unique characteristics. While he admits that the market has gotten cleaner in recent years, he says that it has also been wiped clean of much of its distinctive character. “Years ago, the building had a lot more flavor,” he said. When asked if he believed the relocation would change that, he replied, “Oh, totally. It’s already lost. It’s already lost the flavor.”