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Future of Legendary Essex Street Market Uncertain

A gastronomic fixture of the Lower East Side for seventy-one years, the Essex Street Market faces a precarious future. Recently approved guidelines for the nearby Seward Park Urban Renewal Area development project include the possibility of demolishing the current market in favor of a larger, more modernized facility at a new, still undetermined, location. In the tug of war between developers and preservationists, outraged East Siders have mobilized to spare the Depression era structure.

One of them is Anne Saxelby, local cheese monger and Essex Street vendor. She has issued an online petition to save the market, which she calls “a living piece of Lower East Side history,” and plans to present it at a May 25th community board meeting.

Saxelby is right. Nearly three quarters of a century after it opened, the market continues to play its part in the immigrant Lower East Side food economy. At the same time, the market building, an example of “Depression Moderne,” embodies an intriguing nugget of this city’s history, an urban drama involving immigrants, pushcarts and the mayor of New York.

When Fiorello LaGuardia was elected mayor in 1934, he assumed office with well-defined opinions on the city’s pushcart markets. Unsanitary and outmoded, the pushcarts, he argued, were a blemish on the face of the city and must be removed. The mayor’s anti-pushcart sentiments were nothing new. As far back as the 1890s, city officials had fretted over the growing number of pushcarts blocking traffic and strewing their litter on city streets. The authorities periodically moved to ban the pushcarts but lacked the necessary follow-through, leaving the problem to the next administration.

The epicenter of the “pushcart evil” as it was called, was the Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side. Block after block was lined with pushcarts transforming the neighborhood into one continuous open-air bazaar. Most of those carts were devoted to food. East Side vendors sold fruits and vegetables, baked goods, dairy products, fish, grains, and nuts, in short, most everything required by the Jewish homemaker with the exception of meat.

Under LaGuardia, the pushcart issue reached the level of obsession. The upcoming World’s Fair in 1939 only fueled the fire. With hundreds of thousands of visitors descending on New York, it was imperative that the streets be cleared of foreign-born hucksters and their haggling clientele.

LaGuardia’s strategy was to corral the peddlers, setting them up in state-of-the-art market buildings scattered through the city. The Essex Street market was one of eight similar markets built by LaGuardia and financed in part by federal money from the WPA.

Each of these markets catered to the culinary needs of the surrounding population. When the Essex Street Market opened its doors on January 9, 1940, it was home to 475 vendors, each tucked into his own neat stall. Seventy percent of the vendors were Jewish. The remainder were chiefly Italians.

The roughly 330 Jewish vendors offered a full compliment of kosher goods. A 1940 report prepared by the Federal Writers Project, another WPA program, lists some of the items for sale:

Signs in Yiddish call attention to the presence of kosher butcher shops… kosher pastry, including the small traditional holiday cakes….Well-known dairies make a sideline of kosher dairy products. Kosher butter made daily from fresh cream, whipped butter in appetizing cartons, vegetable oil shortening; pure vinegar… smoked fish…sardines with skins; gefilte fish…

While the younger merchants adjusted to their new accommodations, the old timers were bereft. The same WPA report described aging peddlers who “resent the change to order, cleanliness and regulations; they insist that shoppers believe that bargains can only be found on pushcarts; a market is like a store — so why go to the market?”

Nonetheless, the Essex Street Market enjoyed a solid decade of success. Monday through Friday, it served local shoppers. On weekends, however, Jews from Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey and upper Manhattan converged on the market in a weekly retail pilgrimage. Many of them were former East Siders who had “moved up.” Some returned in chauffeured limousines and mink coats prompting merchants to refer to Saturday evenings at the market as “mink coat night.”

Changing demographics along with the growing popularity of supermarkets conspired against the Essex Street merchants. By the mid 1960s, the original 475 stalls had shrunk to 320. By the mid 1980s there were only 59. The market was down to a skeleton crew, but the remaining merchants managed to hold on. A $1.5 million renovation that began in 1995 attracted a new generation of more upscale food purveyors, including Anne Saxelby and Pain D’Avignon, an artisanal bakery.

Today, only three of LaGuardia’s markets survive. Essex Street is one of them. The last of the original Jewish vendors, Jeffrey’s Meats, a fourth-generation family butcher, closed earlier this year under financial strain. In 2011, the market is a cosmopolitan blend of Asian and Caribbean, black and white, old timers and foodie hipsters. At the Batista Grocery, shoppers can choose among nine varieties of tropical root vegetables. Around the corner, Formaggio Essex sells house-made duck confit and Hawaiian red sea salt. In this restless city, where nothing stands still for too long, seventy-one years of continuous operation is its own special victory.

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