A Walk Through Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side

 

Essex Street Market, with its old-school butcher and fishmonger, and towering shelves stocked with items that can fulfill any grocery list, not to mention cafés, bakeries, and food stalls, is the perfect place to spend an afternoon. It’s the kind of place where tourists might come in off the street to take a break and inspect their maps, while sitting at a table next to a throng of elderly gentlemen, sipping on coffee and discussing how much the neighborhood has changed.

On the wall near Davidovich Bakery, a large mural displays the timeline of Essex Street Market, one of NYC’s oldest and most storied indoor public markets. The most notable date on the timeline is 2018, when the market will move from its current location to a new, expanded space across Delancey Street. That’s after nearly 80 years of occupying the same building on Essex Street, so the story that this timeline tells is quite long.

In the early 20th century, the Lower East Side was teeming with immigrants; many arrived in the United States with very little money and investing in a pushcart was an affordable venture and a sure way to make a living.

By 1939, the Lower East Side was the most densely populated neighborhood in the city and the number of pushcart vendors was in the thousands. Peddlers sold everything from fruits and vegetables to clothing and eyewear, and residents could entirely fulfill their shopping needs without ever going into a store.

The problem with this, according to then-mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, was the congestion. Pushcarts competed with pedestrians, horse and wagons, and trolley cars for space on the neighborhood’s narrow streets. Firetrucks and police cars couldn’t get through if there was ever an emergency, creating a safety hazard for all.

LaGuardia’s solution was to create indoor public markets and consolidate the pushcarts under one roof, clearing out some of the clutter from the streets. Essex Street Market, originally made up of four separate buildings, was a result of this effort. It cleared up some of the pedestrian traffic, too. People could still get everything they needed from the nearly 500 indoor vendors, and the goods reflected the backgrounds of the immigrants, who were mostly Jewish and Italian at the time.

The market became a central gathering place for the community. Besides selling everything under the sun, kosher cooking classes were offered and during the lean World War Two years, advice was given to shoppers on how to manage on a budget.

Years went by and the demographics of the neighborhood shifted and changed, and Essex Street Market changed with it. Vendors came and went, but it remained the best place to shop in the neighborhood. In the 1970s, big supermarkets began to take over mom-and-pop businesses. Many vendors left but the market weathered the storm overall.

In 1995, a $1.5 million renovation consolidated the market’s buildings into one structure, finally getting all the vendors under one roof. Today, some of the older vendors remain, but a lot of new ones have taken their place. Community is still important to them. New York City Economic Development Corporation is the managing body, and is always on the lookout for new small-business owners. For those approved for a space at Essex Street Market, rent is subsidized and other services are offered to help them get their business off the ground.

The demographics of the Lower East Side have changed through the years and the vendors reflect that. Shoppers can still visit the butcher, who will cut their meat to order, and the fishmonger for all their seafood needs. They can still buy plantains and sugar cane, and freshly baked breads. And now artisan cheeses are available, along with craft beers, Japanese fusion food, alcohol-infused cupcakes, and freshly squeezed fruit juices. It remains one of the most interesting and diverse markets in the city.

Up until now, the only major renovation happened back in 1995, so their move across the street in the summer of 2018 is a big deal. They’ll be expanding, with 11 new vendors and two sit-down restaurants, and in their continuing service to the community, they’ll host talks, tastings, and other events, and will continue to be an important fixture in the neighborhood.

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