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Saying goodbye to the old Essex Street Market

A stroll through today’s Essex Street Market is still a comforting visit to an older Manhattan

Down on the corner of Essex and Delancey streets, a vibrant slice of old New York remains, even as the towers of a new city rise around it. The Essex Street Market has stood here, solid and implacable, for 78 years, even as the buildings surrounding it have been dismantled by failed urban renewal schemes, and, more recently, have been reshaped by gentrification and new development.

But in New York City, where historic buildings are now being demolished one after the other, the Essex Street Market will soon become another victim of the wrecking ball. This October, all 28 of its vendors will be uprooted, with most relocating into a shiny new marketplace that will be located in the ground floor of a nearby tower inside the Essex Crossing megaproject. The old cinder block structure will be destroyed, taking with it a unique and colorful part of the Lower East Side.

For now, a stroll through the Essex Street Market is still a comforting visit to an older Manhattan, one not driven mad by the latest food fads, or obsessed with glossy new food halls. Most of the vendors here offer up a mix of favorite local ingredients, sold at refreshingly affordable prices, ranging from guanabana and cassava to porgies and pata de res. While some outsiders have described the market as unlovely, utilitarian, and Plain Jane, for the vendors who call it home, and their many loyal customers, it contains a lifetime of memories.

One of the best ways to savor the final days of the old Essex Street Market is on the weekly walking tour offered by Turnstile Tours, which will be held until mid-September. During one of these recent walks, the diverse culinary offerings of the market were on full display, with participants sampling rare cheeses from Saxelby Cheesemongers and Formaggio Essex, hot bagels from Davidovich Bakery, fresh croissants from Pain D’Avignon, and savory quiche from Nordic Preserves, Fish & Wildlife Company. It was all washed down with a cup of coffee from the Porto Rico Importing Company, whose NYC roots go back to 1907.

During this mobile feast, the walk’s leader, Cindy VandenBosch, traced out the history of the market’s vendors, starting with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s “war on pushcarts” in the 1930s. The Essex Street Market opened in 1940 as a city-operated public market with space for 475 vendors, “most of whom had been peddlers on the streets and at the open-air markets of the Lower East Side,” according to VandenBosch. At the time, the market was spread across four different buildings along three blocks of Essex Street.

At each stop on the tour, the market’s vendors proudly shared the histories of their businesses, some of which have been in the market since the 1970s. Their decades of collective memories and experiences have imbued the space with an irreplaceable patina, which is just as memorable as each of their hand-made stands. For many of these family-owned shops, moving out of the old building will mark the end of an era, and these final months have been a time of reflection.

“It’s bittersweet, because I grew up in the market,” says Eric Suh of the New Star Fish Market, who began working alongside his father when he was 15 years old. “I spent literally most of my life here, since I was 7 or 8 years old. It’s part of me, this market, it really is.”

When the New Star Fish Market opened in 1993, it was during a period of new investment into the market. In 1995, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) took control of its operations and completed a $1.5 million renovation. A number of other vendors moved in during this same period, including Essex Farm Fruits & Vegetables and Louis Meat Market, taking over stalls that had been left empty during a long period of decline in the 1980s.

In the ensuing decades, each of these grocers have developed their own faithful clientele, by focusing on affordable prices, fresh daily deliveries, and ingredients popular with Lower East Side locals. At New Star Fish Market, this means always keeping porgies, whiting, tilefish, and kingfish in stock, and has resulted in close ties to the community. “I’ve had customers who have known me my whole life,” says Suh. “It’s a special relationship. It’s not even customers. It’s more like friends you see every day.”

Suh, who was trained at the French Culinary Institute, plans to expand the family business after moving to the new market location. Their new stand will include a kitchen space, allowing him to offer a small menu of daily seafood dishes for the first time. “The Lower East Side and all of New York is changing around us, and we have a great opportunity to take that in stride and grow with it,” says Suh, reflecting on what it will mean to leave the old market behind. “It’s hard to see it go, but I am excited for the new market.”

For some of the older vendors, the upcoming relocation will be a more painful transition. These include Ira Stolzenberg, the proprietor of Rainbo’s Fish and Tra La La Juice Bar, who has operated a fish stand inside the market since the 1970s, and who has seen it evolve through many highs and lows.

“First of all, you have to understand that I am not pleased about the move. I mean, I have been in the market 45 years. There are things that can be fixed in this building, but as far as I am concerned, the building just has a lot of character,” says Stolzenberg. “The air conditioning needs to be fixed, the heating needs to be fixed, the roof leaks, but these are all things that can be repaired.”

When Rainbo’s Fish first opened in 1973, it was located inside one of the other buildings across Delancey Street. But during the 1980s, the entire market descended into horrendous conditions due to neglect and crime, and that building was eventually shuttered, with the city consolidating the remaining vendors into the market’s current location. The three other original market buildings have all since been demolished.

“Oh my god, it was just awful,” says Stolzenberg, reflecting on the dark days of the Essex Street Market. “At that time, the Board of Health allowed me to have cats, right? Cats, meow-meow cats? Now, the rats used to eat my cats. My word. They used to kill my cats.”

Conditions declined from there. “Towards the end, the rats used to walk around during the day,” says Stolzenberg. “And there were more drug abusers that were in the building than there were shoppers. The building was in really bad shape. The walls were cracking, it was awful.”

After relocating to its current location during the 1990s restoration, Rainbo’s Fish began expanding, and eventually included a juice bar, specialty cakes, and fish sandwiches. All of this was run by Stolzenberg and his partner, Ron Budinas, who worked side by side for 45 years before getting married seven years ago. Budinas passed away in 2016, and for Stolzenberg, the memories of the old market will clearly be irreplaceable.

“What will I miss? The charm. This building is charming,” says Stolzenberg. “I feel like I am home here. I know all my customers by their first names. They’ve come and they’ve gone, but basically I have kept all the same customers.… I feel like I am the mayor of the building.”

As the market leaves its original location behind, it will also, quite literally, be losing its spiritual center. The only business that won‘t relocate is Santa Lucia Religious, where a long countertop offers an assortment of holy cards, protective amulets, and purifying incenses. The store and its owner, Mario Hernandez, are among the oldest remaining vendors at the market, if not the oldest, with the origins of the business possibly tracing back more than 50 years, through several previous owners. References to a Botanica at the market date back to at least 1969.

The current owner of Santa Lucia Religious is an intensely private and spiritual man who does not allow photographs of his business. Although he is willing to talk with visitors at great length about reincarnation, karma, and past lives, he declined to speak on the record about the market’s upcoming relocation, or the fate of his shop. However, it seems certain that his stall will close when the old market is emptied out, because the NYCEDC could not come to an agreement with its elderly owner.

“When we offered him his new space, although it was bigger, he didn’t like that there was less frontage,” says Megha Chopra, who is coordinating the move to the new market for the NYCEDC. “He kind of wanted to same exact layout in the new market, and it just wasn’t possible, it wasn’t feasible for us. So, yeah, he is not coming over, which is a shame.”

For the other vendors, the big move to the new Essex Crossing building will take place in mid-October, and should be a relatively short process. “There will only be a couple of days where Essex is closed, and there is no Essex,” says Chopra. “Likely, the vendors will close up on a Thursday and they will be open by the following Monday. They are really just moving inventory, since all of the equipment they are getting is brand new.”

In its new home, the market will be known as Essex Market, and will include 25 original vendors, along with 14 new vendors and two full-service restaurants; it will also connect to the Market Line, Essex Crossing‘s new subterranean marketplace. As part of the move, Essex Crossing developer Delancey Street Associates is building new stalls for each vendor, including new refrigerators and shelves, free of charge. The building will also have larger stall spaces, dedicated loading docks and storage space, and a much different feel, architecturally, than the old buildings, with high ceilings and street-front windows along its glassy facade.

“The reason the building is this giant cinderblock is because [former Mayor] LaGuardia didn’t want people to even see these peddlers and markets. He thought this was a dirty thing,” says Chopra. “But we‘re in 2018, and it’s quite a disadvantage to have a building with no windows and no glass facade.”

The interior design of the new market will also be much different, with copious amounts of exposed steel beams and natural wood. These changes are meant to create “a sense of nostalgia,” according to Chopra, with “an aesthetic that evokes the sense of old Lower East Side.” In the meantime, the demolition date of the original Essex Street Market building, which is still an existing, preservable artifact of the old Lower East Side, has not yet been set.

The last remaining building of the Essex Street Market still stands on the corner of Essex Street and Delancey Street in the Lower East Side. It will be emptied out in October 2018, in preparation for demolition.

The market building extends along Essex Street to Rivington Street, and was painted with murals in 2016 to lure in new customers. “People didn’t even know this was a market. It was all brick, there was no signage on the doors,” says Lauren Margolis, the community programs and engagement manager at the Essex Street Market.

Inside the market, the southern end is anchored by Shopsin’s, the incomparably offbeat breakfast and lunch establishment. The restaurant moved to the market in 2007, after struggling with rising rents in the West Village.

The walls and shelves of Shopsin’s are covered with ephemera and artifacts collected over the years, and the restaurant’s eight page menu features a staggering array of one-of-a-kind dishes, including Blisters on My Sisters, a perennial favorite of eggs, beans, rice and collards served over tortillas in a piping hot frying pan.

Saxelby Cheesemongers, located just next door to Shopsin’s, has been in the market since 2006. The shop has grown “from a tiny stall in the Essex Street Market to include a booming wholesale and distribution business,” as its owner Anne Saxelby has expanded into different neighborhoods. “She now has a cheese cave in Red Hook where she spends most of her day to day, and she recently opened a location in Chelsea Market,” says Margolis.

Just north of the cheese shop sits Luna Brothers Fruit Plaza, one of the newest vendors at the market. The stand opened in 2014, after its owners Luis Varga and Jose Luna bought the business from Louis Batista, who had operated it for 20 years. The specialties of this shop include a wide variety of roots and tubers, like cassava, yautia, and yampi.

Luis Meat Market has been in the market since 1997, and is owned by Luis Rodriguez, who moved to New York from the Dominican Republic in 1975. The shop carries a number of meats that are popular in the Lower East Side, including pata de res (beef feet), rabbit, goat, turkey, and oxtail.

“Steak is new for us. We started selling it a few years ago because people started asking for it,” Rodriguez noted in a NYCEDC article. “Years ago, the customers were different, they didn’t ask for steak. And most of my customers were Hispanic.”

At the New Star Fish Market, which opened in the market in 1993, Eric Suh greets customers he has known his entire life. “It’s like a home away from home,” says Suh. “This market is a special place. It has its own special identity.”

The fish stand is decorated with years of signs and ephemera. “A lot of my customers have said ‘I’ve been shopping here 30 years, I don’t want to see it go.’ But we hope to take that charm with us, to the new space,” says Suh.

Just across from the fish market is the Porto Rico Importing Company, which opened here in 2009, and nearby is a second cheese specialist, Formaggio Essex, which opened in 2006, as part of a wave of new vendors that entered the market in the 2000s. “I’m going to miss this place. It feels like home,” says Cindy, a barista at Porto Rico. “It really feels like family. It will definitely change.”

Another produce stand, Viva Fruits and Vegetables, which opened in 2000, is located in the middle of the market. “I grew up on the Lower East Side. My grandmother used to live across the street from the market,” says Sobeida DeLa Cruz, whose family operates the business. “It’s nice and clean now, but in the 1980s, there were not many stands, and the market was half the size.”

Viva stocks a wide variety of tropical fruit, including guanabana and papaya, and still uses the same shelves and stands that its owners built by hand in their early years. All of this will be left behind in the relocation. “The only thing going to the new building is us. They are giving us new shelves, new refrigerators,” says DeLa Cruz. “The only thing we have bring is registers and scales.”

Nordic Preserves, Fish & Wildlife Company, which opened at the market in 2012, specializes in Scandinavian delicacies, including a wide variety of smoked fish, caviar, and wild game. They hope to bring their caribou head and stuffed bear to the new market.

One of the shop’s owners, John Lavelle, expressed concerns about the direction the market appeared to be heading in. “Look at all the vendors they have brought in, in the last few years. It’s Japanese street food, small restaurants,” says Lavelle. “They are trying to turn it into a food hall, not a market. That doesn’t serve the community. It’s something for developers.”

At Rainbo’s Fish, one of the oldest vendors operating out of the market, the daily specials include a selection of wild-caught shrimp. The move to the new market will be challenging for its owner, Ira Stolzenberg, who is past retirement age. “I don’t know what the business is going to be like over there,” he notes. “I am not looking forward to it. I am at home, I have been here so many years.”

At the northern end of the market, one of the largest tenants is Essex Farm Fruits and Vegetables, which opened in 1993. “I started with a very small space, only 400 square feet. But over the years I’ve expanded so now I have more than four times than what I started with,” the stand’s owner told the NYCEDC.

All of the original stands and shelves in the market will be demolished when the building is vacated. “We are very conscious that an element of that should be preserved in the new space,” says Margolis. “We don’t want people to think they are walking into another one of these food halls. We want to build on the history of the market.”

Anchoring the north end of the building, next to Davidovich Bakery, is a timeline tracing out the history of the Essex Street Market. “I think the character is what makes the market unique,” says VandenBosch, whose research into the market was used for the timeline. “I hope it works with all the vendors moving. Retaining that character is important.”

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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