In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.
The Essex Market opened on January 9, 1940 as part of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s “war on pushcarts.” According to the New York Times, a crowd of 3,500 residents gathered for the grand opening, listening to a speech by Laguardia in which he noted, “the city was not going to spend thousands of dollars [on new public markets] and allow pushcarts on the streets.” He was accompanied by the NY Parks Department Band as the “century-old era of East Side Pushcart Markets gave its last gasp.”
The History of Essex Market
In the late 19th century, pushcarts began to proliferate on the congested streets of the Lower East Side, driven by waves of European Jewish immigration. According to the Museum at Eldridge Street: “in the shtetls and cities of Old Europe pushcarts were a common sight. Under Tsarist rule Jews could not rent or own land and so the peddling of goods was one of the few ways in which they could earn a living. Upon arrival to the United States, peddling was a job recommended by friends and relatives. In 1880, one could rent a cart for 10 cents and then stock the cart with an assortment of goods ranging from produce, fish, pickles, clothing, to prayer books.”
Pushcarts, and the resulting open-air pushcart markets, were considered “disgraceful” and “unsanitary” by the city. In 1929 there were 57 open-air markets for 6,053 pushcarts. Essex Market was one of the open-air pushcart markets and is thought to have officially established itself in 1888. The abundance of pushcarts and vendors resulted in crowded streets. To address the issue, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia created a network of public indoor markets throughout the city, including Essex Market. LaGuardia used federal WPA funds to create several indoor markets required to have running water, rail facilities, and loading platforms. Between 1929 and 1941, the city closed over 40 open-air markets, bringing the total down to 15 and the number of permits issued to peddlers declined to 821.
In the 1950s and 60s the market changed. Many of the original vendors left, following their Jewish and Italian clients to the suburbs. Vendors from the newly-arriving Puerto Rican community took their place. In the 1960s and 70s the market fell out of favor as customers turned to supermarkets and other street-front stores. Many of the vendors could not handle the reduction in traffic and left. After many years of losses, only one of the four original market buildings was filled with vendors. From the 1980s until 2019 the market ebbed and flowed, with a core group of food markets, fishmongers, butchers, and other vendors.
A new life for Essex Market
In May 2019, Essex Market moved to a new home across the street as part of the mixed-use Essex Crossing development, called “the anti-Hudson Yards” by the NY Times architecture critic. All vendors except for one moved along with it. There are currently 35 vendors located in the market. A number of these are new, but most are original to the old market. Additionally, Essex Crossing has seamlessly integrated these 35 vendors into the Market Line. This food marketplace includes outposts from local favorites such as Veselka, Porto Rico Importing Co., Nom Wah Tea Parlor, and the Pickle Guys.
At completion, it will include 140 vendors over 150,000 square feet in NYC’s largest food marketplace. Though in a new space, Essex Market continues to be a public market, allowing vendors the same opportunity to continue serving residents – old and new – with both affordable and specialty foods.
Roots Further North
The Essex Market reflects a pattern of decline and revival that many of the other markets also underwent. But Essex is not the only of the WPA Public Retail Markets in New York City to get a new lease on life, nor was it the first to be built.
The oldest surviving WPA Retail Market building in New York City is in fact the East Village’s First Avenue Retail Market, which dates to 1938 (the very first to open was what came to be known as “La Marqueta” under the Park Avenue viaduct between 111th and 116th Street in East Harlem, then an Italian-American neighborhood from which LaGuardia was elected to the State Assembly and Congress; little of that original structure still exists due to demolition, fires, and alterations). In 1937, architects Albert W. Lewis and John D. Churchill were commissioned by the Department of Markets to design several of these indoor market buildings, including the new Fulton Fish Market Complex, the Gansevoort Market, the Bronx Terminal Market, and the First Avenue Retail Market. The First Avenue Market was opened by LaGuardia himself in 1938 on First Avenue between East 9th and 10th Streets. It was constructed in an L-shaped design that spanned numbers 155-157 1st Avenue and numbers 230-240 East 10th Street. Historic photos show a bustling neighborhood market that sold cheese (a 1947 New Yorker article states that the cheese vendor sold 300 varieties!), vegetables, and likely everything in, until its closure in 1965.
In 1986, Theater for the New City (TNC) purchased this 30,000-square-foot former market building with the help of Bess Myerson, Ruth Messinger, and David Dinkins. TNC converted the market building into a vibrant community arts center, where they remain to this day. This transformation was a critical factor in the cultural and commercial revitalization of the surrounding East Village neighborhood.
When the Theater for the New City purchased the former First Avenue Retail Market building, there was a stipulation that they had to still share part of the space with the Sanitation Department, which had been occupying the building since the Market closed in 1965. TNC didn’t have enough money to complete the four theaters, dance space, cafe, administrative offices, and rehearsal spaces, but put on shows regardless, creating interim theaters. Co-founders Crystal Field and George Bartenieff completed TNC’s home with $2 million they had raised. The City, however, retained the air rights to the building, and in 2001, a 16-story residential tower was erected above the theater. Despite this construction, though, TNC remains an important East Village institution that echos the community sentiment and necessity of the former First Avenue Retail Market, and is the oldest remaining intact Retail Market from this transformative LaGuardia/WPA project.