In 19th century New York City, it was not uncommon for the poor and working-class to buy baked goods, produce, and even meat, downstairs in the open air from sidewalk peddlers in front of their tenement buildings. By 1930, 47,000 families made their living as pushcart peddlers, most of them heavily concentrated in the Lower East Side.
The legal and economic battles between today’s food trucks and their competing storefronts emulate the yesteryear rivalries between pushcarts and merchants. Merchants complained about the garbage and unsanitary conditions of pushcarts; they also felt threatened by vendors aggressively “pulling in” customers and offering the opportunity to haggle over prices. City officials claimed the pushcarts prevented police and fire vehicles from passing through.
By the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia made it a mission to eradicate “pushcart evil”, calling it “a blemish on the face of the city” that must be removed. He envisioned a brighter, cleaner Lower East Side that erased any vestiges left from its ethnic immigrant past. Under LaGuardia’s leadership, new laws forbade any goods from being sold on the street.
Financed by federal WPA funds, Essex Street Market was opened in 1940, eventually growing to 475 vendors spread out over four buildings. 70% of its vendors were Jewish, the remainder was predominantly Italian. Peddlers who were forced off the streets and could not afford indoor spaces became unemployed.
Jeffrey’s Meat Market, the last original business from Essex Street Market, closed in 2011 due to financial difficulties. Kidneys, neck bones,and lungs were among the most-requested cuts by customers when Jeffrey’s great-grandfather and grandfather operated business in the Market. In the business’ latter years, Ruhalter began to offer venison and wild boar as the demographics of his customers changed.
With the advent of the supermarket age, business began to dwindle in the 1960s with only 320 vendors in Essex Street Market. As the Lower East Side’s Puerto Rican population expanded, the market experienced an uptick in business as they diversified their offerings. In the 1970s, business shifted downwards once again as more supermarkets and bodegas were built in the neighborhood. By the mid-1980s, only 59 vendors were left in Essex Street Market, and cleanliness was deteriorating. An attempt by a private developer to reinvigorate the market failed and eventually New York City’s Economic Development Corporation took control, giving the Market a $1.5 million face-lift in 1995.
Essex Market has been in recent news due to the City’s desire to re-develop the neighborhood with additional housing and commercial space. The Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, dubbed SPURA, includes the Essex Street Market, which is now in danger of having its buildings demolished and moving to a new location. Market tenants like Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheesemongers have been fighting developers to keep the Market’s buildings intact.
Essex Street Market is one of only four WPA-era indoor markets remaining in New York City, and its future is uncertain. While the City has expressed its desire to keep the Market open in a new location, the history of the Market’s family-owned businesses combined with the beauty of its art moderne exterior and ceramic-tiled walls is very much a part of the nostalgia that old-timers and new residents feel as they walk along its corridors. If the City goes ahead with plans to raze the buildings of Essex Street Market, another jewel in the fabric of New York City history and architecture will be lost in the name of urban renewal and redevelopment.