To Market, To Market

Pain d'Avigon at Essex Street Market

Pain d'Avigon at Essex Street Market

I generally do a decent job of keeping up with what's going on in New York. But this is a big city--so every once in a while something does manage to get by me. And occasionally it's something that's right under my nose, in my own back yard.

Early last week I learned for the first time of Essex Street Market, only blocks from my home in Nolita, on Essex between Rivington and Delancey on the Lower East Side. That a food market so close by had escaped my attention came as a shock--I love markets. And not just for the quality of the products and produce found there. I mostly love the spirit of community and connection that markets foster--with other shoppers, farmers, vendors, purveyors. So I hunt them down.

I'll go miles out of my way on vacations to stop at farmstands, eagerly await the season's opening of New Amsterdam Market, make weekend and occasionally weekday pilgrimages to Union Square Greenmarket, seek out schedules for local markets in cities when I'm traveling, work in a visit if I can (one of my recent favorites: Honolulu's, held Saturdays in a parking lot on the side of Diamond Head crater.).

Not only had I never heard of Essex Street Market, but I've walked right past it many times--more than I care to admit. So one afternoon late in the week I trotted over to give it a quick look. I understand now how I'd missed it. Housed in a low-lying, windowless building, it looks like an industrial warehouse. But inside? A perfect microcosm of New York City.

There is a tiny clothing shop, an electronics repair stand, a single chair barber shop, multiple bodegas, aisles stacked high with Café Bustelo, Leche Evaporada, Malta Goya, as much Spanish as English being spoken, an amazing meat counter (and butchery school), fresh seafood and produce, artisanal breads, cheeses and chocolates, and a postage stamp-sized Greek stand with homemade spinach pie and baklava--something for everybody. Unfortunately when I was there one of the landmarks--Shopsin's--was closed. A short-order deli with a long New York history--again, I'd never heard of it before. How have I missed all of this?! But now, I have reason to go back.

As it turns out, just after I visited the market I also learned that its future is in question. The city's Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which oversees the market, is reviewing a development project down the street that could give rise to its closure. It's a bit mystifying why the EDC, which has clearly spent a fair amount of money promoting the market, would now turn to close it down, but being New York, the neighborhood is on the case and has already set up Save the Essex Street Market and filed a request for Landmark Protection for the building.

Meantime, you can learn more about the market's history in this 2006 New York Times article by Ginia Bellafante (yes, I'm that far out of date). The websites of market tenants Jeffrey's Meat Market and Shopsin's are full irreverent New York personality. The Facebook page for New York City Markets, which also includes three historic sites in Harlem, Williamsburg and Queens, is here.

Update: NYC Economic Development Corporation pinged me on Twitter to let me know that they are hosting a Seward Park Urban Design Open House on Wednesday, April 27 from 4:30-7:30. Seward Park is the project that could precipitate the market's closing. Architects, urban designers and city representatives will be in attendance. Details are here.

Photo: Melissa Hom for Pain d'Avignon