e_legs

Hey, what happened to the food theme?

In Economic Justice, Food Justice, Immigration, Laws & Regulation, New York City, Urban Planning / Space on December 6, 2006 at 11:30 am

This month we originally planned on bringing you articles about food justice, access to food, and healthy eating. However, certain incidents (1, 2, 3)  have slightly shifted our direction over recent weeks.

While that other stuff is more important, and very worthy of the distraction that it brings, I thought I could lighten the mood a little this morning by returning to food for a minute.

I found the following article in the NYTimes about a food market that I never knew existed on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Based on what I learned from this article, it sounds similar to the Chelsea Market in that it rents space to small independent vendors, including farmers from upstate NY. It is also interesting due to the fact that it is quite large (15,000 square feet) compared to most stores in the area, and that it caters to people from a variety of social backgrounds (not just to the gentrifying population). Here is some of the article:

Some months ago, a friend told me about the Essex Street Market, the 15,000-square-foot enclosed food hall on the lower East Side of Manhattan, and I felt as if I were a soprano hearing the name Donizetti for the first time.

The market has been in continual operation for the past 66 years. But it is thriving today as it never did, making available both the world of the bodega and the universe of the gourmand…That the market itself is shaped like a giant shoebox only adds to the sense that it has become a diorama of the city in demographic miniature. Hasidic men and Latina women come, as they always have, and they are joined now by young people of indeterminate sexuality, vocation or coiffure.

Five years ago the market was only 60 percent full, said Jose Figuereo, one of its overseers. But because of low rents and an influx of more prosperous neighbors, 26 vendors now occupy every square foot of selling space.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation, which runs the market, receives applications for new tenants on a weekly basis and, in a change from the past, will now rent only to food vendors. It leases space to vendors at $27 a square foot on average, less than a third the standard price food retailers pay in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn….

While the market has welcomed purveyors like Ms. Saxelby, it has not given itself over entirely to epicurean gentrification. The indoor stalls are a good place to encounter yautia, a root vegetable that looks like the love child of a soup can and a coconut.

In addition to yautia, and its cousins batata and apio — all root vegetables used in Hispanic cooking — it is still possible to find kosher wine here, at Schapiro’s, which has kept a presence on the Lower East Side since 1899.

“There are people from the housing projects across Delancey who come in for milk religiously,” she said. (Ms. Saxelby’s comes from a small dairy in upstate New York and she sells it for $2.99 a quart.) “This tosses out all your assumptions about who people are and what they are going to like,” she added. “You don’t know who anyone is, really. Some people who you’d think are young hipsters, artist types, show up with E.B.T. cards,” she said. Ms. Saxelby sells Trillium, a Vermont cheese made from hand-ladled goat curd for $24.99 a pound, and she advertises her acceptance of electronic benefits transfer cards, the replacement for food stamps.

The Essex Street Market exists as an urban planner’s vision of commercial utopia — the sort of retail space now all but non-existent in New York, where increasingly segregated social classes come together to share if not the actual experience of affluence, then the readily purchasable signifiers of it….

While the market has welcomed purveyors like Ms. Saxelby, it has not given itself over entirely to epicurean gentrification. The indoor stalls are a good place to encounter yautia, a root vegetable that looks like the love child of a soup can and a coconut….

In addition to yautia, and its cousins batata and apio — all root vegetables used in Hispanic cooking — it is still possible to find kosher wine here, at Schapiro’s, which has kept a presence on the Lower East Side since 1899….

If Fiorello La Guardia arrived at the market today though, one imagines he would be quite pleased with what greeted him. Mayor La Guardia established the enclosed market — along with La Marqueta in East Harlem and the Arthur Avenue market in the Bronx, both still running — to eliminate the street peddler culture he found so odious. About half the pushcarts in the city were on the Lower East Side, said Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center at the CUNY Graduate Center and a scholar of lower Manhattan history.

La Guardia sought to regulate the markets rigorously. Among the rules stipulated by the Department of Markets, in the 1930s, was a ban on shouting, hawking and the “use of abusive and lewd language.”

The point of the markets, Ms. Wasserman explained, was to sanitize mercantile life in New York and divorce it from immigrant folkways.

“La Guardia was half Italian and half Jewish, and he had a thing about explicit displays of ethnicity,” she said…..

The Essex Street Market opened on January 10, 1940 with 475 stalls and 1,000 applications for them. Initially it did not do well because the Jewish and Italian immigrants to whom it catered preferred to shop on the street. It began to thrive as pushcarts disappeared and flourished in the 1950s with the arrival of a Puerto Rican population to the Lower East Side. For years before the current real estate boom though, the market was largely derelict.

Jeffrey Ruhalter is a fourth-generation butcher who has spent the better part of the last four decades observing the changes in the market and the shifting demographics of the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Essex and Delancey Streets. Mr. Ruhalter’s great-grandfather Aaron Ruhalter opened a butcher shop on Orchard Street in 1923, one his grandfather moved to Essex Street Market when it opened….

His father, he said, used to buy pigs’ feet in 100-pound buckets. “We were a poor man’s butcher for a very long time, because this was a very poor neighborhood,” he said. “In the ’80s if it had not been for food stamps we would have been out of business.”

Though Mr. Ruhalter carries some hormone-free beef now, and strip steak and duck sausages to cater to customers who come to him from all over the city, he makes his living, he said, from the less glamorous offerings of a carnivore’s table: chicken, sirloin, stew meat.

While I can’t say that I agree with LaGuardia’s sentiments of “Sanitizing mercantile life in New York and divorce it from immigrant folkways,” I must say that it’s great to see places like the Essex Street Market in existance. Not only are they interesting in terms of urban planning, they also provide great economic opportunities and access to good quality food, both of which are increasingly lacking (at least for those that can’t afford high priced grocers or don’t have grocery options available in their neighborhood).

Read the entire article here.

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  1. I’m definitely interested in food justice issues, but I appreciate your flexibility to address more immediate, timely concerns.

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