Talking Public Markets at The Tenement Museum

Morris Vogel, President of the Tenement Museum, introduced panelists (from left) Robert LaValva from the New Amsterdam Market, Andrew Coe of SeriousEats.com, Suzanne Wasserman of The Gotham Center and Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheese

Editor’s note: Here’s our first story from Giacinta Frisillo, The Lo-Down’s newest community contributor:

We stopped by The Tenement Museum Tuesday evening for another excellent edition of their Tenement Talks food series.  Panelists at the event, “Public Markets: Talk and Tasting,” included Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheesemongers and Robert LaValva, president of the New Amsterdam Market. They discussed the long entwined history, and future, of public markets in New York City.

The city’s first public market opened its doors in 1675, on the waterfront.  LaValva noted that the city was finally “truly united with the water” bringing the freshness of the shipping trade as close to the hands of the public as possible. As the city grew in size and volume, so did the public markets, reaching double digits for a time. But with the advent of supermarkets and convenience stores on every corner, the number of public markets has dwindled to only four throughout the five boroughs.

One of those markets is the Essex Street Market, which came to fruition in 1940 under the fastidious hand of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. With the recent push to begin construction on the Seward Park development parcels, however, the future of the market is uncertain. Though the city has stated resolutely that the market will remain functional, they seem determined to move it across the street in a new facility, demolishing the current WPA-era building, which some consider to be unattractive and outdated.

The evening's tasting included cheese from Saxelby's, meat from Heritage Meats and bread courtesy of Nordic Breads.

Saxelby is one of the market’s newer lessees, opening shop in 2006 as the first all-American farmstead cheese shop in the United States. Though proprietor Anne Saxelby acknowledges the building is in need of a few repairs, she has hopes that the city will allow the market to remain standing as is, thus retaining its original look and feel. “Even though Essex Market isn’t the most beautiful,” she admits, “it will only gain specialness with the passage of time”.

Perhaps more important, Saxelby believes that the dynamic just won’t be the same if the market is moved into a shiny contemporary structure. “I liken the market to Sesame Street,” she quips. “We have our own little neighborhood.”  Although she wasn’t sure which character she most closely resembles, Saxelby is certain she neighbors Oscar the Grouch and Snuffleupagus (but we’re not naming names)!