It was a day of high emotions on the Lower East Side Sunday, as longtime customers and vendors said goodbye to the old Essex Street Market building at 120 Essex St. The 1940 structure once described as “unlovely” by the New York Times, is now shuttered and will soon be demolished in favor of an eight story apartment building as part of Essex Crossing. Most of the merchants will reopen for business by Friday in a gleaming new space across the street at 88 Essex St.
When we arrived at about 3 p.m., a tearful woman was walking out for the last time, lamenting the demise of a place that has meant so much to generations of Lower East Side families. She may or may not have known that the market is about to begin a new era in a larger. modernized facility across Delancey Street, or that most of the vendors will be making the move, and in some cases, expanding their operations. But for her, and many others, the Essex Street Market as she’s known it is now a relic of the past. The quirky, rough-around-the edges building is a big part of what made the local institution unique.
By Sunday, a few vendors had already closed their old stalls. The breakfast spot, Shopsin’s, served its last meal in the historic market a couple of weeks ago. Peasant Stock and Aminova’s Barbershop were shuttered in advance of the move. Several stalls, of course, have been empty for months, including those once occupied by Saxelby Cheesemongers, Santa Lucia Religious Articles, Boubouki, Osaka Grub and I.M. Pastry Studio. For various reasons, they chose to opt out before the transition.
One vendor who originally intended to cross Delancey Street, but then reconsidered, is Ira Stolzenberg of Tra La La Juice Bar and Rainbo’s Fish. A fixture in the market since 1976, he’s choosing to retire. In 2016, Stolzenberg’s business and life partner, Ron Budinas, passed away. Stolzenberg decided the time was right to close the business, the oldest operating stall in the market.
For most vendors Sunday, feelings were mixed. They have an emotional attachment to the old building, and some of them would have been happy to stay in place indefinitely. At the same time, though, they’re excited about the brand new facility, where foot traffic will hopefully be better. The current market has suffered a slump in recent years, with several merchants going out of business. Quite a few local residents came through yesterday for a last look, snapping camera phone photos, and chatting with vendors.
In 2011, local residents mounted a campaign to save the Essex Street Market building. City officials were determined, however, to knock down all four original market buildings to make way for the redevelopment of the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. While there was some sentiment on Community Board 3 to retain the historic structure, NYC bureaucrats argued that the existing building was too small and antiquated to serve the city’s needs in the future. They cynically pitted market preservationists against affordable housing activists, suggesting that keeping the market in place would mean sacrificing affordable apartments as part of the project that would later become Essex Crossing. Community board members decided to prioritize housing and the well-being of the vendors themselves over the old building (the developers paid the vendors’ buildout and moving costs).
The new expanded market will officially open a week from today, with an opening celebration scheduled for May 18. About 20 vendors will make the move, along with 15 new businesses.